The Making of Meaningful Voice | Office of the President | Kent State University

The Making of Meaningful Voice

NOV. 04, 2016 


The City Club, Cleveland

  1. Introduction
  • Good afternoon, everyone.  It is an honor and privilege to be with you today and with those who are joining us for the live broadcast.  It is always a special delight to share Kent State University with Cleveland.  With a satellite program here in the heart of downtown Cleveland, we feel a special connection with this great city -- recently named by Forbes Magazine as “America’s hottest city”.  And, made even hotter by the success of the Cavs and now The Tribe – the team that has given us a wonderful extended “Cleveland Indian Summer.” And I do hope the coffee is of the strongest variety to help us through the aftermath of cheering on The Indians into the early hours of Thursday morning.  The Indians’ never give up/leave it all on the field attitude is a perfect exemplar of the city they represent.
  • In fact, Forbes Magazine described Cleveland as a “gritty, underdog city” that is luring the youngest and brightest away from Boston, Austin and the Silicone Valley. I can tell you that Cleveland is, likewise, a top attraction for Kent State University’s best and most talented graduates, many of whom call Cleveland home. 
  • Also described as a gritty, hard-working university on the rise, Kent State is proud to claim Northeast Ohio as its home.  As an eight-campus system serving more than 40,000 students, our collective footprint is larger than the size of the state of Connecticut.  We are delighted to provide educational opportunities for eight unique communities and to serve as an economic catalyst and beacon of hope for so many that deserve the opportunity to pursue their dream of a college degree. 
  • From the shore of Lake Erie to the border of the Ohio River, Kent State is committed to living up to its vision of bettering society — bettering society through high-quality academic programs, cutting-edge research that makes a real difference in people’s lives, and access to affordable post-secondary education for the many who would not have that opportunity if it were not for a Kent State campus in proximity to home.

II.  The Kent State Promise

  • The primary goal of my talk today is to share with you my belief in the essential role that higher education plays in a thriving democracy.  We are truly blessed in this region by an extraordinary network of colleges and universities that are working miracles-- independently and collaboratively—every day. And we are doing that in an environment that prepares our students to be engaged world citizens when they graduate.  I am particularly grateful for the partnership with President Berkman who has been so helpful to the new presidents in the region.
  • As a secondary goal, I would like to share with you some ideas about a re-imagined public research university and our vision for Kent State to be a critical player over the next five years in that re-imagined role. 
  • Recently, I have been exploring the core questions that many are asking about colleges and universities.  Why do we exist?  What do we stand for?  What is our legacy contribution to better society?  How will Kent State make a difference in a world that so desperately needs reasoned and inspiring voices -- particularly in a wilderness of biased rhetoric that sets the bar so low for a nation that has such high aspirations for the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  We need only to look at this presidential election cycle to know that we have much work ahead of us to move beyond the negativity to reach new heights of meaningful dialogue.
  • In a re-imagined public research university, we will emphasize the preparation of our students to be the next generation of leaders by ensuring the right focus on the right dispositions to better society.  A re-imagined public research university will also embrace the idea that the priorities for academic excellence, access and affordability not only coexist but merge as critical elements of a high-quality, distinctive learning environment.  At Kent State, we are calling this commitment “The Kent State Promise”.
  • The Kent State Promise does not begin and end with financial support – or a financial pathway to higher education, as is the case of many traditional promise agendas. The challenges students in this country face are not solely financial challenges. I suggest that college costs and the very real problem of growing student debt are outcomes – or results – of an incomplete higher education agenda. The tragedy is not so much that college costs lead to some level of personal debt but that many students incur this debt and never graduate, creating a cycle of debt from which many simply cannot recover.
  • While it is vitally important to keep college costs at an affordable level for as many students as possible, it is also important that college graduates are prepared to meet the challenges and career expectations for a future that cannot possibly be clearly defined in the present.
  • The Kent State Promise is a comprehensive approach to student success and fulfillment.  We aspire to bring the totality of the resources and reach of Kent State to higher education’s most important outcome: more college graduates who have the skills, talent and desire to change the world –who understand that a life of meaning is just as important as a life of financial comfort. 
  • So, where do we go from here?  This thinking about a life of meaning led me to a book by Cornell University’s Robert Sternberg that centers on, “…producing students who want to change the world.” In his book, What Universities Can Be, Sternberg suggests a new model for preparing students, one he calls ACCEL: Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership. He defines an ACCEL university’s greatness as central to the very core of how we define greatness in American society:  the opportunity to make a difference and the chance to make our world a better place.  Sternberg believes that in an ACCEL university, the focus should be, in his words, “…not just on how academically smart you are but on how much of your smartness you can give back to the world.”
  • We believe this approach is central to the work of one of the nation’s largest public research universities, certainly; but it is also central to our unique mission to educate students in an environment that sparks epic thinking, meaningful voice and invaluable outcomes to better our society. 

III.  The Making of Meaningful Voice

  • Simply put – just as it is The City Club of Cleveland’s mission is to, “…create conversations of consequence that help democracy thrive,” Kent State’s mission is to prepare college-educated citizens to take part in and lead those conversations.
  • Our history and our vision for the future place this important mantle squarely in our hands, and we carry it with a singular sense of responsibility.
  • Our history includes that day in early May nearly 50 years ago when our students were very concerned about the state of world affairs, particularly the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
  • While it took quite some time for Kent State to rise toward recovery from the unthinkable tragedy that ensued on May 4, 1970, in recent decades we have discovered ways to heal by speaking through the wounds.  Through the thoughtful collaboration of many, we have opened up new ways to collect and share reflections and perspectives on May 4th and its aftermath. 
  • While the site of the May 4th events is under consideration for national historic landmark status, we are also considering the opportunity of growing from this status of national landmark to one of global convener of the world’s critical conversations.
  • We see this status not as one of chest-pounding boasting but as one of a deep commitment to elevate the importance of hosting crucial conversations on some of the most troubling challenges we face in our increasingly global communities.  As a global convener, we will leverage the knowledge, talent and impact of our May 4 Visitors Center, our School of Peace and Conflict Studies, and our Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence, along with that of the many faculty and staff at Kent State who have produced award winning documents and documentaries. Our goal is to become – and to help others become –adept at articulating a personal and passionate perspective with a keen desire to listen for understanding when others present a different point of view.
  • This aspiration is a centerpiece of the 21st Century portfolio of knowledge, skills and dispositions we aim to cultivate in our students.  This portfolio includes the critical skills of collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication. When I speak with CEOs and future employers of our students, they indicate these are exactly these skills they are seeking. Students must go beyond their major to find their place in the world.  Our region and state’s workforce development aspirations depend upon college graduates who are adaptable across their lifetimes.
  • This intentional and engaged approach to student learning calls our students to declare a personal mission and purpose for their life in addition to an academic major.  Every student has the opportunity to engage in experiential learning through high-impact experiences such as internships, co-ops, research or field experiences.  And, finally, we ask students to give back through meaningful service and community engagement while they are at Kent, shaping the habit and mindset that if you want to change the world, you must be fully engaged in it. 
  • By asking our students to declare their purpose, we are inviting them to use the four-year engaged college experience to test their limits and try their hand at experiences they may have thought were outside of their comfort zone.  We have banners and signs all over our campuses that say: Unknow your boundaries
  • We want students to understand that personal and professional growth and preparation is a process; that this is a time and a place where it is safe to give things a try –to listen to the sound of their own voice in new settings with diverse audiences.  We want our students to lay claim to an idea or position and take responsibility for it.  We also want them to listen to the perspectives of others and to value the importance of all voices having the opportunity to be expressed, even those with which we vehemently disagree.
    Now, as you might imagine – and as you have probably seen – this personal and professional growth is often complicated and it is not without conflict.  Students – and faculty and staff, for that matter – do not always get it right out of the gate. Our quest to be a welcoming and inclusive community that is emblematic of the diversity that exists in the world creates magical interactions and life-changing partnerships.  It can also give rise to uncomfortable situations, misunderstandings, and unrest.
  • Sometimes our faculty members make the headlines for their controversial stances on international issues.  Our students’ boundary-testing may call them to stage a protest to express their voice, for example.  Invited speakers often challenge the sensibilities of some segments of the campus, alumni or regional communities.  It is this intersection of free speech and freedom of expression – even when we may passionately disagree with statements from community members – that creates a rich learning environment and one where we can have conversations about the most troubling of issues we face.
  • These situations are often not easy to sort out in the moment, and the pathway forward – or the “right” answer – is not always clear.  But, as we navigate every one of these circumstances, we consider our role as champions of civil discourse and cultivators of meaningful voice. 
  • We see these challenges as opportunities to build community; to create greater understanding; and to lean toward teaching and achieving the experience of disagreeing without being disagreeable.
  • On a campus known for student activism, we have been fortunate in recent years to be able to meet discontent with opportunities for dialogue; to address concerns with timely, direct responses; and to approach all of this with an earnest willingness to listen.
  • It is the faculty who model the kind of disposition we aim to cultivate among our students. 
    • I think of professors Gary Hanson and Mitch McKenney in the School of Journalism, whose international storytelling course is enabling our students to develop journalism skills while broadening their understanding of the world.  In this course, students:
      • Spend two weeks in their destination country reporting stories in partnership with students from that country; and
      • Return to campus to produce their stories for a multimedia website available to the general public. 
      • Last Spring, they traveled to the island nation of Cyprus where students developed stories about refugee camps, a nursing strike, and women in politics among other topics of social concern.  In the six years since the program started, more than 100 students have traveled to Korea, Brazil, India, China, and The Baltics in addition to Cyprus.  Next year, they’re going to Ghana.
  • We also see the distinctive cultivation of meaningful voice in the work of Jim Tyner, an internationally-recognized professor of geography.  In June, he and colleague Mandy Munro-Stasiuk received a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue their study of landscapes of mass violence in Cambodia during and after the regime of the Khmer Rouge.  Their work has uncovered more than 10,000 kilometers of canals that were built by forced labor, along with thousands of dams, dikes, and reservoirs.  This is important because these structures have caused and continue to pose major hazards for residents there since they are prone to catastrophic failure.  It particularly affects food and water security.
    • It may come as no surprise that his expertise in Cambodian history and geography has led Jim Tyner to a meaningful partnership with the May 4 Visitors Center and Kent State’s Institute for the Study and Prevention of Violence. This interdisciplinary work will be aligned with our research initiative in global understanding that launches this year. 
  • And, that is precisely the kind of environment that is required in our re-imagined public research university. We value the importance of inter-disciplinary collaboration as the very best way to approach and solve the world’s most intractable problems.  This work takes place in laboratories, certainly.  But it just as often takes place in art studios, performance halls, field experiences, maker spaces or invited lectures and seminars. 
  • In addition to global understanding, we are launching four other interdisciplinary research initiatives:
    • Our initiative in Brain Health is energized by the potential for Kent State to play growing roles in Alzheimer’s research, traumatic stress disorder therapies, and the applications of mindfulness and meditation to chronic health conditions. 
    • Our Material Science research focus includes our Liquid Crystal Institute.
      • Among the new applications of the Liquid Crystal is wearable technology.  For example, our Liquid Crystal researchers have partnered with experts in our School of Fashion Design and Merchandising and our College of Podiatric Medicine to design a temperature-sensing sock that could save the feet of diabetics.
    • The other two research initiatives are in the areas of Population Health and Environmental Science and Design – which includes the research and outreach commitment of our College of Architecture and Environmental Design.
    • I expect you are familiar with the way we convene the best ideas and voices from across the city to inform the work of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative.  Projects such as:
      • The Step Up Downtown plan – A partnership with the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, is enhancing important pedestrian connections between residential areas, cultural destinations, and green spaces.  The plan includes recommendations for 18 key connections, many of which have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented across the downtown area.
  • Although Cleveland is a major focus for the CUDC’s work, the organization has projects spanning the region including current efforts in Youngstown, Akron, and Sandusky, addressing place making, civic infrastructure, and neighborhood revitalization.
  • All of these projects and many others speak to Kent State’s role in cultivating community-engaged research and service that are collaborative and responsive to real needs of the region.
  • I mention our research focus because it is central to a learning environment that sparks epic thinking and meaningful voice. It cultivates curiosity across the curriculum and an accompanying gravitational pull toward solutions. 
  • The results of this kind of focused, purposeful learning are remarkable.  For those of you who are with us at The City Club, we have provided a take-away piece that outlines some of the remarkable ways our students and alumni are giving voice to their passions.  For example,
    • Tessa Reeves, a 2013 graduate with a degree in fashion merchandising, is changing the conversation about immigrants by using fashion as a force for good. She founded Neighbors Apparel in Akron – a business that gainfully employs the area’s immigrants in the field of fashion manufacturing and design.  Her life’s purpose is making an important statement about the gifts immigrants can bring to our neighborhoods and economy.
    • Chinyere Ekechi, a 1997 graduate with a degree in integrated life sciences and a minor in community health education, is using her voice to impact global environmental health policy. As a senior public health analyst for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Chinyere has played a role in addressing the Ebola epidemic and many other critical health issues requiring a coordinated, mindful response across the globe.
    • The pain of moving from one home to the next, time and time again, for four years motivated journalism major Keri Richmond to speak up on behalf of children in foster care. She was one of 12 individuals from across the nation this past summer who spent ten weeks in an internship program with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.  Assigned to Senator Portman’s office, Keri compiled her findings into a policy report that she presented before Congress. 
  • From these stories of faculty and student engagement and meaningful voice, I hope you can see that Kent State is a place that invites and embraces diversity in all of its forms.  And, yes, we believe there remains great space for civil discourse to exist in tandem with our ideals and value for free speech and freedom of expression.
  • There are few places that have examined this question more deeply -- or more emotionally – than Kent State University.  We believe we can disagree without being disagreeable, and our world view is enhanced when we create opportunities to experience the opinions of others that are different from our own.  We know our democracy depends on this kind of civic and civil engagement.

IV.  Conclusion

  • And, that is at the heart of The Kent State Promise – a commitment that calls us to merge the priorities of academic excellence, access and affordability as critical elements of a high-quality, distinctive learning environment. Our students and graduates are translating purpose and passion into meaningful voice across a wide spectrum of fields and disciplines to better our society.
  • The Kent State Promise also enables us to embrace the role we play as a significant economic engine for this region.  We have locked arms with our higher education partners in Northeast Ohio and beyond to power the economy of this entire state by addressing the talent gap that Cleveland State’s Ron Berkman so eloquently described in his recent op ed.  That gravitational pull toward solutions is part of the D-N-A of higher education.
  • There is a remarkable and pervasive sense of optimism at Kent State.  It is a place where discourse is elevated and where people come to change the altitude of their world view. 
  • It is in this spirit that I was pleased to accept the invitation to serve as your speaker today. I thank you for the opportunity to share a few of my ideas about the power of higher education to transform lives and communities.  And may we all approach our work with the grit and determination of the Cleveland Indians and the spirit that defines this wonderful community.  Thank you.
  • I will be pleased to take any questions you may have for me.