"The Heart of Kent State": Report on the 2014 Presidential Listening Tour | Office of the President | Kent State University

"The Heart of Kent State": Report on the 2014 Presidential Listening Tour

Feb. 3, 2015


Good afternoon! It is a pleasure to be with you today. It has been a brisk start to the new year — and I most certainly refer to more than our weather. In fact, it's been such a strong start that I make this confident prediction about 2015: It's going to be a year in which Kent State sees big dreams realized, sets bold ideas in motion and gains even greater momentum toward a future that excites us all.

As 2014 drew to a close, I found myself reflecting on our momentum and the many great moments I had the good fortune to enjoy. At the top of my list was the announcement that I would be joining the Kent State community. It has been a tremendous year of learning more about this outstanding university and the people behind its stunning success — people who contribute so much and care so deeply about our future together.

We began our Listening Tour journey at Kent State University at Ashtabula, and I ended day one on the job enjoying a beautiful sunset over Lake Erie. I knew that joining the Kent State family was the right decision. And I understood that the dawn of a new era for Kent State would soon emerge.

Today, I am happy to share my early findings and observations about what truly is the "heart of Kent State." The answers shared during the listening tour reveal ideas about what makes us distinct, what we can do better and where we should be in the year 2020.

Before I start, I want to recognize the many individuals who made this ambitious undertaking possible.  To Listening Tour lead Valoree Vargo and organizers extraordinaire Patty Bujorian and Liz Henry, thank you for your support and for ensuring the success of this comprehensive listening and learning venture. 

Finally, I thank everyone who attended a tour event or shared ideas in writing. Your thoughtful and heartfelt feedback will help me be a better president. Most importantly, it will help Kent State be a better place to learn, work, live and give back.

One Word

One of the most intriguing questions we asked every audience was, "If you had one word to describe Kent State, what would it be?" The top five words used by all groups — students, faculty, staff and alumni — included "community," "family," "caring" and "opportunity." And coming in at number one: "home."

I was really struck by this outcome. How many other institutions of higher education do you think would choose the word "home" as the top descriptor of their university? I dare say, not many. And so I think it indeed begins to define our distinctiveness.

Why is it important to get to the heart of our university character? Having a clear grasp of our unique strengths — knowing what makes us special to those we serve — is the key to fulfilling one of our top priorities for 2015: creating a vision of Kent State's future, a shared vision.

A Distinctive Kent State

Another theme that emerged was our collective commitment to student success, and a closely connected finding was the belief that we are preparing our students to make a difference in the world.

A faculty member in the College of the Arts shared that he and his colleagues tell new students that "we are willing to accept you where you are, but we refuse to let you stay there." And so many individuals underscored the belief that Kent State is a safe place to grow and find your best self.

It was truly gratifying to hear responses like this. That's because the priority that will always come first for me and for Kent State is ensuring a "students-first" philosophy. That means that ALL students have the education, experiences, environment and support they need to graduate, succeed professionally, lead satisfying lives and contribute to society.

High-quality Academics

Time and time again, alumni — and a number of their employers — told us that Kent State is distinctive for its high-quality and incredibly unique academic programs. And they encouraged us to do more to promote our academic quality and innovative academic options. I wholeheartedly agree that the high quality of our academic programs — and the faculty who create and maintain that quality — merit our pride, gratitude and strong support. And even more — much more — our justifiable bragging.

The many disciplines represented by these proud graduates and satisfied employers underscore how seriously we take the education of every student. And while many institutions focus almost exclusively on high-profile programs like engineering and medicine, we offer excellence in a broad range of areas, including programs unique to Ohio, the nation and even the world.

An alumnus in Chicago told us, "Kent State opened up doors. Any place I went … I got jobs ... ." This experience was echoed at every Listening Tour stop and by alumni who hold both graduate and undergraduate degrees.

I was so impressed with our graduate students, who said they chose Kent State because of its demonstrated academic quality. Whether they are pursuing careers in designing molecules, designing buildings or designing visual communications, many advanced-degree students pointed to our "one-of-a-kind" programs as a major magnet and a great competitive edge.

Many said they chose us because of the reputation of our faculty. In fact, many graduate students said they chose Kent State because of a single, stellar professor.

We heard similar comments from faculty members. Many said they came here to work alongside the respected scholars in their disciplines. And many said that the incredible competence, drive and mutual respect modeled by their colleagues are what keep them here.

Given the caliber of our faculty, it wasn't surprising that intellectual freedom and innovation were also Kent State hallmarks. A number of faculty members said they were drawn to Kent State by the freedom to create new methods of teaching and learning and to pursue their personal research interests. And they said that being part of a vibrant, intellectual community — one that encourages creative thought and new approaches — keeps them here.

And then there was a theme that was most often shared at our Regional Campuses: Kent State is distinctive as an affordable, accessible option as a college education becomes an increasingly elusive goal for many families.

One parent in East Liverpool put it this way: "You gave us the ability to send our kids downtown for an education and then back home to sleep in their own beds at night … Kent State is the largest payment I ever made in my life, and it was worth every penny."

In addition, many community members viewed Kent State as the leading economic and intellectual engine in their community.

As we move closer to defining a distinctive Kent State, it will be a challenge to delineate the many opportunities we offer without being viewed as trying to be all things to all people. Yet Kent State does address the needs and aspirations of students across a broad range of opportunities. We offer credentials from technical certificates to the doctoral degree. Our tuition ranges from about $6,000 to about $10,000, depending on the campus where instruction is delivered. Our campuses span a 500-mile radius in Northeast Ohio. And, as we heard, they feel like home whether you are pursuing a physical therapist assistant degree at Kent State University at Trumbull or researching liquid crystals in a high-security lab on our Kent Campus.

In short: Our regional reach is impressive. Our academic menu is distinctive — and in many cases, beyond compare And when you add those strengths to the homelike comfort to pursue big dreams — life-changing dreams — the reasons Kent State is on the rise come into much sharper focus.

What Can We Do Better

We know there is room — and the can-do spirit — to make significant improvements. And so we asked every Listening Tour audience, "What can we do better?" As you can imagine, there was no shortage of responses — often passionate ones — to that query. They include:

  • eliminating the credit-hour cap and improving school pride from our students;
  • identifying distinctive curricular offerings at every campus and developing high-impact links with the corporate world from our faculty;
  • improving class scheduling, wages and recycling efforts from our staff;
  • enhancing cross-campus communication, engagement and mutual respect from our Regional Campus communities; and
  • strengthening marketing and communication engagement from our alumni.

Again, we found four, general themes related to institutional improvements. The suggestions voiced most often were to define our vision more clearly and expand our institutional reach. Most constituents also urged us to tell the Kent State story more boldly. They felt that being higher education's best kept secret is no longer acceptable; and I am asking each of you here — starting today — to join me in boldly declaring the essence of the Kent State story — the story we know so well — how countless lives have been transformed, including our own.

Another theme centered on the most difficult chapter in the Kent State story. There was an often-stated concern that we remain identified nationally by the events of May 4, 1970. Yet there appears to be a dichotomy regarding how May 4 has defined our university — even our personal psyches. For many alumni from the 1960s and '70s, memories of Kent State are defined by the struggle to find meaning in a chaotic world. On the other hand, graduates of the late '90s and beyond see their alma mater as a respected, national university — one whose unique history led to a widely recognized commitment to promoting civil discourse and peaceful conflict resolution. Despite this generational perception gap, there is no question that we should and will honor our past as we write the next chapters in Kent State's remarkable story. Determining the most fitting and sensitive way to do that will be part of our work in creating a shared and courageously bold vision for our university's future.

Many individuals had mixed feelings about our focus on becoming more highly respected as a national university. They don't want us to forget our regional roots or a commitment to access that has changed the lives of so many first-generation students. I assured them — and I assure you — that we won't. Access and academic excellence are not mutually exclusive concepts. With the resources of our eight-campus system, Kent State can be that institution that enrolls, supports and graduates students from diverse backgrounds and circumstances. At the same time, we can be the university that uniquely prepares students to become the leaders of tomorrow — leaders focused on making a difference.

Many students and faculty members expressed a desire to see Kent State's research and scholarship promoted nationally in a more strategic fashion — but to do so without losing our focus on providing students with a high-quality learning environment. The good news is that these goals are also not mutually exclusive. The best teaching and learning environments are those where discovery and innovation abound; where the spirit of daring creativity of faculty and students goes viral, inspiring community members to be more than they ever dreamed was possible.

An alumna who is now a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh, relayed that Pitt moved toward a heightened research focus several years ago. She said that the heightened emphasis on research and innovation — and the resulting gain in prestige — was the rising tide that lifted all boats. In fact, undergraduate education has flourished in this research-extensive university environment. Kent State can achieve the same result. We have ample and impressive evidence across our campuses that faculty research, discovery and creative expression can engage and include students, enriching the learning experience for all.

As we heard on several Listening Tour stops, providing an environment where creativity thrives and people are empowered to succeed also means improving the way we view, address and support diversity of all kinds — especially racial diversity. I admire the courage and honesty of our community members of color who shared their feelings and experiences. Several of our colleagues acknowledged that much progress has occurred over the years. And they made the undeniable point that we can do better — we must do more — to achieve that optimum environment for everyone.

For example, students and faculty agree that we need to be better at mentoring and retaining students and faculty of color. And they stressed that we particularly need greater diversity among our faculty. One faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences made the point that in today's global, multicultural society, we must be able to communicate effectively with people who look, believe and think differently than we do. How right she was in saying, "It's important to our students, all of them, that they learn from a diverse faculty."

We all know that the greater the diversity of our environment, the more opportunities we have to grow personally and professionally. And most of us know from experience that groups with diverse members generate more creative ideas and solutions than groups whose members are homogeneous.

A theme related to diversity is expanding our global outreach and international student population.  These are areas in which we have seen steady progress, and they were clearly areas of interest and importance to many Listening Tour participants. Participants encouraged the university to expand opportunities for students to experience cultures different from their own — from more opportunities to study abroad to greater internationalization of our campuses and curricula.

In considering the many areas where we can do better, I pledge that, starting with me, Kent State's leadership team will give every suggestion, every point of view, full attention with the idea of how can we get to "yes" together.

How Do We See Our Future

When we asked where Kent State should be in 2020, there was great optimism about our future.  Again, our question generated a wide variety of suggestions — from the highly conceptual to specific, nuts-and-bolts recommendations. And again, we were left with valuable food for thought.

Suggested areas for review and improvement included advancing a one-university system, revamping the university's current budget model and creating a healthy and sustainable university.

Participants saw untapped opportunities for Kent State leadership in distance learning, early connections to career opportunities for students, enhanced research visibility for faculty and research engagement opportunities for all students, technology enhancements, greater efficiencies, and more flexible and fast-tracked options for education, especially for nontraditional students.

On the whole, our community saw a future in which Kent State is more competitive as a national university. They suggested that we are not competing solely with our Ohio sister institutions. Instead, they saw us as a university with distinct advantages over many institutions that are recognized nationally and globally.

Clearly, Kent State is moving toward a very different, often challenging and truly exciting future. As we fine-tune our vision of that future, we must address this challenging question: How do we become more national in our reach while preserving the strong sense of community that is so evident within and across our campuses?

Moving Forward — From Listening to Visioning

As I reflect upon the more than 200 days since I began my tenure, I am filled with awe at that inspiring spirit of community. From the first day of the Listening Tour to this very day, the Kent State community has shown me the warmest of welcomes. And as I have gotten acquainted with my new colleagues, friends and neighbors, I have come to deeply appreciate the down-to-earth, hard-working and compassionate sensibilities of so many who call Kent State home.

It is now my home, and I look forward to the far-reaching work we will do together as colleagues and fellow community members. It is time to begin that work — especially since so many of you have made it clear that you are ready, willing, able and enthusiastic about giving it your all.

As I mentioned, our first task will be formulating a shared vision for Kent State's future. It will be framed in this context of Kent State as home, as a community of engaged learners, and as a richly diverse family — one that respects the contributions of each of its members and one that pulls together across campuses and colleges, across departments and divisions, and across jobs and generations.

As a precursor to the work ahead, I framed five priorities for the current academic year that reflect the insights and aspirations shared with me since my arrival.

I believe these priorities will assist in framing how we move forward to identify a shared vision, core values and top-priority initiatives. So I want to touch on them briefly and encourage you to review them on the website.

Our university priorities must always begin with ensuring a "students-first" focus. I believe that the core role of higher education is to provide transformational pathways for ALL students — pathways that lead students to find their voice and define their place in the world. That role is fulfilled when we admit students who can thrive in one of our campus environments; we provide a diverse community where students are able to engage with individuals and cultures different from their own; we help students find that best part of themselves; and we graduate students who are forces for good in their disciplines, their communities and in our world.

We must approach and apply this students-first philosophy with laserlike focus. I agree with Michael Crow's thinking on the matter. Dr. Crow, who is president of Arizona State University, believes that the new American research university must be committed to excellence, access and impact. In turn, he believes that universities like ours should measure ourselves not by whom we exclude, but by whom we include and how they succeed. Kent State is uniquely poised to be an exemplar of this new American research university.

To become that exemplar will require us to continue the work that was started on the Listening Tour:  more clearly defining our distinctive Kent State identity and our unique contributions to higher education and to society.

Toward those ends, we will take the next few months to identify both our assets and areas for improvement. In addition, we will determine how to benchmark our progress. As we look to define both peer and aspirational institutions, we will draw on our community's talents for out-of-the-box thinking to articulate how Kent State is uniquely different — and, in some cases, peerless. Once we agree on our distinctive institutional identity, the real fun will begin: telling the world what we uniquely create and contribute.

I strongly believe that our responsibilities as a new American research university include addressing the world's grand challenges and wicked problems — through scholarship and research, through new discoveries and useful innovations, and by preparing our students to be strong contributors in an increasingly globalized world.

The good news is that we have a solid track record in these areas. The reality is that there is much more we must do to realize our full potential and do the greatest good. We must be even more active intellectually; we must be even more socially responsive; and we must be bold and fearless as leaders in higher education.

As we think boldly about our future, it is imperative that Kent State continues to make an impact locally.  We see it as part of our public-service mission to be a major contributor to the success of our state, our region and our city. And so another top priority must be using our worldwide assets and global relationships toward that ongoing goal.

There is no question in my mind that we can successfully leverage our unique quality of place to become an even greater economic and cultural engine for our region. What's happening on campus and in downtown Kent makes me think of Boulder, Colorado. Boulder is known nationally as a healthy and hip town with a hippie past. Sound familiar? I think our community could be a Boulder-like magnet for students and year-round visitors. In fact, we are on that path.

Kent State and the City of Kent are becoming known for our creative community in art and design, and for cutting-edge research and innovation — all framed by a history of social activism — in the midst of an outdoor oasis. Kent State must and will continue to be a key contributor to this growing vitality. Working in close partnership with the city we call home, we can realize our potential as a destination university in a destination city.

Doing so is an investment in our future that will yield multiple, mutual and lasting benefits. But it won't be an inexpensive one. And so my list of top priorities includes ensuring the university's financial stability and sustainability. We must continue to attract and retain high-achieving and diverse students, dedicated and talented faculty and staff, and the loyalty of engaged alumni and generous donors. And we must continue to invest in facilities and infrastructure to remain a vital economic engine for our region and our world. Given the cost of these investments; given our commitment to keeping higher education affordable; and given the reality that state funding for public universities remains limited, we must also continue to aggressively seek new revenue streams — from privately funded scholarships and endowed professorships to the expansion of funded research that helps solve real-world problems.

I believe that this year's priorities must continue in defining our future, so none comes with an expiration date. With ongoing input from across the university — and with needed adjustments along the way — they can guide our planning in the short term and for the foreseeable future.

Announcement of Next Steps

We may not be Boulder quite yet, but we will be bold. It is the thoughtful, clear and bold articulation of where we wish to take this outstanding university that we will pursue in the coming months.

Lewis Carroll observed, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there." To ensure that we know exactly where we are going — and that we take the most direct route to a successful future — I will appoint a representative Strategic Visioning Advisory Committee. This committee will work directly with me to assess and analyze the findings from the current work of the One University Commission, the ongoing external assessments of our research enterprise and our athletics program and the transcripts from Listening Tour events.

The committee will also coordinate a thorough assessment of Kent State's current Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and Results as defined in a SOAR model of analysis. By May, we will be ready to share the findings of this deliberate form of assessment. Our goal will be to formulate a summary environmental assessment, a draft vision statement, suggested core values and a list of potential university priorities. We will continue to engage the university community on all eight campuses, seeking your input along the way as we tackle this university analysis and vision for the future.

Concluding Thoughts

It is an understatement when I say I am excited to start our journey to the future. Kent State is at a unique juncture in fulfilling its promise as a public research university. While there is great uncertainty regarding the future of higher education, we can all be proud that — despite challenges internal and external — Kent State in 2015 is well-positioned to lead in the choppy waters of today's world of higher education.

With enrollment that continues to grow in quantity and quality, a campus building initiative that ensures our ability to provide outstanding learning environments, and a committed and talented faculty and staff, Kent State is poised to clearly define and boldly declare its unique contributions to higher education.

As I reflect on what I have learned in the last seven months, I start and end with the fact that so many describe Kent State as "home" — as a community of learners — as a safe place to create, to engage and to express deeply held beliefs. That kind of positive and caring culture is perhaps the most important element in moving from a university position of "very good" to "distinctively great."

I joined this wonderful community because I saw the energy, momentum, desire and talent to define a "distinctively great" future for Kent State. We can be that nationally recognized destination for education, the arts and creative impact; and we can be that unrivaled force for academic, social and economic good.

Kent State's powerful story is one of "this is our home" — home where no dream is too big; home where intellectual curiosity welcomes the impossible; home where creativity moves us from "why" to "why not"; and home where being your best self is an expectation for everyone.

One of the world's most beloved fictional characters came to the realization that "there's no place like home." As I stand here today, I am so happy to call this vibrant learning community "my home." And I proudly share the view I have heard literally thousands of times in recent months: There's no place like Kent State.

Thank you, everyone, and here's to a great 2015.