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WKU Faculty and Staff Convocation - August 19, 2019


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President Timothy C. Caboni's Convocation Speech


Two people. Two students. Two members of our WKU Family. And two exemplars of what it means to be a student-centered university, representing the thousands of similar interactions our students experience each year.

Colleagues and guests, welcome to our third convocation together. I am grateful for the opportunity to gather as a community before we begin another academic term on our Hill.

We are fortunate to have outstanding leadership from across the Commonwealth and beyond who serve on our governing board, and I would like to thank those in attendance. Please hold your applause until the end as I recognize each member of the WKU Board of Regents with us this morning:

  • David Brinkley, Staff Regent, from Bowling Green;
  • Claus Ernst, Faculty Regent, from Bowling Green;
  • Will Harris, Student Regent, from Glasgow;
  • Jason McKinney, from Alvaton; and
  • George Nichols, III, from Haverford, Pennsylvania

We also have a number of new faculty and staff who are with us for the first time this morning.  If you joined our WKU family at any time during the past year, please stand and let us recognize and welcome you.

Robert and Ife, thank you for sharing your stories with us. You remind us why we chose to invest our lives in higher education; the importance of what we do each day at WKU and why we do it.

The personal connections faculty and staff develop with our students makes a tremendous difference in their daily lives and beyond.

The past two years have been tough. Let me assure you, I understand how trying it has been. It hasn’t been easy. I get it. For the past twenty four months, we have been sprinting together and working hard – preparing and planning for the next decade on our Hill. And now, as we start the 2019-20 academic year, we turn a corner. For those here this morning expecting new announcements of large scale changes, I’m fearful you may be disappointed. Because this year is about execution. It’s about doing all of the small things that cumulatively move an organization. Practicing relentless incrementalism.

Now, just in case there is any confusion about where we are headed together as a university, I want to remind you – our daily work is guided by “Climbing to Greater Heights”, our ten-year strategic plan – the roadmap for WKU’s next decade of growth. And it moves us toward being an even more student-centered institution that embraces applied learning and celebrates the relationship between theory and practice – and this is why we have been working so hard together.

As outlined in “Climbing to Greater Heights,” we have re-conceptualized our marketing approach, we have thought differently about how we do outreach, we have moved our financial aid down the need curve, and we have implemented targeted interventions to help every student we admit succeed. We want each student at WKU to have an opportunity to build close academic and personal relationships with us - not just those in a special subset of students, but every single one of them.

We also are making it easier and more streamlined for students to get the answers and assistance they need with our new centralized advising structure. I know this is still a shift for some of you, but this approach is important. It is critical that they have one-stop shopping and ease of access. The literature on student success shows it has worked at other universities.

And it is working here at WKU. We are seeing great results.

Last fall, we admitted the most academically talented and prepared freshman class in WKU’s history - with an average GPA of 3.39 and an average ACT of 23.2.

Our first to second semester persistence rate for our first-time, first-year student cohort that began last fall was up four percent, compared to 2017. We made even larger gains among low income students, up five percent; first generation students, up five point two percent; and underrepresented minority students, up seven point eight percent.

And this past spring, we celebrated the largest number of graduates in WKU’s history.

And today, I have terrific news to share with you on the retention front. If our preliminary numbers hold, we will have retained our first-year students at the highest rate since 2009; we’re one tenth of a percent away from the highest in our history. And even though the cohort began with fewer students last fall, we will have almost the same number of sophomores this year as we did last.

We did not achieve these results only by ensuring those we admitted were likely to continue into the second year. We targeted students we knew would struggle and proactively and intrusively worked to support them.

Our successes are not because of any one thing we have done, but because of all the things we have done and all of your work! These are results we all should celebrate – congratulations!

But we are not done yet. We have set for ourselves a goal of retaining eighty percent of our first-year class – a rate that will put WKU on par with many flagship universities nationally. To achieve this goal, we have much more work to do.

Here is just one example: As we strive to make sure every student we admit has a reasonable chance of graduating, we created the WKU Summer Scholars program for students who can be successful but are going to need to work harder and meet us halfway. These are “C” students in high school to whom we offered fall admission if they joined us five weeks before Master Plan.

We essentially created a trial run at college – a bridge from high school. They took two courses, they attended seminars designed to address barriers to success, and they participated in social events to help build a peer network and support system. We welcomed one hundred and forty-two (142) Summer Scholars students on July 15, and of those students, one hundred and sixteen (116) met the threshold to continue with us this fall.

Now, on to recruitment. You have heard our focus shift from recruiting first-year students to recruiting future WKU graduates. Our goal is not just to get them on our Hill for one semester or for one year. Our goal is to provide them with the full transformative experience, and that happens only when they complete their degree.

I want to share with you the context in which we are competing for students, and with whom we are competing.

Each year, Kentucky graduates fewer seniors, and of that smaller number, a smaller percentage are continuing to postsecondary education. The college-going rate in Kentucky is now seventeen percentage points below the national average and trending lower.  

Two years ago, twenty-five hundred (2,500) students applied to WKU and went nowhere to college. Last year that number increased to three thousand (3,000), and this year will rise to over thirty-five hundred (3,500).

That’s thirty-five hundred (3,500) young people who are making a decision not to pursue any education past high school. That is not a recipe for economic success for our region. We must demonstrate for our families and their students the lifelong value of a college degree and the economic benefit of attending and graduating from college.

We have redoubled our efforts in the past year to meet with principals, superintendents, school counselors and other administrators – to help them better guide their students and to ensure they have accurate information to convey to their families. 

Because you are among our most important advocates, you have a crucial role in representing our university and also in recruiting our students. But I understand you need the right information in order to help. So, here is some of what you need to know so that you can help us guide our young people:

First, if a student wants to pursue a four-year degree, their absolute best chance of success is to begin at a four-year institution.

Nationally, only thirteen percent of students who start at a community college earn a bachelor's degree in six years. In Kentucky, that completion rate is only eight percent. Let me say that again. Only eight percent of students who start at a community college in Kentucky earn a bachelor’s degree in six years!

We need to educate our broader community that the recipe for successfully attaining a bachelor’s degree is to begin with us.

And for those families who are making the decision only based upon sticker price, we need to talk with them about net cost and the remarkable value of the WKU Experience compared to other Kentucky universities.

In relative terms, our net price – tuition and fees, room and board, books, and other expenses minus financial aid – is significantly more affordable than UK or UofL – thousands of dollars less each year. And our net price is even less than two Kentucky comprehensive institutions. And among our nineteen benchmark universities, we are more affordable than fourteen of them.

We continue to grow our need-based aid program, supplementing our strong merit aid scholarships, to ensure every student who wants to pursue a degree at WKU has the ability to do so, regardless of the economic conditions of their family.

In fact, today seventy eight percent of our students receive grant or scholarship aid – at an average of six thousand, six hundred and eighty three dollars ($6,683) each.

While we won’t have final numbers until later this fall, we have made important progress in our recruitment efforts. Our numbers for incoming full-time, first-time students match the budget projections made last spring. With fewer Kentucky students deciding to attend college, and a smaller age cohort, we will have a smaller number of in-state freshmen this fall.

However, and this is important, we have made significant gains in out-of-state recruitment, especially in the crucial Nashville and Middle Tennessee markets. We are working hard to overcome the invisible line separating Tennessee and Kentucky, to position WKU as part of that region’s college choice set.

Each of you has been instrumental in enhancing our recruitment and our retention efforts, and I thank you for your good work. These will continue to be areas of high priority for us in the coming years, but we all should be pleased with the pace and magnitude of the progress we are making.

And that brings me to where we will work together this year.

We have to move from interventions that can be done in a single organizational silo to those things which require collaboration across the entire campus.

You can now see the First Year Village going up at the bottom of the Hill. And it will open fully in the fall of 2021.

But let me be clear. These are not just replacement buildings for aging facilities. The First Year Village will unleash something much more powerful – making the one hundred and fifty (150) hours first-year students spend outside of the classroom as meaningful as the hours spent in them.

Imagine this, if you are a first-year student at WKU - you enter not with three thousand (3,000) classmates, but with twenty-five who share your academic interests, with a faculty mentor whose area of expertise matches the things you are going to study, with a peer mentor to help guide you, and with courses that are block scheduled with two and three classes taken together with the same twenty five people who live in your pod or in the same area. We are moving toward The Oxbridge Model of education at a public university.

We’re never going to get to the size of tutorials, but twenty-five students in a living-learning community is powerful. It’s powerful for the educational experience; it’s powerful for the faculty that are engaged with them; it’s powerful for the students and their learning; and it’s powerful for retention.

We know this from the literature and from the history of higher education. So, that’s why we need to begin working today - so we are ready when the village opens two years from now. This will require us to think differently about scheduling, instruction, curriculum, and engagement. But it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity for us!

I hope you also have noticed that the WKU Commons at Helm Library is well underway. During the next year and a half, we will watch the Helm Library transform into a hub where students, faculty, and staff will gather to share ideas and engage in active learning. This space provides another venue and another opportunity for us to break out of our silos and to engage with our students outside the classroom.

These important living, learning communities and collaborative spaces on campus also will give our students an even greater sense of belonging.

One of the things every WKU student needs to hear from us is this: that we have their backs. That our goal is for them to be successful. And that we are here for them. I’m going to tell them this explicitly at their convocation on Friday night.

But what does that really mean? That we have their backs?

It means we know that no matter how talented or prepared they are, this will be a challenging experience – both academically and socially. But we need to make sure that as we challenge them, we also support them. More importantly, they need to know they have more than someone to whom they can turn – they have an entire community here for them.

They need to know that if they are struggling, that we will work with them, to find solutions. If they have financial challenges, if they have mental health challenges, if they have academic challenges, if they have just fitting in challenges - they need to know we are here for them.

And yes, we are going to challenge them; we are going to push them; and we are going to make sure their educational experience is the best that we can create. They also need to know that when they need support, when they need a helping hand, when they need someone, they have a place to turn.

Think about this, particularly as we begin the semester. Every class you teach, every cluster of students you pass as you walk across campus – there are individuals in those groups who feel alone – who feel they don’t belong. Who feel so out of place that they’re ready to give up and go home - back to a place of familiarity with old friends and perhaps family that will pick them up. Each day is a trial for these students, bringing challenges above and beyond those found in their academic work.

Some of you may remember the commitment I made during my introductory forums to meet with students each month. We do this in DSU, and it’s a chance for students who might not feel comfortable in other settings, to visit with me in private and to discuss anything they might have on their minds. And trust me, they share lots of things.

But there is a thread that runs through most of the stories – that an individual here made a difference in their lives. From supporting a student who was terrified to share with his family that he was gay; to helping an international student figure out how to pay for her final semester of classes; to opening a door to a summer internship that became a full-time job and a new career; to being flexible with assignments when a parent struggled with cancer. These moments of individual kindness have changed the trajectory of these students’ lives.

I know our faculty and staff are strong in their personal student connectedness. I hear this from students. I hear this from parents. I hear this from alumni.

But let me challenge you to connect even more strongly with students this year. To have an ear to the ground. To watch for signs. To be intuitive and to ask questions.

Some of these students have a shoulder to cry on back home or even nearby and a solid support network cheering them on – reassuring them that if they stick it out, the discomfort will dissipate, and the unfamiliar will soon turn into their new home. Sometimes, these words of support from family and friends are all it takes for these students to keep going.

But, we also know that for some students, they don’t have that solid support system. They may have no support system at all. And even worse, they may have influential voices all around them telling them that they have made the wrong decision to pursue higher education.

We may be all they have. WE may be the only rational voice and the only ones encouraging their personal and academic growth, knowing this is the right path for their best future.

So, as we start a new year, let’s recommit ourselves to seek out those who need encouragement. Seek out those who appear distressed. And seek out those who need a kind word. THIS IS WHO WE ARE.

Last year, we made significant progress related to our academic offerings. And while much of the attention was focused on the things we decided to stop doing, that’s not the important part of the story. What is most important was lost on many people, especially those who were not engaged directly in the CAPE process.

Here is what is remarkable. We identified fifteen programs in which we will invest immediately to create growth. Provost Stevens is working to make this happen, and we already have made an initial set of targeted investments this semester.

But what is more exciting are the fifty-seven programs we have targeted for transformation. Why? Because universities never do this! Higher education institutions are wonderful at pattern maintenance. Doing this year what we did last year and the year before and the year before that.

We paused last academic year and selected fifty-seven programs that we’re going to turn a critical eye toward. We are asking the hard questions, “What do our students and our families want? What does the marketplace need? And how do we completely re-conceptualize these in a way that makes them vibrant, energized and more appealing to our students and more exciting for our faculty to teach?” 

And that means crossing academic and disciplinary boundaries. Working at the edges of our areas of our expertise and thinking about new and interesting ways to combine things that are even more relevant to our students and to their aspirations. You would be hard pressed to find another institution that took the leap to innovate in this way, and that is remarkably exciting for us as a community.

I know it may have been painful to get here, but now that we’re here, it is exciting, and it is a remarkable opportunity for us to recast our offerings.

We continue to make progress on WKU’s revised resource allocation process. I want to make sure everyone understands that we will continue to press forward with our efforts, creating even clearer linkages between resource allocation and our mission, strategic priorities and commitment to student success.

Last year was our first effort to use a new more collaborative and sustainable budget process that is more transparent and promotes efficiency and accountability. This year, we will continue our work to engage auxiliary and support units, building agreements to help illuminate the scope and relationship of their work to core academic functions.

RAMP also has enabled the creation of a two point five million dollar strategic investment fund for WKU. This fund will be replenished and grow annually and is designed to support the strategic plan and to invest in our activities that have promise for growth. Specifically, the fund will support those ideas and initiatives that will enhance WKU’s reputation and academic strength, attract additional student enrollment, and enhance our capacity to educate students and attract research funding.

This year, we will advance the conversation about how we leverage more effectively our research and development space on Nashville Road. Transforming the CRD into a true Innovation Campus will require a reconceptualization of how we partner with the private sector.

We already have developed new partnerships to recast our Small Business Development Center, collaborating with economic development leaders in Allen, Logan, and Warren Counties to think differently about how we support business creation in our region.

And we are going to build on that framework, convening this year economic development professionals, public policymakers and corporate leaders from our regional service area to identify opportunities to collaborate and ensure WKU helps drive the continued growth of South Central Kentucky.

Together, we will work to diversify our economy, and continue the incredible rise of our region. WKU and Bowling Green are uniquely positioned to be the entrepreneurial connective tissue between Louisville and Nashville. We must not only embrace that but enhance our position.

Finally, today I want to talk with you about philanthropy because it is incredibly important to everything we do at our University.

This summer, WKU was recognized by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education for persistent fundraising success.

We were awarded the 2019 CASE Educational Fundraising Award, an honor given each year to exceptional fundraising programs at universities in the United States, placing us in the company of other high performing institutions such as Harvard, UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Florida.

Additionally, in the 2017-18 fiscal year we raised more money than ever before in the history of WKU, forty-five million dollars, and this past year, we raised the second highest total in our history, forty-one million dollars in voluntary support for WKU.

Not only are these fundraising achievements important to our efforts to advance WKU, to enhance the experience of our students, and to pursue strategic initiatives, private giving serves as an important metric because it provides an indicator of external confidence in what we do as a University.

Beginning with President Cherry’s initial vision and continuing until today, WKU has remained an institution of opportunity and access. No what matter one’s economic condition might be, if you want to go to college, WKU is still a place that remains an option for you.

To ensure our students have the ability to attend and participate fully in the WKU Experience, regardless of their financial situation, we created the WKU Opportunity Fund, led by my wife, Kacy.

I am pleased to report that since July of 2017, we have been able to create seventy-two new endowed scholarship funds and have raised more than twenty-seven million dollars toward this initiative to ensure every student who is interested in being a Hilltopper has the opportunity do so.

Finally, we will elevate our fundraising efforts to an even higher level this spring when we launch a new campaign. You will be hearing more about that in the months ahead.

WKU is shaped by its leadership and the dedicated faculty and staff who have committed their life’s work to teaching, research, and service.

This summer, we welcomed several new campus leaders, including:

  • A new Dean for the Gordon Ford College of Business, Dr. Chris Shook;
  • A new Dean for the College of Health and Human Services, Dr. Tania Basta;
  • Our new Executive Vice President for Strategy, Operations, and Finance, Susan Howarth; and
  • Our new Vice President for Philanthropy and Alumni Affairs, Amanda Trabue.

And just last week, we welcomed Dr. Bruce Schulte into a new role as Associate Vice President for Strategy, Performance and Accountability.

Each of these individuals brings with them a wide range of experience that serves our campus well, and they’ve already begun advancing the important work of our strategic plan.

This morning, I also want to recognize Brian Kuster, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Experience and Executive Director of the Student Life Foundation. Brian is entering his 35th year of service at our institution and will retire from his position next summer. Thank you, Brian, for all that you have done to support our campus community and advance WKU.

As we continue with implementation of the various elements of our strategic plan, it is important that we cultivate talent across our campus and work toward more formalized succession planning.

So, I am happy to share with you three efforts designed to identify and prepare individuals already in the WKU community to assume larger leadership roles across the university. We are launching this year a Staff Fellows program and a Staff Mentor Program - and revising substantially the Faculty Fellows program.

You will be hearing more about these new programs as the semester unfolds and as more work is done. But let me say this, it’s important that we invest in and grow our talent.

Now, we’ve come to the point in our program where we recognize individuals selected for a variety of notable awards across our campus. We have been discussing ways in which we can make these awards even more celebrated and ways in which we can better recognize and thank our recipients. I have heard some exciting proposals and will have more news later this fall as we move toward a more personalized, commemorative experience. 

But it’s important to celebrate the excellent work of some of our staff and faculty. The significance of your role in the success of our students cannot be overstated.

These awardees have been nominated by their peers as deserving of special recognition for their work and dedication.

As I announce your name, please come to the stage for a group photo. The winners of the 2019 Staff Excellence Awards are:

  • Alicia Pesterfield in the Administrative Professional Non-Faculty category. Alicia is the chemical stockroom manager in the Department of Chemistry.
  • Josiah Super in the Administrative Support category. Josiah is the office coordinator in the School of Teacher Education.
  • Adam Blessinger in the Skilled/Technical/Paraprofessional category. Adam is a dairy herd technician at the WKU Farm.

Let’s congratulate the staff winners one more time.

The winners of the 2019 Faculty Awards are:

  • Stacy Edds-Ellis, Part-time Teaching Award. Stacy is an instructor of Education Administration, Leadership and Research in the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences.
  • Holli Drummond, Faculty Public Service Award. Holli is a professor of Sociology in the Potter College of Arts and Letters.
  • Carol Jordan, Faculty Student Advisement Award. Carol is an instructor of Theatre and Dance in the Potter College of Arts and Letters.
  • Rachel Tinius, Faculty Research and Creative Activity Award. Rachel is an assistant professor of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport in the College of Health and Human Services.
  • Melanie Autin, Faculty Teaching Award. Melanie is an associate professor of Mathematics in the Ogden College of Science and Engineering.

We also want to recognize our newest University Distinguished Professor, Bruce Schulte in Biology.

Let’s congratulate the award winners one more time.

Our final award today is the Spirit of WKU Award, which recognizes an individual who represents enthusiasm for WKU, loyalty to the institution and principles of the WKU experience and its motto “The Spirit Makes the Master.”

In her nomination of this year’s recipient, Aurelia Spaulding wrote:

“On any given day, you can find him impacting the lives of WKU students inside and outside the classroom or motivating other WKU faculty and staff to use their knowledge and abilities to do the same. He teaches English, shares his opinion in committee meetings, advises students in HOLAS, participates in recruitment and retention activities with multiple departments, meets with students, celebrates student successes online and shows his Hilltopper Spirit at WKU events. To me, that is the Spirit of WKU. A spirit that you cannot turn on or off. It is who you are.”

WKU student Mercedes Mendez called him the most caring, inspirational and knowledgeable person she has met at WKU. His mentoring begins at the high school level and continues at WKU to help students network and grow into professional young adults.

Join me in congratulating the 2019 Spirit of WKU award winner, Fabian Alvarez.

During the last two years, we have put so great many things in place, driven by our strategic plan, that will help ensure that our institution is on stable financial footing, that more of our students are staying and graduating, that we have the capacity to reinvest in ourselves and that we have a business model to support our academic mission.

Thank you for your work, thank you for your dedication, thank you for your sacrifices, and thank you for the tremendous progress we have made together as a community. As we go forward, let’s continue to keep our students our number one priority as we build upon all that we’ve done and make this the best year yet!

I look forward to talking with you individually over lunch behind Van Meter. Here’s to a new academic year on the Hill!

Go Tops!

President Timothy C. CaboniWKU President Timothy C. Caboni



WKU Faculty and Staff Convocation - 2019 Video Preview

WKU Faculty and Staff Convocation - 2019


Awards announced during Convocation:

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University Faculty Awards

Teaching: Dr. Melanie Autin

Research and Creativity: Dr. Rachel Tinius

Public Service: Dr. Holli Drummond

Student Advisement: Ms. Carol Jordan

Part-time Teaching: Dr. Stacy Edds-Ellis


University Distinguished Professor

Dr. Bruce Schulte


University Staff Excellence Awards

Skilled/Technical/Paraprofessional: Mr. Adam Blessinger

Administrative Support: Mr. Josiah Super

Professional Non-Faculty: Ms. Alicia Pesterfield


Spirit of WKU

Mr. Fabian Alvarez



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 Last Modified 8/26/19