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President's Convocation - August 21, 2015

President Ransdell's Convocation Speech 


Welcome to our 2015 Faculty and Staff Opening Convocation.  I hope everyone had a safe, enjoyable, and restful summer.  There is much to discuss this morning as we anticipate the year we begin with the first day of classes on Monday.  Typically, at this juncture in previous Convocations, I have attempted to highlight some of the achievements and successes of the past year.  With the help of our staff in Public Affairs and WKU-PBS, we are taking a bit of a different approach this year.  So, thanks to the talent of our PBS colleagues and, more importantly, the efforts of many of you to bring about the achievements we celebrate, let’s enjoy for a moment a video which captures the academic year 2014-15.


 You will certainly remember one phenomena we experienced last year—often referred to as “snowmageddon.”  Two epic snow storms last winter caused us to close the campus—twice!  Well, during one of those snow storms, I really needed to get my car out—which meant we had to back over some snow banks that had piled up as the streets were cleared.  Julie was helping me.  We were just about to get my car freed, so I asked her to get behind the steering wheel and gun it hard while I pushed as hard as I could in front of the car.  Then, just before hitting the gas pedal, she calmly stuck her head out the window and asked, “You want me to go forward or backward?”  Really!  Let’s hear it for Julie Ransdell! 

 I also want to introduce our Board of Regents here today.  Will our Regents please stand as I introduce each of you.  Let’s welcome our governing Board!

 And, would our Administrative Council and Deans please stand and be recognized.  Let’s welcome our newest executive officers, Dr. Neale Chumbler, Dean of the College of Health and Human Services, and Mr. Marc Archambault, Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations. 

 While I am introducing people—and before I go any further this morning—I want to express my personal appreciation to Dr. Gordon Emslie.  Gordon completes, today, five years of dedicated service as our Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.  Next week, he begins his well-earned sabbatical before assuming his teaching and research duties as a full Professor in Physics and Astronomy in January.  Thank you, Gordon.  And, effective on Monday, greet David Lee, our new Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.  David will serve in this critical leadership role for the next two years.  We will begin a year-long search for his successor next summer.  Provost Lee.

 Finally, I want to welcome 69 new faculty to WKU and 48 new staff who have started working with us in recent months.  If you started working at WKU last spring, or this summer, or this week, please stand and let us welcome you.

 And, to our new faculty and staff, you should be pleased to know that this campus just completed the 10-year application for reaffirmation of accreditation, and we did so with great results!  We are fully compliant on 91 of 93 measures, and we have followed up on the other two, in anticipation of a full reaffirmation of our accreditation for the first time as a Level VI institution in December.  What a great effort this past year by so many across campus.  If you served on an accreditation committee or were involved in planning, writing, assessing, measuring, hosting, or any other aspect of the reaffirmation process, please stand and let us once again offer our thanks to you for this campus-wide effort.

 While we are applauding, I would like to take a moment to recognize some notable statistical measures which don’t really lend themselves to a year-end video.  This year, nearly 90 percent of our faculty and staff made a pledge to live a healthy life and are following through on that commitment.  Since Weight Watchers at Work was launched this spring, 550 faculty, staff, and dependents have lost a total of 5,933 pounds, nearly 3 tons!  That’s a very impressive accomplishment, and I congratulate this group on their success.  Others will have the opportunity to join the program when Weight Watchers at Work returns in the fall.  Based on these initial results, I think there is a very good chance we can lose 10,000 pounds in 2015!  The Top Life wellness program is having a positive effect on the health of our faculty, staff, and community and a healthy campus is a happier campus.  Let’s hear it for our dedicated, health-conscious colleagues.

Much to Be Proud Of

 We have so many positive actions and forward movements across our campus.  We can be proud of our improving ACT average for incoming freshmen—from 21.5 just four years ago to over 23 this fall, a dramatic increase in our four-year graduation rates—from 25 percent three years ago to over 30 percent last year (the six-year rate is 51 percent), an improving student/faculty ratio—which is now at 17:1, and a 5 percent increase in the number of tenure track and full-time faculty while reducing our dependency on part-time faculty.  We can also celebrate achieving a new SACSCOC Level VI designation—due to five terminal degrees with more on the way, our much improved campus infrastructure, encouraging private gift support, and many other measures which you are achieving throughout our campus community. 

 In addition to this list and the video you just saw, I want to share with you an assessment of our 2012-18 Campus Action Plan.  But, rather than go through a lot of data here this morning, I am going to forward an Action Plan Progress Report to you right now.  It is teed up on my cell phone, and I just forwarded it to you!  I encourage you to study it.  We have surpassed our 2018 targets with 16 performance indicators, and we have some work to do on the other 26.  We will update this plan this year and have a new five-year plan ready next year—a 2016-2021 Action Plan. 


 With all of our successes and achievements, we are at significant crossroads in three important regards.

  1. Enrollment
  2. State Funding
  3. Faculty/Staff Compensation

 All three of these crossroads have a major bearing on our institutional budget, and thusly, on our professional and personal lives.  Before getting into each of these three areas, please allow me to reframe our budget challenge for this year.

Our students will pay a tuition increase of three percent this fall which equals approximately $3.5 million.  Our fixed costs and obligations total approximately $3.5 million, which means our only revenue stream—tuition, and our cost obligations are generally offsetting.  When we added in a shortfall in enrollment revenue, primarily due to declining part-time adult learner enrollments and too many students failing to persist past their freshmen year, we found a $2.4 million hole to fill.  As the spring rolled along, we found a dramatic increase in the number of students accepting our scholarship offers.  That is, they chose to come here, and their ACT scores and grade point averages were above the thresholds for various scholarship qualifications.  This overspending on scholarships, while significantly strengthening our academic quality, is costing us $3.8 million in this year’s budget.  Those two variables alone created a $6.2 million budget challenge. 

 Any consideration we may have had of a salary increase was offset by this $6.2 million internal reallocation to cover the enrollment and scholarship revenue pressures.  While we have fought hard to sustain a balanced budget, we have also worked hard to keep our tuition as low as possible.  Even with a three percent tuition increase, we are last in price point among our benchmark institutions.  Our total cost of attendance is $17,848 for tuition and fees, room, board, and books; which is $1,800 below the University of Louisville at $19,684 and some $5,500 below the University of Kentucky at $23,370.  These financial realities frame our budget challenge for this fiscal year.  Low price point combined with greater demand for scholarships, and a declining adult learner population combined with unsatisfactory retention rates forced us to reallocate significant funds which usurped thoughts of an internal reallocation to improve salaries. 


So, let’s get into that first crossroad—enrollment.  We made significant changes in Enrollment Management this past year.  Enrollment Management now reports directly to me.  I am spending significantly greater time focusing on strategies and numbers, and personally engaging myself in student recruitment.  Last year, I visited 28 high schools, many of them to speak to senior classes, and I am currently scheduling several high schools visits over the next few months.  I also made a point to speak with all but two of our ATP groups that came to campus over the spring and summer.  We all must remember as we approach our orientation and registration process, that even though students have registered for classes, they are still making final enrollment decisions and may have registered for classes at multiple institutions.  The recruitment process is as much about final enrollment as it is growing the applicant pool.  A student is not officially ours until they show up for classes on Monday!

 We have broken the enrollment profile down into four areas of focus: 

  1. Traditional age, primarily Kentucky residents;
  2. Full-paying undergraduate and graduate international students;
  3. Retention.  We simply must improve our freshmen to sophomore retention ratio and further improve our four- and six-year graduation rates.
  4. Adult Learners, typically 25 years old and older; generally on our regional campuses, but not all; and generally part-time, but not all.  

This last category, adult learners, is the enrollment segment which has seen the sharpest decline over the last couple of years.  Some of this is because of an improving economy, and some may be because of the cost realities of higher education.  It is a trend we share with many public universities across America. 

We are implementing strategies in all four of these categories—traditional students, international students, retaining our current students, and adult learners—all aimed at strengthening our enrollment profile. 

 As I indicated at this convocation a year ago, recruitment and retention is everyone’s responsibility.  We have much to sell, and we all must do our share to help serve our students, help them solve their problems, and meet their needs.

 Some of those efforts are beginning to pay off.  As of this week our first-time incoming student numbers are up slightly.  Our part-time undergraduate numbers have stabilized, but our part-time graduate numbers are still tracking downward.  Our biggest challenge, however, is a 23 percent drop in continuing full-time freshmen.  Our objective this year is to achieve stability in all forms of enrollment-driven revenue.  There is still some work to be done as the final numbers are counted next week—and certainly as we gear up for next fall!

 In order to address our scholarship challenges, we have reworked our scholarship policies and practices.  Our campus scholarship programs are being reconfigured in an effort to offer more modest scholarships to a greater number of students, while at the same time containing costs.  The total annual scholarship budget for merit and need-based awards totals $23.5 million.  This does not include departmental scholarships, athletic scholarships, and employee dependent awards.  Our priority is to stretch our scholarship dollars as far as possible by decreasing the value of the award for some and increasing the number of awards offered overall.  This should have a positive impact on recruitment and retention, particularly for students who fall below the Honors College thresholds, without adding strain to the overall campus budget.

 Before leaving the matter of enrollment this morning, I want to reiterate a theme that I spent a good bit of time on at last year’s Convocation.  I am convinced that new enrollments begin with how we treat and serve our current students.  As our society changes, as our student composition changes, and even as laws change, we too must change and adapt.  I challenged our student leaders last year to never let what happened at the University of Oklahoma in the form of a racial chant ever happen here.  We have built support systems into our international student services programs to address the needs of growing international populations which bring vastly different cultural norms and values to our campus.  We have also embraced LGBTQIA members of our campus family.  By the way, I enjoy seeing the safe space symbols around campus—but let’s make every place on campus a safe zone!  The point I am making here is that we will not allow differences among us to affect how we cherish our diversity and how we find enrichment from such differences.  Every student—every member of our faculty and staff for that matter—is as important as any member of our student body or our employee family.  Let’s celebrate the excellence among us and embrace our richness and diversity!  And remember my two key words from last year—Nice Matters!

State Funding

Our second crossroad is the most pressing and uncertain variable—state funding.  In many ways higher education is under siege across America and that is also true in Kentucky.  Much is being written and said about declining financial support, a growing focus on job preparation, increasing student loan debt, debates about tenure and faculty workload, compromises in for-profit education, questions about rigors of accreditation, Title IX compliance and lawsuits which threaten to unionize or create salaries for athletes—the list goes on.  In Kentucky, some of these same issues influence funding discussions, and that is particularly true when funds are scarce and demand for state funding is high.  The last year Kentucky increased base funding for higher education was 2006.  By the time the 2016 budget is considered next spring, we will have suffered through a lost decade of state support for higher education.  Since 2008, public higher education in Kentucky has lost $173 million in the state appropriations which fund the base budgets for our state-assisted universities.  WKU has lost $15 million in state funding, and we have reallocated another $15 million more from our own base budget—meaning that we have reduced spending by some $30 million at WKU since 2008.  That is a lot of money in a $400 million budget.

 My mantra for 18 years has been to control our own destiny, and not whine about what others are not doing for us; to focus on partnerships we can create; and to act in ways which are within our power to act independently.  While those principles still hold true, I am ready to take the fight to Frankfort and be as aggressive and focused on restoring state funding as I can possibly be.  I will be spending as much time in Frankfort as I can this fall, and especially next spring when the 2016 Kentucky General Assembly convenes.   I will be more than consumed with student recruitment and legislative interplay this year.

 Here is why I call state funding a crossroads for us.  The state budget for the 2016-18 biennium could go either way.  It could drift further away from higher education, or hopefully, drift back toward additional funding for higher education.  We are in a delicate place, and the dynamics are in flux.  New leadership in Frankfort must come to understand the value our universities bring to all Kentuckians.  We will have a new governor in November, who will put together a two-year budget in December.  The General Assembly will address his proposed budget in January, February, and March.  That budget will be set in April.  It will be under serious pressure from massive financial challenges like state pension shortages (something about which many of us are concerned), a growing list of Medicaid and Affordable Care Act obligations, a deteriorating system of roads and bridges, and pent-up needs in K-12 education funding. We will have stiff competition in 2016-2018 biennial budget, but we must make the case that, as serious as these other needs may be, higher education’s needs are equally serious. Kentucky’s economy is improving, but likely not enough to fund everything on the list of funding needs.  We will have a battle on our hands next spring. 

 To help our case, the eight public university Presidents and the President of KCTCS have been working with the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) and our campus financial staffs and Provosts to craft a new higher education funding model based largely on performance funding.  Given our dramatic growth over the last 18 years, our growth in degree productivity, our volume of underserved students, and our growth in STEM+H enrollments, we will fare better in the distribution of funds through this model than we have in the past when new funding or budget cuts were distributed based solely on an institution’s existing share of the total higher education budget.  There is also an equity variable, which, if new funding is appropriated, will help make up for the funding we failed to receive when we were growing more than any of the other institutions in Kentucky.  The problem was the state was unable to fund our growth period between 1998 and 2013.  Consequently, we watched our state funding per student drop from some $7,500 per student to just over $4,700 per student today.  WKU and Northern Kentucky University, the two institutions which have grown the most, are the two universities that have an equity funding variable in this performance based model. 

 But, it is just a model. It means nothing without added money to fund the model.  If money is added to the higher education budget, we will get a fair share of it.  I will keep you updated as this process unfolds throughout this year.  I would also be pleased to describe the new higher education funding model to anyone or any group which might like to be more familiar with it.


Without question the single most important challenge we face at home—the single highest priority we have—is faculty/staff compensation.  Nothing else comes close.  Things that cost money may surface, like an enrollment shortfall and scholarship obligations did this year, but our hope is that in our next budget we can cover fixed cost increases with a modest tuition increase.  It is also our hope that we can avoid surprises and use as much as we possibly can of any increase in state funding that may be appropriated for a faculty/staff salary increase. 

 We have held steady in our benchmark comparisons for salaries across our various faculty ranks and with our statewide comparables, largely because, until the current year, we were making modest improvements while most campuses were doing less while dealing with similar compensation challenges.

 But now, none of that matters.  We are hurting.  This year we did not keep pace with inflation, or the rising cost of health care, or rising retirement obligations.

 I cannot make promises here in August about what the budget process next spring will bring, but I can tell you what our priority will be with new revenue and it will be salaries. 

 Another thing I can promise is fairness, balance, and objectivity in all our financial and operating decisions.  I believe the Board of Regents will also reflect such objectivity.  In this regard, the Board, at its last meeting on July 24, specifically tasked its Finance Committee with studying the matter of compensation for faculty and staff.

Going Forward

A few years ago I began a term on the Board of Directors for the Semester at Sea Program.  I’ve learned a lot about ships, fuel, maritime law, and emergent study abroad.  At our last Board meeting, I learned about trim tabs.  Trim tabs are small mechanisms on rudders of large ships—small things that determine the direction of a large complex thing.  If we can get our trim tabs positioned just right, then I know we can face these crossroads ahead of us like we have every other challenge we have faced over the last 18 years.  With strategic planning, focused effort and hard work, and with relevant data to drive our decisions, we can face our crossroads with this incredibly talented group of faculty and staff—each contributing your share of effort in this large complex educational environment—to ensure we are heading in the right direction.  This is indeed a large complex institution with many parts and many different people contributing to its success.   

 This is my eighteenth faculty/staff opening convocation.  Our shared successes over these last 18 years have been many—a 38 percent growth in enrollment, a 66 percent growth in degrees conferred each year, improved retention rates, improved ACT scores, a 200 percent increase in the campus budget, a lower student/faculty ratio, no fewer than 93 new degree programs closely aligned with relevant career opportunities, including 27 at the Masters level and four doctoral degrees, a transformed campus with major facility upgrades, two successful capital campaigns, significant growth in our endowment, a world-class Honors College and a nationally acclaimed high school academy—both of which bring talent to our campus unlike we have ever experienced before, a new athletic conference, and international reach that is redefining our student composition and broadening global citizenship for our students.

 None of this has come easy.  We have had to fight for our position in Kentucky’s higher education landscape.  We have had to fight for and we have earned national recognition.  We have built a brand of value and relevancy and quality and strength.  We have fought for every philanthropic dollar given to us, or appropriated, or paid in tuition.  Some students have enrolled because of our legacy, or family ties, or geography—but mostly, we have had to fight for and earn their desire to be part of this university family.  We have been entrepreneurial.  We have taken calculated risks which have paid off.  We have earned respect in Frankfort and Washington and Louisville and Lexington and London and Beijing.

 We have stayed true to our traditions and our values.  We have not created contrived PR firm clichés to define us or our campus.  We have nurtured our unique traditions and defined well our personality as a university.  Our spirit still defines us and it is strong.

 We will use that spirit at each of the crossroads we face in this 110th year of our institutional existence.  I have no doubt that this time next year, we will again celebrate a list of impressive achievements and points of pride that highlight the 2015-2016 academic year.  We will also know then how we were able to navigate the crossroads we have discussed here this morning. 

 No one or no institution is sitting still.  Our benchmarks are moving forward and driving as hard as we are. Other universities in Kentucky are taking pages out of our playbook—new academic facilities, new doctoral degrees, renovated residence halls and branded restaurants, new student unions, and internationalization.  Even a few new Honors Colleges are popping up, and there is another high school academy for gifted students.  All of that is good for Kentucky, and we appreciate the flattery!  But, we are not sitting still either.  We will continue to innovate, to identify and correct deficiencies, to compete globally, and shape the information technology curve in higher education.  We will sustain the highest quality of life to be found on any campus anywhere in this state or any other.  We will wave our red towels, high-five with Big Red, smile at our white squirrels, admire our cupolas, and enjoy our hilltop landscape.  More importantly, we will push our students to be all in, to finish, and to graduate.

 Last fall Lt. General Charles Bolden, former astronaut and current Chief Administrator of NASA, visited our campus.  He told a story to some of our students that stuck with me.  He spoke of a 12-year old African boy who was dying of AIDS he had contracted before he was even born.  Yet this young boy spent most of his entire, but short, life trying to help others; trying to improve his village—never once feeling sorry for himself or lamenting his lot in life.  When asked to what did he attribute his positive attitude he replied, “From the time I was born my mother taught me to do the best I can, with what I have, where I am, in the time I have left.” Bold, strong, and inspiring words from a 12-year old boy who did not see his thirteenth birthday!  Do the best you can, with what you have, where you are, in the time that you have. 

 If everyone in this university family can do our part; to recruit new students, to teach them well, to serve them well, and to encourage our students with pleasant but fair and firm resolve to stay the course and graduate—then I, and those with whom I most closely work, will do all we can to navigate these crossroads as effectively as possible.

 I will end these remarks as I have so often over the last 18 years—we are fortunate to be part of a very special institution.  We do have a special spirit, and that spirit is making masters of our students.  It is as much about the heart as it is the head.  Let’s live that WKU spirit.  Let’s embrace it, and let’s use it to attack our challenges.

 Thank you for what you do every day to improve our campus, to enhance the learning that occurs here, and to strengthen the research and creative energy that defines one of America’s great universities.  Thank you for the contributions each and every one of you bring to our students and to each other.  You are the WKU spirit.  You are the energy behind our progress.  You are the lifeblood of this university.  Your well-being is rivaled only by the well-being of our students.

 I am proud to work with you, to share this splendid campus with you and our students, and to be a part of something as important and as noble as our shared calling in HIGHER education.  I cannot promise what this year will bring, but I can promise leadership and a driven passion in pursuit of what we need to thrive as a university family. 

Thank you.  Let’s have a great and productive year.

President Gary A. Ransdell

 WKU President Gary A. Ransdell

Awards Announced During Convocation:

President's Award for Diversity

Faculty/Staff - Dr. Lacretia Dye

Student - Salvador Hernandez

Community - Lawrence White


President's Award for Sustainability

Faculty/Staff - Dr. Jane Olmsted

Student - Alex Hezik


Spirit of WKU Award - Robin Ayers


Academic Awards

Teaching - Dr. Alison Langdon

Research/Creativity - Yvonne Petkus

Public Service - Dr. Eve Main

Student Advisement -  Dr. Martha Day


Staff Advising Awards

Academic Advising Primary Role - Dr. Pat Jordan

Student Support Services - Christian Ryan

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