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university by 2020, by increasing enrollment, hiring new
faculty, and increasing research spending.This would require
an annual budget reaching $1 billion, $421million of which
would be requested from the already stretched state legislature.
Meanwhile, despite the attempt of House Bill 1 to foil costly
duplication by giving each state university an explicit mission
(the University of Louisville’s, for example, is urban research),
the universities have their own ideas.The University of
Louisville angered frustrated legislators by planning a research
center in
health, andWestern Kentucky University asked
for a saltwater shrimp biotechnology program, even though
Kentucky State already has a freshwater shrimp production
center, andWestern Kentucky University is 727miles from
the nearest ocean. Meanwhile, other areas, like Austin and
Charlotte, threaten to surpass Kentucky with their own
ascendant university-community alliances, to the frustration of
Votruba. “The risk is that we lose momentumand become like
everyone else,” he said, gazing at the Cincinnati skyline through
the windows of his office.
And everyone else seems busy hoarding what they
have. Universities oftenmeasure their success by howmany
programs they can add—howmany buildings they can build,
howmuch grant money they can get—all to build up their
prestige, Votruba said. Yet, from their beginnings, public
universities “were never meant to be ends in themselves.They
were seen as vehicles to achieve a larger end, an important
partner in nation-building, or, more to the point, in region-
building. As any industrymatures, it runs the risk of losing
touch with the constituency it serves,” Votruba explained, citing
the American auto industry as an example. “I think that has
happened with higher education.”
Have faculty been universally enthusiastic about
community service? “The answer to that is unequivocally no,”
saidDale Elifrits, a veteran professor andNKU’s director of
pre-engineering and outreach. Even there, he said, some faculty
just won’t do it—even though the university has made “public
engagement” a condition of hiring, tenure and promotion.
Votruba’s quip about the faculty senate notwithstanding,
Elifrits said, “We have our group of facultymembers who we
know, nomatter what we call and ask for, if they have time,
they’ll do it. And we knowwho we shouldn’t even bother
calling.The fundamental drive by universities to require or
encourage faculty to publish and get outside researchmoney is
all-consuming.” As for himself, Elifrits said, “My own view of
a facultymember is you have a responsibility to the public to
expand the body of knowledge, which includes reaching out to
your community and helping to improve their lives and their
productivity.” He urges his colleagues, “Please, open up your
ears and your eyes to the world that’s out there and how you fit
into it.”
While, as Votruba puts it, other universities andmany
faculty are doing things the way they always have, NKUhas
found it slightly easier to do things differently. For one thing,
while research is conducted there, it is not primarily a research
university like those at which Votruba spent his earlier career
(Michigan State and SUNY Binghamton). AndNKU is such a
relatively young school that there is less deep-rooted tradition
to overcome.The first group of facultymembers arrived to
find one building in a field of mud.They held dual jobs (the
registrar also was a chemistry professor),
and even planted a community garden. “A
lot of universities are trying tomove to this
community-engagement idea without having
had a history of it,” saidGail Weils, the provost.
“It’s in our DNA.”
The university’s Center for Integrative
Science andMath helps to trainmath and
science teachers. Faculty and students from
the music and theater departments teach and
perform in local schools. In conjunction with
the University of Cincinnati, NKU counsels
low-income urban high school students to
consider going on to college, and gives full scholarships to any
qualified graduate from schools in two border cities where
about a fifth of families live below the poverty line.This year it
began a Ph.D. program that focuses on educational leadership,
its first doctorate outside of law.
All of these things stemdirectly fromVision 2015, the
regional development blueprint whose steering committee
Votruba co-chaired and which he calls “a textbook example of
how a university can graft itself onto an economic-planning
process.” Vision 2015 is aimed at trying to stop young talent
from leaving, by adding high-paying jobs and improving
quality of life with parks and green space, better schools,
walkable business districts, even free wi-fi in the airport. And,
in a region that is homogeneously white and Catholic, Vision
2015 seeks to produce the kind of racial and ethnic diversity
employers want. (NKUhas pushed for this last goal by, among
other things, granting domestic partner benefits to unmarried
employees, and by sponsoring public discussions of such
controversial issues as evolution in a Bible Belt state that is
home to America’s only “museumof creationism.”)
“One barrier to progress in a community is if it’s insular,”
saidMike Hammons, Vision 2015’s president, whose office
overlooks the Ohio River from the Kentucky side. “It’s helpful
when a university takes the lead in establishing policies that
are tolerant and
NKUhas done
things on its campus,
too, that dovetail with
the economic growth
plan. In only its eighth
year, the university’s
FifthThird Bank
Institute is ranked
among the top 25
programs for
entrepreneurs by
and has been lauded
by the
for the applied
nature of the classes.
The Infrastructure
Management Institute
To make the area
more economically
competitive, the
university has taken
on uncommon and
audacious roles.
Amanda Neace and Keith Wilson, editors of the Northern
Kentucky University student newspaper, wonder if the
campus can continue its rapid growth in the face of state
budget cuts.
Chris Cone, Black Star, for CrossTalk