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of 76 institutions ultimately granted that distinction.
Noting that its new arena “testifies to the university’s
growing prominence in the economy of this region,” the
Cincinnati Enquirer
laudedNKU as amajor local asset—this
at a time whenmany other universities have yet to lower the
fences that divide them from their neighborhoods. Votruba
chaired an AASCU task force on public engagement (it
found, among other things, that most universities were more
concerned with adding programs, faculty and buildings than
contributing to local social or economic well being) and
delivered the annual AASCUPresident-to-Presidents lecture
on the topic, “Leading the EngagedUniversity.” He has been
nicknamed “the mayor of Northern Kentucky” and was ranked
the region’s eighthmost influential person by
NorthernKentucky seems a fertile place for such
collaboration. Medium-sizedmetropolitan areas like greater
Cincinnati are attractive to business, with low costs of living
(Cincinnati’s is fully ten percent below the
national average, and its housing prices
20 percent below), andwith services
employers need, including lawfirms and
advertising agencies—without the unions
and big-city social problems businesses
don’t want. Cincinnati is already home
tomajor companies, including Procter
&Gamble, MayDepartment Stores, and
Fidelity Investments’ largest branch outside
its Boston headquarters. Its new football and
baseball stadiums for the Bengals and the
Reds huddle up to the Ohio River, which
divides Ohio fromKentucky.The area also
has creditable cultural activities, and boasts a
less-than-24-minute average commute, one
of the fastest in the country—an odd thing to promote, it seems,
until you experience the unaccustomed bliss of coasting through
a weekday rush hour without ever stepping on the brakes.
There are also significant challenges.The percentage of
people with bachelor’s degrees in northern Kentucky is as low
as ten percent in the western fringes of the university’s service
area, far short of the national average of 27 percent. In some
districts, the high school graduation rate sags below 62 percent.
Per-capita income is $28,513, putting Kentucky 43rd among the
50 states.The population is aging, as 25- to 34-year-olds move
away in search of higher-paying jobs. Rural Kentucky remains
largely agricultural, and what industry does exist is singularly
vulnerable to larger economic shifts. Kentucky is fourth in the
United States in the number of cars and trucks assembled, for
example, and alsomakes car parts and jet engines, at a time
when demand for those things is drying up.
The story of NKU is a cautionary tale in other ways, too.
The university’s community-engagement crusade has stumbled
against impediments both practical and cultural. For one
thing, setting goals risks falling short of themwhen resources
fail to keep pace, as they did here even before the current
economic crisis. Kentucky’s higher education systemgot a surge
of cash when it was overhauled under the groundbreaking
Postsecondary Improvement Act of 1997, more commonly
calledHouse Bill 1, the goal of which was to increase
enrollment and improve standards.
But budget shortfalls threaten to erode any gains.The state
allocation for public universities had already been cut by $23
million last year when it was learned it would be slashed by
$41millionmore. Now state tax revenue is projected to decline
by yet another $900million this year and next, out of a budget
of $20 billion.The governor already has proposed reducing
higher-education funding by another 12 percent, putting even
more of the burden on tuition, which now accounts for nearly
two-thirds of NKU’s operating budget, and has been rising
Raising tuition, of course, makes it harder to increase
enrollment.The regional economic plan, Vision 2015, calls
for 4,005 graduates per year to be produced by NKU and
other local colleges and universities.The state’s Council on
Postsecondary Education has an evenmore ambitious target
of 3,149 graduates per year by 2020 fromNKU alone, which
now produces 1,624.That would require an average annual
enrollment growth of five percent, and an increase in the
budget from the current $186million a year to $571million
by 2020. It alsomeans adding 460 tenure-track faculty and a
millionmore square feet of space.
NKUhas begun to warn that if the budget cuts continue, it
will have to readjust, or at least push back, its enrollment targets.
And with seven years to go, the closest answer anyone will give
to the question of howmany jobs have been created toward
that goal of 50,000 is 2,540, an estimate made by the Northern
Kentucky Tri-County Economic Development Corporation. “If
we ask ourselves whether the campus is positioned to provide
what both the state and the region require of us, the honest
answer is no,” Votruba said last year in a somber state-of-the-
university address.
NKUhas publicly forged a united front with its fellow
public universities tomake a case for holding firmon funding,
but there is growing friction as they all vie for the same finite
resources.The well-connected flagshipUniversity of Kentucky
has an ambitious plan itself, to become a top-20 public research
Sue Hodges Moore, Northern Kentucky University vice president for planning, policy and
budget, and Gail W. Weils, vice president for academic affairs, say the university cannot
suffer more budget cuts and still play a key role in regional economic development.
What has put this
campus on the higher
education map is its
seemingly single-
minded push to
improve the lot of its
surrounding region.
Chris Cone, Black Star, for CrossTalk