President Caboni focuses on the future after first year at WKU

President Timothy Caboni seated at his desk in the Craig Administration Center. He marks his first year in office as WKU’s tenth president on July 1, 2018. Although his inaugural year featured financial challenges to the university, Caboni said he was enthusiastic about the future, which includes the unveiling of his administration’s strategic plan for the university and efforts to improve student enrollment and retention.

Nicole Ziege

“The year that shall not be named” is what President Timothy Caboni said he has jokingly referred to his first year in office—a reference to Voldemort, the villain from Harry Potter.

Caboni, a 1994 WKU graduate, took office one year ago, July 1, 2017, to become the university’s 10th president, replacing former president Gary Ransdell.

Immediately, Caboni’s focus for WKU differed from Ransdell’s. Rather than focusing on the university’s expansion, the new administration hoped to focus its efforts on student enrollment and retention.

The change in focus for the university’s future became most evident by the removal of a signature phrase in Ransdell’s administration from the university’s website: “A leading American university with international reach.” It had been used to describe the university throughout the previous president’s 20-year tenure and is still displayed in Downing Student Union.

In its place was a phrase that Caboni now uses to describe his vision for WKU: “A student-centered applied research institution.” The change signified a new administration leading the 111-year-old university.

After he took office, Caboni and his administration began developing a strategic plan, which will act as a guide for the university moving into the next decade. The creation of the plan became a hallmark of his administration, and he described it as the “road map” for the university’s future.

“My plan for the first year was to take a close look and take hand in glove with faculty and staff and students across the enterprise to work on a strategic plan,” Caboni said. “We knew that would take a year to build.”

However, as Caboni started to craft the plan, he and his administration were confronted with financial difficulties—budget cuts and position eliminations—in hopes to balance a budget deficit of potentially $40 million.

WKU had previously used one-time dollars to temporarily cover the shortfall, but Caboni said this method was “not a recipe for long-term success.” In fall 2017, carry-forward funds were used to attempt to cover the budget deficit, as reported by the Herald on Jan. 22.

“If you’re spending more than you’re taking in, that’s not sustainable,” Caboni said.

In spring 2018, Caboni announced that WKU would face two rounds of budget cuts, saying the reductions “reflect that WKU is a smaller institution than we were five to ten years ago.”

Although they were not decisions that he wanted to make as a new president, Caboni said the cuts and eliminations were necessary to move the university forward.

“One of the things that we spent time on this year is taking a look at where those budget gaps were and how could we strategically reduce our expenditures in such a way that protected the core mission of the institution, but also set us up for what comes next,” Caboni said.

In the president’s first year, the university also experienced tuition increases. For 2017-18, tuition rates for in-state undergraduate students increased from $4,956 to $5,101. In 2018-19, those tuition rates will increase to $5,301 in fall 2018, as approved by the Board of Regents on June 22, 2018. Online course fees will also increase from $100 to $150.

Although student regent Stephen Mayer said he feels like students are being burdened by the tuition increases, he does not blame Caboni for the difficult financial decisions he had to make.

“He really does feel bad for the students,” Mayer said.

Before the budget was approved, Caboni said the tuition increases would be used to fund pay raises for WKU faculty and staff.

Faculty regent Claus Ernst said he supported the budget that Caboni brought before the board because of the 4 percent salary-increase pool that the new budget created. The last significant salary increase for WKU faculty and staff was a 4 percent increase in 2008.

“That is an executive decision he has made,” Ernst said, referring to Caboni. “I believe that was the right decision.”

Ernst, who had previously received the University Distinguished Professor title, said he first met Caboni when he wanted to meet with all of the professors who received that honor.

“He came into my office to meet me in person,” Ernst said. “That was almost unheard of.”

Former staff regent Tamela Smith, who was on the search committee to choose WKU’s next president, said she thought Caboni was special from the beginning.

“You could tell he had a passion for WKU,” Smith said. “He was very impressive from the get-go.”

Although Smith said she felt the staff “bore the brunt” of the first wave of budget cuts, she thought Caboni did his best with the university’s situation.

“He understands what’s going on, better than most could have,” Smith said. “He’s done a good job. I don’t think we could’ve asked anymore of him.”

McKenna Renner, WKU sophomore and horticulture major, of Independence, Kentucky, was a freshman when Caboni began his presidency. While being in the university’s marching band, Renner said that Caboni would always come and talk to her and other band members during practice on game days, as well as wish them luck in their performances.

“I truly think he is such a nice person,” Renner said.

Renner said while she thought Caboni did what he thought was best for the university, she also thought Caboni could have handled its financial situation better.

“He made a lot of big decisions without a true feel or idea of what the community at WKU is like and that could turn around and bite him,” Renner said.

Timothy Ford, WKU junior and English literature major, of Bowling Green, said he came to WKU for its affordability, and he first saw Caboni wearing his signature bowtie at Ogden College Hall’s opening in spring 2017.

Although Ford said he does not feel well-informed on the specifics of the budget situation at the university, he said he felt that what Caboni did was necessary.

“We were kind of in a hole and it needed to be done,” Ford said.

Looking to the future, Caboni expressed his enthusiasm for what will come next in his presidency, which includes unveiling his administration’s strategic plan. The completed plan will be revealed at the convocation in August.

Caboni said the strategic plan will aim to help student enrollment and retention, which are two topics he focused on during his first year.

“What comes next is really exciting,” Caboni said with a smile. “It’s about unveiling the strategic plan. It’s about heading toward a fundraising campaign that will help fund and support the strategic plan, and it’s also about us as a community coming together around a shared vision.”

Mayer said he thinks Caboni has done an amazing job in the presidential role during his first year, and this is largely due to the strategic plan that Caboni developed with his administration.

“Whenever he talks about it, he gets so excited, and he just lights up,” Mayer said, smiling.

While creating the strategic plan, Caboni met with multiple groups on campus to gain perspective about the university. One of the groups included a student-led strategic input team, which developed a student survey to help with Caboni’s strategic planning process.

Francis Wilson, WKU senior and digital rhetoric major, of Akron, Ohio, was a member of the team. He said he and his team members met with Caboni in March 2018 after receiving more than 3,000 answers to the surveys.

“Meeting with Tim and running him through the data that my team had collected from the student survey was really quite an upbeat and positive experience,” Wilson said. “I have come to know Tim as a man that values perspective, that values student input and that values personal quality time with the people that he is working for.”

One of Caboni’s future plans for the university is creating the Division of Enrollment and Student Experience, which will merge the Divisions of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management. He said the new division will help improve student enrollment and retention.

“Those two things not only can’t be disconnected,” Caboni said. “They really should be so tightly woven—the story that one tells, how financial aid works—all of which works hand in glove to ensure a strong student experience.”

Regarding retention efforts, specifically, Caboni said that the division will create a more centralized advising process for first-year and second-year students. He said its development aligned with his goal for WKU to become a student-centered applied research institution.

“One of the ways we ensure true to that is making sure our recruitment and enrollment and experience all align and that it’s all to the good of individual students, paying attention to their success and graduation,” Caboni said.

During his investiture ceremony on April 27, 2018, which officially marked the start of his presidential tenure, Caboni announced his plans for two construction projects to improve the student experience at WKU.

The first was to build a “first-year village” where Bemis Lawrence Hall and Barnes Campbell Hall are currently located on campus. As previously reported, Barnes and Bemis halls are scheduled to be demolished in 2018 and 2019, respectively, according to WKU’s 10-year housing plan. Caboni said the two halls would be torn down and rebuilt as pod-style halls by 2020 and 2021.

The goal of the village will be to help connect students with similar interests and common goals, said Caboni.

“We have an opportunity, as Bemis Lawrence and Barnes Campbell really come onto the end of their useful lives as buildings, to think about what comes next,” Caboni said. “What I want to make sure we’re doing through our residence halls is making the 150 hours outside of class as important and as engaging as the 18 hours they spend in class.”

Caboni’s second construction project included enhancing campus libraries to create the WKU Commons, instead of rebuilding the Garrett Conference Center. He said it will help create “convivial and attractive” spaces for classes, group projects and places for faculty and students to work together.

“We have an opportunity with the Garrett Conference Center, really approaching the end of its useful life, to think about what comes next there,” Caboni said. “What we want to do is create WKU Commons, where the entire community can come together [and] engage in collaborative intellectual activities.”

Beginning year two, Caboni said he was most excited about his plans for the future and he did not want to dwell on “the year that shall not be named.” He said he wanted WKU to become its own institution, instead of mimicking other public universities like the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky.

“The fastest growing city in the state, the best college town in the Commonwealth, an hour north of the hottest city in the country and tens of thousands of dollars less than other alternatives in the state, why wouldn’t you want to come to WKU?” Caboni said, smiling. “That’s what we’re going to talk about next year.”

Nicole Ziege can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected] Follow Nicole Ziege on Twitter at @NicoleZiege.