A Dialogue with President Diacon
Kent State’s newest president answers questions about his past, his present and his vision for the university’s future.
By Lisa Abraham
Photos by Rami Daud
Todd A. Diacon, PhD, became Kent State University’s 13th president on July 1, 2019. As the university’s provost since 2012, Diacon (pronounced DIKE-en) has been a tireless advocate for student success. Committed to college affordability and access, he has earned national recognition for his efforts to boost student retention, graduation rates and academic achievement.
He brings more than 30 years of experience in higher education leadership to the president’s office. Before coming to Kent State, he served as the deputy chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and spent 21 years at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, serving as a tenured professor, department head and vice provost.
We listened in on several of President Diacon’s recent interviews to learn more about him and to garner his thoughts on a variety of university issues.
Why did you want to be president of Kent State University? From having been here seven years as provost, I know that Kent State is a great place. I wanted to continue contributing to the success of a great university.
What is it about Kent State that you find special? With multiple campuses and degree programs that span from associate to doctorate—plus, particularly on our regional campuses, a lot of certificate programs—Kent State is uniquely positioned to be all things to all people, in a good way.
You speak often about the transformative power of education. What role did education play in your family? When I was named president, I thought about the powerful impact that education has had on both sides of my family in very different circumstances.
My mother’s side of the family are college educated individuals going back hundreds of years. Not only that, but my grandmother and my great-aunts all earned bachelor’s degrees and in the case of my great-aunts, master’s degrees right around World War I. So, on my mother’s side, I never was around anyone who wasn’t college educated; I grew up with that example.
At the same time, my father and his brother were the first in their family to go to college. My father’s family lived in utter poverty in the panhandle of Oklahoma during the Great Depression. My grandfather, who died in 1929, was a gas station attendant. My grandmother took in people’s washing. My father made ends meet as a shoe-shine boy when he was a kid, and we still have his shoe-shine kit. He taught me how to iron because his job was to iron when his mother washed other people’s clothes.
Then at 17, my father joined the war in December 1941, after Pearl Harbor. He was in the Navy and saw action throughout the Pacific. After the war, he went through undergraduate school and medical school in six years and became a physician. His life was transformed by education and higher education.
Part of the reason I got into higher education is because of that demonstration effect.
"I wouldn’t be sitting in this seat today if I hadn’t engaged in study abroad as a student. It opened my eyes to the world.”
— Todd A. Diacon, PhD
You are a historian and were a longtime history professor before you entered academic administration. What made you want to study history? I knew from the time I was about a sixth grader that I wanted to be a historian. I was always a reader. I grew up in a little town in Sumner County, Kansas—right on the Kansas-Oklahoma border—and I can remember clearly when we went to Wichita, and Wichita had a Macy’s and Macy’s had a book section.
There I bought a book on World War I that now, in retrospect, I realize was a college-level book. But I became fascinated by World War I. I read that book from cover to cover, mapped out and drew the plans of various battles—and from that point on, I knew I was going to be a historian.
I’m a historian of Brazil, my PhD is in Latin American history, and I’ve written two books on the history of Brazil. I used to joke that I became a historian of Brazil because I grew up on the Kansas-Oklahoma border. It actually has nothing to do with that, it has to do with the impact of study abroad on me as a freshman in college.
How so? I studied for three weeks in Copenhagen, Denmark, as a freshman, and we studied the Danish political system, Danish culture and Danish arts. That opened up this amazing world, so now I’m a committed proponent of study abroad. It changed my life. I wouldn’t be sitting in this seat today if I hadn’t engaged in study abroad as a student. It opened my eyes to the world.
I see that kind of impact here at Kent State. We have students who take international trips where that’s the first time they’ve been on an airplane and the first time they’ve been out of the country. Those are life-changing experiences.
Kent State now has the second largest American university enrollment in Florence, Italy. We just surpassed Syracuse University to become the second largest; New York University is the largest. How great is that? We had 300 students going through Florence for the first time when I got here seven years ago; we’re now up to 800.
As a historian, what are your thoughts on the upcoming 50th anniversary of May 4, 1970? You don’t have to be a historian to understand the importance of May 4th in the history of the United States, but I am a historian and I do understand the seminal role that May 4, 1970 played in the nation’s history. For that reason, especially, it is my honor to be president during a year when we commemorate those events, those shootings, that tragedy.
When you look back on the national conversation that was going on at the time, you see how polarized it was, how dangerous the public utterances were on each side. Fast forward to 2019, and you can see a similar level of poisoned discourse and dialogue.
As educators, we are committed to learning lessons, and we have a unique opportunity over these next months to teach the world about the dangers of polarization and poisoned discourse. We’ll do that through more than 100 events on and off campus that include a seminar in our architecture program on how physical space has shaped protest, the theater department’s October production of the musical Hair, and programs sponsored by our School of Peace and Conflict Studies that will look at how nations, including our own, recover from civil war.
Our unique opportunity is to apply lessons of the past to a charged and dangerous situation in America today.
What is your vision for the university’s future? I have three initial visions for Kent State.
One, I want Kent State to continue being a university that reaches new heights of excellence, even while we honor our history of accessibility. One of the university’s best successes over the decades has been educating students—not all of whom come from the upper reaches of society; many of whom are first generation college students—and then watching them do great things. On the Kent Campus about a third of our students are first generation and about a third are Pell Grant recipients; that jumps to around 60 percent in both categories for our regional campuses. My vision is to continue that.
Two, I want Kent State to continue being a university that explores the life of the mind—and we have this great Brain Health Research Institute that’s exploring how the mind works, even while we feed our soul with our great arts programing.
Three, I want Kent State to continue achieving world-class excellence in fields that you don’t often see at universities. For example, we have the third-ranked fashion design and merchandising program in the United States. You don’t find that program at most universities, and we are third in the country.
We also have a top ten flight program and roughly 300 of our graduates are flying for commercial airlines right now. We recently created two new degree programs in aeronautical engineering and in mechatronics (a combination of mechanical and electrical engineering). Enrollments in those programs are growing and funded research in those areas is increasing
We are regarded as the birthplace of liquid crystal displays and are continuing to do innovative research through the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute.
We have one of the country’s best translation programs, offering a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in translation. It’s world class, it attracts scholars from around the world. They all get jobs when they finish.
We have the state’s only master’s program in library and information science. We have an excellent music school. We have one of the best poetry programs in America. We have wonderful musical theater and art departments.
We do all these great things. We’re leaders in brain health and in advanced materials and liquid crystals and, at the same time, we excel in the arts and in culture. I love that about Kent State.
So my vision is to continue with the things that Kent State does really well and to enhance them.
"The single best thing you can do to control the cost of higher education is to graduate in four years.”
— Todd A. Diacon, PhD
How do you keep college affordable for students? Since 2000, we’ve doubled the four-year graduation rate at Kent State and the fifth-year graduation rate is now the same as six years. Through messaging to students and rethinking our academic policies, we’ve had phenomenal success in improving our completion rates, so I am exceptionally proud of that.
The single best thing you can do to control the cost of higher education is to graduate in four years. One of the biggest problems we face as a nation is student debt. But the biggest tragedy we face are students who accumulate debt, but don’t graduate.
If you borrow $25,000 and graduate, we know that over the course of your working life, you’ll make about a million or more because of that degree. That’s a great investment.
But if you take out loans and then you don’t graduate, now you’ve got debt and you don’t have the certificate and the training and the knowledge to make the additional income to recoup that investment. That’s a tragedy.
What is your favorite thing about being president so far? That’s a hard question because there’s just so much. Part of it is meeting great students, so that’s enjoyable. And I’ve met some amazing alumni who’ve done great things, so there’s that, as well.
I’m gaining an even bigger appreciation for the impact that Kent State has on not just Northeast Ohio, but all of Ohio and even the country and the world. For example, you think about the fact that we graduate so many great nurses and we dominate nursing in Northeast Ohio—and Northeast Ohio dominates healthcare worldwide because of the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals.
So I’d say the thing I’ve enjoyed the most, so far, is realizing what a powerhouse university we are.
13 Fast Facts about President Todd Diacon
Kent State’s 13th president is a noted Brazilian historian and—according to his Brazilian-born wife, Moema Furtado—speaks Portuguese better than most native Brazilians. We asked him to fill us in on a few more facts and favorite things.
1. What was your first job? Peeling potatoes at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Wellington, Kansas, my hometown.
2. Who is your favorite singer or singing group? The Grateful Dead
3. How did you get to be an Elvis impersonator? I first dressed up like Elvis to celebrate Stephane Booth’s retirement, because she is a big Elvis fan.
[Booth was an assistant professor of history at Kent State (1986-2002) and a longtime Kent State administrator.]
4. What are you currently reading? The Years of Youth by Phillip Shriver and Why this World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser.
[Shriver’s book, a history of Kent State, was published in its semicentennial year 1960; Clarice Lispector was a Brazilian novelist and short story writer, considered to be among the greatest women writers of the 20th century.]
5. Who is your favorite author? Ha Jin.
[Ha Jin is the pen name of Xuefei Jin, a Chinese-American poet and novelist.]
6. Any pets? Not currently. Our dog, Smiley, died two years ago, and we haven’t had the heart to get another.
7. What’s your current ride? Tesla Model 3
8. Favorite spot on the Kent Campus? The Brain
9. Favorite foreign city? Rio de Janeiro
10. Favorite flavor ice cream? Coffee
11. Favorite cocktail? Caipirinha
[The national cocktail of Brazil is made from limes, sugar and cachaça (a Brazilian liquor distilled from fermented sugarcane juice) and served over ice.]
12. What historical figure, living or deceased, would you like to enjoy that cocktail with? Marechal Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon (I wrote a book about him.)
[A Brazilian military engineer, Marshal Rondon led what came to be known as the Rondon Commission in a massive undertaking: the building of telegraph lines and roads connecting Brazil's vast interior with its coast. Diacon's book, Stringing Together a Nation: Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon and the Construction of a Modern Brazil, 1906-1930 (Duke University Press), received the Warren Dean Prize for the best book published in 2003-04 on the history of Brazil.]
13. Favorite quotation? The old Brazilian saying, "For my friends, everything. For my enemies, the rules."
“So You Think You Know Kent State?”
New President Todd Diacon was the speaker for fall semester’s Bowman Breakfast, an event sponsored by Kent State and the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce to bring together people from the university and the city of Kent. During his talk, President Diacon presented a trivia quiz that audience members could take by downloading an app on their phone. We’ve adapted it for readers of Kent State Magazine who may not have been able to attend the event. Let’s see how well you know Kent State!
President Diacon gave his inaugural address on November 1, 2019: