Bowman Breakfast Speech

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Oct. 8, 2014


Thank you.  Good morning, everyone!  I am delighted to join the great tradition of the Bowman Breakfast. So let me start with a heartfelt “thank you” to everyone who has worked so hard to make this special gathering possible. Seeing the Ballroom packed at this hour is quite a sight!  And so I add my sincere thanks to all of you for starting your day a little earlier than usual to explore the positive and productive partnership between a city and its university.

Attending my first Bowman Breakfast as a new Kent resident is a source of great pleasure and great expectation.  As of today, I have served this wonderful community for exactly one hundred days.  Each of them has included a whirlwind of activity.  And each has inspired me, challenged me and affirmed my early perceptions that the people who call Kent their home are a special group.  I am so pleased that Kent is now my new home as well.

I may be a bit biased, but I have ample evidence that the warmth, caring and personal engagement of the Kent community are more than special.  They are unrivaled in our region.  And they are among the many reasons I am thrilled to be part of this dynamic and diverse “communiversity.”

I am also excited to have joined you at a time of continuing transformation and virtually unlimited promise.  Although I was not here to see downtown Kent “before,” I know that the “after” is an amazing testament to the power of partnerships — especially the town-gown partnership that deserves all of the national recognition it has received.  I am here because I want to help build the momentum that has taken us so far.  And I want to do so in ways that make a meaningful difference for Kent State, our home city and, most of all, for the students who will be tomorrow’s leaders, innovators and engaged citizens.  In the next few minutes, I will share some of what I have been doing toward that goal in my first months on the job.  And I will outline my presidential priorities for this academic year.  Each is intended to set the stage for a bold and bright future for all of us and all those we serve.

We don’t have to wait for the future to find countless reasons we can all be proud of our community’s character and accomplishments.

I continue to be very impressed as I learn about the remarkable range of Kent State accomplishments.  From stunning artistic achievements; to cheer-worthy athletic feats; to the discovery of new knowledge, they reflect the dedicated efforts of countless individuals:  world-class faculty scholars, multi-talented staff members, students intent on making a difference, and loyal alumni who have never stopped caring about their alma mater.

Our many reasons for pride are also the legacies of the strong and visionary leaders who preceded me.  I have had the great honor — and genuine pleasure — of spending time with three of them: Michael Schwartz, Carol Cartwright and Lester Lefton.

Each of these remarkable individuals helped build an academic system that, in 2014, can hold its own with the best universities anywhere.  As evidence, Kent State has earned a spot in the 2015 edition of Best Colleges.  As many of you know, this U.S. News and World Report publication is a high-profile resource for many prospective college students and their families.  Kent State is the only public university in Northeast Ohio to make the first tier of the publication’s “Best National Universities” category.

I do not and will not take for granted that I have inherited the leadership of an institution that is on the rise.  That knowledge made me determined to hit the ground running from my first moment in office.  With the support of a truly remarkable team, I was able to do just that.  In fact, I think we all could qualify for spots on our superb Golden Flashes track teams!

But seriously, it is fundamentally important to me that I make the most of every minute.  As I do, I hold myself fully accountable to the university community.  So let me offer a sample of how I have spent my first one hundred days as president:

As someone new to the university and the region, I have devoted a significant share of my time to listening and learning.  It was not a coincidence that my first day in office was also the launch of my “Listening Tour.” The tour is a way for me to meet the broad spectrum of Kent State constituents.  And it allows me to ask the revealing question, “What is the heart of Kent State?”  The tour has taken me across the university and across the region.  Before its conclusion early next year, it will take me across Ohio and to several states.

It was important to me that my first stops included two-day immersions at our seven Regional Campuses.  I met with faculty, staff and students, and toured the surrounding communities.  In the process, I sampled Ohio vintage wine at Ferrante Winery in Ashtabula; attended the Stark County Balloon Classic; made a plate at the Homer Laughlin China Ware Factory in East Liverpool; visited the new Tolloty Technology incubator in Tuscarawas County; discovered the Inspiring Minds and Enactus programs at Kent State Trumbull; learned about the Rural Scholars Program at Salem and East Liverpool; and had close encounters of the mooing and oinking kind as 4H students shared their skills at the Great Geauga County Fair!

The Listening Tour is just one way I have been working to build relationships with new colleagues on and off campus.  My calendar has overflowed with visits to key donors and friends of the university; meetings with local political leaders, state legislators and U.S. congressional representatives; and discussions with dozens of regional CEOs.

Here in Kent, I have enjoyed a number of conversations with City Manager Dave Ruller.  In fact, this is not my first town-gown breakfast.  On my first day in office, I joined a breakfast that included Dave, the mayor, members of City Council, and other city and university leaders.  I have also enjoyed talking to several local groups and chatting with other Kentites at venues from the Heritage Festival to my new hair salon.  My pledge to all of them — and to you — is that I will do everything in my power to continue and build the positive, productive partnership between Kent and Kent State.

Because I want to connect directly with our university family, I have taken up tweeting and have almost become accustomed to the phenomenon of the “selfie.”  I believe I may have set a record for “selfie” poses at our Employee Appreciation Day last month.  This new tradition was one of my favorite campus events this semester.  It allowed me to personally thank Kent State’s remarkably talented employees.

The caliber and caring of our employees — both our world-class faculty and dedicated staff — are the keys to Kent State’s success.  For example, their investment of time and talent is the key to our great success in enrolling and retaining students.

The 4,245 freshmen on the Kent Campus this fall are already record-setters as they represent the most academically accomplished freshman class in our history.  We shattered another record with 81.7 percent of students returning for their sophomore year.  This is up from 77.6 percent last year and is well over the national average.  Now you know why you are waiting a little longer at Yogurt Vi, Twisted Meltz and Insomnia Cookies!

And we achieved the highest six-year graduation rate in university history, which rose to 54.8 percent, up nearly four points from a year ago.  This is good news but we must do better.  A great university must graduate more than half of its students in six years.

I want to share one more statistic:  More than seventy-eight percent of our freshman class is taking fifteen or more credit hours.  Taking fewer than fifteen hours per semester means a longer journey from Convocation to Commencement.  We want as many students as possible to complete that journey, and to do so in four years.  So we are providing a wide and growing range of support to make that happen.

My first hundred days have also had me sporting hard hats and lifting a few shovels at celebrations related to our “Foundations of Excellence – Building the Future” initiative.  This is the university’s bold investment in campus modernization.  With projects ranging from new buildings to environmentally conscious upgrades, it is historic in size, scope and significance.

 In recent weeks, we dedicated the new home of our Wick Poetry Center and broke ground for the stunning, new home of our College of Architecture and Environmental Design.  As I speak, we are renovating our science buildings; building a research addition to advance interdisciplinary science research; completing a new Aeronautics and Technology Building; and creating a Center for the Visual Arts.

We will soon break ground on a new home for our Division of Institutional Advancement where Dubois Bookstore once sat.  The division oversees our vitally important work in Alumni Relations and private fundraising.  The kind of great news I mentioned earlier has led a growing number of individuals, foundations and businesses to notice and support Kent State’s upward trajectory. These strengthened connections are being translated into scholarships, internships and other support.  It is telling that we have seen both increased annual giving — currently at $8.9 million, up $2.1 million from this time last year; and an increased number of pledges — up six hundred over this time last year.

The schedule I have just described has not left me with a lot of free time — or sleep.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Especially since the talented people around me and the caring community I have discovered keep me energized and excited about what lies ahead.

In my remaining time with you this morning, let me summarize what I see as the five top priorities for a strong first year together:

Ensuring a “students first” philosophy always has been and always will be my top priority.  That means ensuring that students in every major have the education, experiences, environment and support they need to graduate; to succeed professionally; and to contribute to society.  Fulfilling this top priority means we must continue to boost retention and graduation rates.  And because our graduates must compete and cooperate in a global society, we must continue to build awareness of and respect for diversity — everything from ethnic diversity to religious diversity to diversity of ideas and perspectives.

Another priority we will pursue is Enhancing Kent State’s Distinctive Identity.  The university’s wealth of intellectual, physical and cultural resources is significant by any measure.  These resources make Kent State a whole with a far greater impact than the sum of its parts.  To maximize that impact, we need a clear vision of the future.  And we want it to be a shared vision.  Feedback from the Listening Tour will shape the platform from which we will launch that shared vision and bring it to life.

As is the case with most large public universities, gaining clarity on our vision and refining our message will be critical for our future success.  We must move forward knowing that our work together is not about doing more with less, but about doing the important things better.  And we must clearly articulate Kent State’s dynamic and distinctive role in higher education.

The next priority I want to mention is Increasing Our Global Competitiveness.  From multi-national research projects; to international exchange programs; to our international students and alumni, Kent State is connected to every corner of the world.  We must embrace fully our role as a public research university.  To achieve that goal, we must better define our research priorities.  And we must support our faculty as they contribute new knowledge, new ideas and innovative applications that make a real-world difference.  It is our responsibility as a public research university to bring knowledge and better understanding to the world’s grand challenges and wicked problems.  And so we must identify those great global challenges where, through coordinated cross-disciplinary efforts, Kent State can make an inspiring difference.  I will ask our faculty, working with the provost and deans, to do so.  As we maximize our impact through research, we must build a strong graduate education program through students who choose Kent State because of the world-class faculty we have attracted to our institution.  In short, we must realize that investment in a strong and coordinated research program lifts the entire university.

An equally vital priority is Leveraging Kent State’s Global Reach for Local Impact.   It is a fact of economic life that regional prosperity requires the capacity to compete globally.  Kent State’s public-service mission includes helping our region, state and city to build that capacity.  To the greatest extent possible, we will use our world-wide assets and global relationships toward that ongoing goal.

I share the view that Kent is well on its way to becoming a “destination” college town.  In fact, I am convinced that in the months to come, we will solidify Kent’s reputation as the kind of “cool” city that attracts creative people and is known as a great place to live and work. Creative people generate the fresh ideas that fuel ongoing economic growth, positioning Kent as an engine of innovation for Northeast Ohio.

The fifth and final priority is Planning for a Sustainable and Vibrant Future.  This one is all about ensuring Kent State’s financial stability.  This is especially critical at a time when state support for higher education is a shrinking share of our budget.  So we must continue to attract high-achieving students, faculty and staff.  We must continue to invest in our facilities and infrastructure.  And we must diversify and grow resources from private giving to federal grants and contracts.

So there you have it: a fast-paced version of my first months as president, and a glimpse of what the coming months hold for our university community.

In closing, I want to reiterate that I was drawn to Kent because of the energy and commitment of the people who live, work, learn, and create here.  I was drawn by the audacity to dream boldly that frames the history of this community.  As I learn about our past, I am reminded of the intense firing process that melds metal into everything from fine jewelry to beams that support skyscrapers.  Our community has been through the fires of adversity.  It emerged with the strength of steel and the brilliant beauty of gold, silver and bronze.  Most importantly, it emerged with a deepened commitment to making a positive difference.  I hear about those traits on every Listening Tour stop.  When I ask participants to describe Kent State in one word, they say — sometimes with lumps in their throats — that we are “home”; “caring”; “accepting”; “welcoming”; and “inspiring.”  Although I have only been a member of the Kent State family for a hundred days, I can and do second those emotions.

And I can state without hesitation that in this uncertain and impatient world, our community is poised to lead.  The future we face together will be one that Daniel Pink envisions in A Whole New Mind.  He writes that the future belongs to those who frame their thinking from the right side of the brain — the creators, artists, empathizers, pattern recognizers and “meaning makers.” In this new age, it is creativity, innovation, empathy and big¬-picture thinking that will be rewarded and recognized.

If you agree with this view, you share my belief that the future we face together will summon us to forge new connections.  And it demands that we cross the traditional boundaries that have, for too long, had us working in silos.  From what I have observed, we are inherently ready for that type of inclusive interaction — to welcome all ideas; explore our many talents; and to do so knowing that our diversity makes us all better thinkers, creators, and doers, and makes our community much stronger.

On this one-hundredth day of my life and work at Kent State and in the city of Kent, I say to my new community: May we embrace this ever-changing world together.  May we lead with courage tempered by our core values of integrity, respect and ethical judgment.  And — as suggested by our Board of Trustees Chair Dennis Eckart — may we boldly ask, “Why not?” instead of “Why?”

The world is ours to embrace.  Together, we can and will make a difference.

Thank you, everyone.

Beverly Warren, President
Kent State University

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