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By JonMarcus
HighlandHeights, Kentucky
he introductions have beenmade, the speeches
finished, the endless litany of benefactors thanked when
the blast of an unseen and unmuffled engine suddenly revs
to life, shaking the arena and the polite crowd gathered in it
with an ear-blasting, methanol-fueled roar.
James Votruba smiles. “It’s the faculty senate,” he jokes.
Nothing could ruin this day. Wielding a giant pair of
scissors, Votruba is about to cut the ceremonial ribbon on
the new $69million, 10,000-seat Bank of Kentucky Center
at Northern Kentucky University, where he is the president.
In addition to the university’s NCAADivision II men’s and
women’s basketball teams, the arena is designed to host
events including Cirque du Soleil, performers such as Carrie
Underwood, and theMonster Truck Tour (which accounts for
the interruption from the monster truck concealed from the
audience behind a curtain).
The week before, Votruba had presided at the opening
of a sleek new $37million student union with a Starbucks, a
sushi bar and plasma-screen TVs.They showed, in continuous
loops, the progress of the nearly $300million worth of building
projects on his campus, which, just 40 years before that, was a
farmwhere cows grazed on 400 acres of empty, rolling fields
sevenmiles southeast of Cincinnati.
The youngest of Kentucky’s eight state universities, NKU
began as a community college that didn’t formally become a
university until 1976, but has since seen growth that seems
methanol fueled itself, racing to an enrollment of 15,000—up
50 percent in just the last ten years. And it plans to add about as
many undergraduates in the next 12 years as it did in its first 25,
toward a goal of 26,000 by 2020.
What has put this once-provincial campus on the higher
educationmap is its seemingly single-minded push to improve
the lot of its surrounding region. It’s not some vague pledge.
(Nor is it purely altruistic; if the public university helps the
community, this perfectly reasonable strategy goes, the
community will stand behind it.) A lynchpin of a regional
development plan Votruba and others at the school coauthored,
NKUhas promised to help create some 50,000 new, high-
paying jobs by 2015 and also help to double the number of
Kentuckians with bachelor’s degrees to 800,000, as ameans
of supplanting the state’s traditional economic mainstays of
coal-mining, horse-breeding, bourbon and tobacco, with
advancedmanufacturing, finance, healthcare, business
services, and technology.That’s the reason for the push to boost
enrollment—and the attraction, it seems, for rising numbers of
arriving students.
Tomake the areamore economically competitive, the
university has taken on uncommon and audacious roles,
beginning not with entering freshmen, but with elementary-
Fall 2008
The Engaged University
Northern Kentucky University is building closer links to its community
school children; training
local teachers in such areas as
math and science; recruiting
high-performing high school
graduates to attend the
university; nudging its own
students toward programs
that meet the needs of local
business—information, finance,
science and technology,
healthcare and social services;
and working to attract
bachelor’s degree holders from
other states by beefing up its
graduate-level offerings and
enrollment, in a “brain-gain”
strategymeant to reverse
Kentucky’s brain drain by
attracting some 8,600 college
graduates fromoutside the
region by 2020.
Lots of taxpayer-supported
universities mumble about
contributing to economic
development but don’t follow through—a survey of American
Association of State Colleges andUniversities presidents and
chancellors found that fewer than half believe their schools
are closely linked to their communities. But NKU is making a
name for itself by adding programs in such eminently practical
disciplines as entrepreneurship and information technology
management, opening a Center for Civic Engagement, even
making faculty hiring, tenure and promotion contingent on
community service along with teaching and research.
“Regions that make talent a
central priority are anchored by high-
performing universities that not only
nurture talent in their classrooms
and laboratories but also apply their
knowledge to advance regional
economic and social progress,” asserts
the school’s strategic plan, which was the
subject of a case study at the Harvard
Graduate School of Education. “They
are stewards of their regions.”
NKUwas singled out by George
W. Bush as an example of how public
universities can be partners in economic
competitiveness with businesses and civic institutions. It was
one of 13 universities that helped the Carnegie Foundation
for the Advancement of Teaching to devise a voluntary higher
education classification of “community engaged,” and was one
President James Votruba of Northern Kentucky
University has vigorously promoted ties between
the university and the surrounding region.
Just 40 years ago,
Northern Kentucky
University was a farm
where cows grazed on
400 acres of empty,
rolling fields seven miles
southeast of Cincinnati.
Robin Nelson, Black Star, for CrossTalk