The message of WKU’s 10th president

Tim Caboni, Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs at Kansas University, will become WKU’s 10th president in July. Caboni was the associate dean of the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, before coming to KU.

Jacob Dick



Tim Caboni is driving his wife’s black BMW X3 through downtown Lawrence, on his way to lunch but he’s a bit distracted in conversation.

He is explaining his views on theory to practice in communication, and there is a point he must illustrate. After asking to be recorded, he concentrates as the device is being turned on. His eyebrows raise and jaw tightens slightly; the gears are turning as he crafts his phrases carefully and weighs every word.

He starts by citing an article on asymmetrical and symmetrical communication. He hesitates and seems disappointed at first when the author’s name doesn’t come right away. He pushes on almost flawlessly, enthusiastic about the subject.

“The idea is that there is a give or take between an organization and any of its publics and in that, truth matters,” Caboni said.

He breaks down the two basic approaches of communication: a quick hit without feedback and the path of engagement where concern is on the public’s reaction.

“What you should be doing is engaging with the public in a truthful way; hearing them and by listening,  you actually modify the organization’s message,” Caboni said. “If you’re doing that, you can hear how the organization is being perceived in relation to how you want it to be perceived and help that gap be met in the middle.”

The question was about whether he felt a public relations person could have a university’s best intentions in mind while also being as truthful as possible. Caboni explains the advantages of trust and ethics on an organizational level that somehow seems genuine despite itself.

Moments like this come up frequently in conversation with Caboni when he is talking about a passion. The question at hand is analyzed, the message is thoughtfully considered before answering and, somehow, the meticulous is made sincere.

This is mostly because the 47-year-old successor to President Gary Ransdell,  the WKU Board of Regents selected in January,  has been studying and crafting communication about higher education for more than two decades. In July, Caboni will take residence back in Bowling Green for the first time since his graduate school days to start WKU’s next chapter after Ransdell’s 20-year term.

For the moment, he’s in Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas – also known as KU – where he has been the Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs for nearly six years. The talk of theory to practice has ended for the moment as he is having lunch with two members of Lawrence’s chamber of commerce.

Larry McElwain and Bonnie Lowe of the Economic Development Council of Lawrence and Douglas County said Caboni has been essential in communicating the needs of the community with KU. He has been an advocate for the recently formed Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Institute McElwain and Lowe cite as being a boon for the people of Lawrence.

Before Caboni sits down to talk, he is met at the door by Matt Hyde, managing partner of Restaurant 715, who congratulates him on the new position. Caboni points out his favorite table in the corner Hyde sometimes holds for him so he can have a bit of privacy from the many people that might recognize him – a frequent occurrence.

Caboni and his wife, Kacy Caboni, own a home in East Lawrence and are fairly visible in the community. He said he likes the proximity he has to the rest of the city in this hub of art and business. Earlier in the day as Caboni gives a tour of his neighborhood, he excitedly points out a new brewery under construction and some of his favorite places,  like a French spot called Bon Bon.

“I usually hang out wherever there is good food,” Caboni said. “I relax by cooking and enjoy the product of that, perhaps too much.”

He has a pattern of finding the best signature places, name dropping Smokey Pig Bar-B-Q in Bowling Green as a place he can’t wait to get back to. He attributes his love for local culture and food to his upbringing in New Orleans.

A New Orleans influence

Raised in New Orleans where his father’s family has roots, Caboni briefly went to McDonogh 15 in the French Quarter, long before its inclusion in a magnet school system, and would walk to his grandmother’s antique shop after school.

Caboni said he comes by his passion for education honestly. His father, a middle and high school science teacher, and his mother, a psychotherapist and nurse practitioner who is now an academic administrator for nursing programs, instilled the importance of education at a young age.

His grandfather, owner of a Southern paper company that made bags for French bread in the city, passed on some wisdom about manual labor that made an impression on Caboni.

“I can remember being a young person trying to paint the side of a garage and my grandfather telling me, ‘now Tim, you need to learn how to make a living not with your hands’,” Caboni said. “’You’re just not very good at it.’”

Caboni began to think of his life in terms of service and ideas, and said New Orleans’ unique brand of education was influential for him. He attended Holy Cross High School, an all-boys Catholic school in the North part of the city.

“High school was formative in terms of leadership and my growth as a young leader there,” Caboni said. “There is an ideal of the ‘Holy Cross Man’ taught there and that was something I strive for. I don’t know if it’s something you ever truly accomplish,  but it still means a lot to me.”

According to the school’s website, part of the motto reads as the following: “The Holy Cross Man is studious. He regards learning as a duty; intellectual perfection as an honor. He knows that his school is his training ground where he must mold himself into a useful man.”

While at Holy Cross, Caboni played baritone and tenor saxophone as a part of the school band. He continued a pattern of garnering leadership roles as drum major for two years and later acted as drum major for the Louisiana All-Star band.

When Caboni graduated from high school, his love of music led him to be a music major at Louisiana State University. He said he had hoped to be a band director at a high school or college but the instructors of the music program didn’t share the same aspirations for his future.

Students in the program were subjected to solo performances for critique by an assembly of professors once per semester. Before students could continue to the upper levels of the program, they had to pass a barrier exam performance in which the instructors would judge whether the performer had the musical skill to graduate. Caboni described this exam as standing alone on a brightly lit stage, presented before several of the program’s mentors as they critiqued every movement and note.

The summer after Caboni’s barrier performance, he received a letter from the faculty at his home. The letter informed him that he hadn’t passed the exam. The faculty felt his time would be better spent in another area of study.

“As you can imagine, being a 19-year-old who thought I knew what I was going to be when I grew up and to have all of that crashing down was tough,” Caboni said.

Navigating a crossroads

Scrambling for what was next, Caboni said he found the answer to what path his future would take by coincidence in a ponderous book few undergraduates today would recognize.

“I remember thumbing through the LSU catalog and came across the speech courses, which jumped out at me,” Caboni said in an email. “Given that I had done a great deal of public speaking in high school, I decided to take an intro course and enjoyed the class immensely.”

A chance experience led to a decision on his major and Caboni finished LSU with a bachelor’s degree in speech communication and rhetoric. While in the communication department, he worked as a teaching assistant.

As an undergraduate, Caboni became interested in organizational communication and a friend receiving her doctorate at LSU recommended WKU’s master program.

Randall Capps, organizational leadership and management professor, was department head of WKU’s master program in 1994 when Caboni attended. Capps said his first acquaintance came in a call out of the blue from a young man introducing himself as Tim Caboni and expressing interest in the master’s program.

Although Caboni has made a point of such contact when considering a new institution, Capps said he wasn’t used to receiving such an enthusiastic call from a prospective student. Capps said Caboni went on to equally distinguish himself in the classroom through his public speaking and crisis management.

“He had a natural knack for communicating in a public arena,” Capps said. “I think he has a lot of the talent and skills it takes to be a public leader.”

Caboni said he enjoyed the application-based education in WKU’s program as compared to the more theory- and research-based approach taught at LSU at the time. Larry Winn, professor emeritus in WKU’s communication department and Caboni’s crisis management professor, described a class exercise in which a student would take the role of a spokesperson in front of a hostile media pool.

“Some of the students said they would sweat through their clothes during that kind of presentation,” Winn said. “There were several things designed to test students’ cool and I would say he gravitated toward those kinds of difficult situations.”

Capps said the program was designed to broadly prepare students for communicating in a variety of professional environments, not to prepare higher education leaders. Including Caboni, the program has produced three students who have proceeded to the highest leadership positions at institutions.

The atypical path

Although being a college president takes dedication that isn’t gifted in a classroom, Bob Jackson, another former WKU grad mentored by Capps, isn’t surprised presidents could come from a communication program. Jackson is currently president of the Murray State University Foundation after serving as a Kentucky state senator.

Jackson based his doctoral dissertation before his graduation in 2012 on the changing role of presidents as fundraisers and has continued interest on the subject. According to his research, presidents like Caboni with mixed backgrounds will be the next norm for higher education.

“The trend of hiring presidents with public affairs, development and fundraising backgrounds is becoming more common than it was 20 years ago and, in the next few years, will become more prevalent than ever before,” Jackson said.

In a 2007 study of 2,148 top administrators in college institutions from the American Council Education, which Jackson cites in his work, 38 percent of respondents said fundraising took the majority of their work time and 45 percent said fundraising was significantly more important than it used to be. These opinions came from a group with a majority of respondents without fundraising backgrounds.

In the article “The Prioritization of and Time Spent on Fundraising Duties,” Jackson links responding presidents’ comments with the national trend of decreased state funding for public institutions.

“Specifically, state appropriations for public universities are at their lowest point in 30 years, having declined by about one-third since 1980; and there is no end in sight to this funding dilemma,” Jackson writes in the article.

This reflects a catch phrase Caboni used several times at public forums while visiting WKU during his candidacy about how a flat state funding model is the new upward growth for state appropriations: “Flat is the new up.”

With tuition being tantamount for recruitment advantages, alumni have become the path for filling funding gaps and expansion requirements. This means presidents, the public faces of their institutions, can be expected to help lead the fundraising arms of colleges. Over 80 percent of average donations come from individual donors, which means presidents can spend anywhere from seven to 21 days a month on the road communicating with donors, according to Jackson.

The pressure on presidents to be versed in academics as well as public affairs isn’t new information to Caboni.

In fact, Jackson cited some of Caboni’s 2003 research on the origins of fundraising in his dissertation. When Jackson describes the trend in experience of higher education’s next generation of presidents, it almost seems like he’s reading Caboni’s credentials.

“I’ve had a varied career as a professional fundraiser, faculty member, academic administrator and then leapt to something that seems far afield in public affairs,” Caboni said. “My path isn’t typical but it’s prepared me well.”

After graduating from WKU’s master program, Caboni was hired as the assistant director of the alumni association for Loyola University New Orleans, a private Jesuit university.

While at Loyola, an incoming president challenged the association to double the amount of alumni chapters across the country. The new president and Caboni hit the road to talk to alumni about the new plans and aspirations for the university.

“In the course of that, I came to understand what the job was, at least from the perspective of a 24-year-old, and it looked very interesting,” Caboni said.

In Jackson’s dissertation, he posits that it is common for university presidents to mentor under another president or to receive additional administrative training during points of their career based on testimonial data.

Caboni left Loyola and received a doctorate in Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He joined the university as a faculty member in 2001 and became associate dean of the Peabody College of Education and Human Development in 2005. He continued to teach graduate level courses on subjects like fundraising in higher education.

It was also during this time, the first reports of Caboni’s bowties start to surface. Capps didn’t recall the iconic bowtie during Caboni’s time at graduate school but Wes Fugate, former student of Caboni’s and current vice president at Randolph College in Lynchburg, West Virginia, recalls their appearance.

There was speculation that Caboni’s fashion choice was inspired by Gordon Gee, then Vanderbilt’s chancellor, current president of West Virginia University and prolific bowtie wearer. Caboni said he was wearing bowties long before Gee’s appointment at Vanderbilt, bowties being more common in New Orleans, but he briefly stopped wearing them during that time.

He said he had to make a principled decision about his neck-wear.

“You don’t want to be a suck up or a wannabe so for several years I wore a regular tie,” Caboni said. “At some point I realized he didn’t own that and I started wearing them again.”

While learning important lessons about his business wear preferences, Caboni also achieved academic accomplishments at Vanderbilt. Peabody College was ranked as the No. 1 graduate school of education for five years starting in 2009 and saw a significant increase in enrollment.

Kim Brazil, current director of admissions at Peabody who worked closely with Caboni, said most of the school’s change grew from his work.

“He did a wonderful job improving our rankings through advertising means, dealing with research and also building a marketing recruitment formula that not only grew our amount of applications but also our yield,” Brazil said.

Caboni joked at a faculty forum at WKU last month about the role of associate dean being thrust upon him to “shut him up,” but Brazil remembers the situation differently.

“He had talent,” Brazil said. “Anything he tried to do or was tasked to do, he did well.”

Brazil said Caboni also helped create a funding model for the college that was used for several years.

WKU recently announced a need to adjust funding policy at the university to a more centralized model to ensure financial stability after enrollment issues. Caboni experienced similar change at Vanderbilt when his college, one of the wealthiest in terms of enrollment dollars, started paying a sort of administrative tax to the central fund.

“The press towards centralization is a fundamental conversation in higher education, not just at WKU,” Caboni said. “A balance needs to be made between strategic decision making and independence in a department to protect what the institution as a whole is trying to do.”

When Caboni speaks of making decisions, it’s with the assumption that a collaborative discussion will be included. Brazil said Caboni worked with every aspect of Peabody, from academics to marketing, to make sure the message of the school was aligned for faculty and incoming students.

Kansas collaboration

At KU’s campus, Caboni has cast a similar net of collaboration with almost every part of the university.

The Office of Public Affairs at KU is divided into five different sections touching almost every aspect of the university, including media, marketing, relations in the state capital as well as Washington, D.C. and emergency communications with students.

Through all of these branches Caboni has had a hand in shaping how almost every aspect of KU is viewed by the public.

When Caboni first came to KU, there wasn’t a dedicated relations coordinator with Kansas’s state government so he filled in for about six months. To his relief, the university now has Kelly Reynolds to direct state relations as well as a D.C. relations person he helped hire.

Caboni said having dedicated lines of communication with lawmakers is important for public institutions, but doesn’t put all of his faith in legislators to provide for universities.

KU has had a rebranding movement since Caboni arrived with a new direction for its recruiting and marketing efforts and monumental construction projects such as a new science building, residence hall and dining facility, apartment style housing and new student union.

All of this has occurred in a climate of Kansas’s state government reducing funding and the frequency of approval for projects in higher education.

According to reports published by KU’s relations office, state appropriations to the school were nearly halved from $16,180 per student in 1999 to $9,076 in 2016. The reports also indicate inflation has largely outpaced growth in state support.

Although KU is larger than WKU with 28,401 students enrolled in 2016, the story of expansion in the face of cold legislative attitudes is all too familiar.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Kentucky’s per student funding of higher education lowered 32 percent from 2008 to 2016, the seventh largest reduction among states since the 2008 recession. Kansas was recorded as having reduced 22 percent in that time.

Despite all of this, Caboni has expectations to find solutions for similar projects at WKU that can be accomplished independently. He’s a realist when it comes to government attitudes on education.

“We can’t expect the next 40 years of funding to look the same as the last 40 years as far as the automatic growth in the appropriation to universities,” Caboni said. “It’s not the world we live in.”

KU’s focus for the future has drawn away from state funds and has switched to the attention of students and donors.

In the works since Caboni’s arrival, KU is about to launch a new marketing and recruitment campaign five years in the making. While some of the details are being finalized, the marketing staff have prioritized engaging students in their junior year of high school and keeping them committed with strategic contact.

Along with new plans, Caboni has reviewed and distilled KU’s iconography into a new marketing campaign. In a video advertisement set to launch before next recruiting cycle, history and pride for the school’s lineage take center stage as figure’s from Kansas’s free-state founding pass on screen to serious narration and the “Rock Chalk, Jay Hawk” chant.

One of the partners in this effort representing the fundraising side of the equation has been Heath Peterson, president of KU’s alumni association. Caboni said the university’s fundraising arm has relative autonomy is most things but Peterson contributes some of the school’s recent success to collaboration with Caboni.

“Tim has been able to bring everyone together in a coordinated, consistent and effective way to really better tell the institution story,” Peterson said.

Along with condensing some of the several taglines and mottoes KU used in its branding, Peterson said Caboni has driven several hours on many an occasion to talk to people in the small towns of Kansas. Traveling to meet with alumni statewide has become a priority for the department as well as the message it is trying to deliver. The institution now brings unique programs like its Formula One-style racing team and automotive engineering program to events for demonstrations.

A fundraising family

WKU will not just be receiving one experienced development coordinator when Caboni takes his appointment. His wife, Kacy Caboni is the current development director and team leader for KU’s school of business and an accomplished fundraiser.

The couple became acquainted through work, Caboni having attended many of the events hosted by the endowment department and business school. They went out for the first time to a KU basketball game that Caboni happened to have an extra ticket for. They were married in September of 2014.

Kacy Caboni recently oversaw the completion of a new $70.5 million facility for the business school. The 166,500 square feet Capitol Federal Hall was the result of private funding with $10 million from the university for infrastructure and took almost five years of planning. The lead $20 million donation came from the family owners of Capitol Federal Savings Bank.

“We’ve always said we have the programs to recruit the best students, we just needed the building,” Kacy Caboni said. “That’s to say, a building isn’t everything but I think we’ve seen it help here.”

Kacy Caboni worked with alumni to help utilize their gifts towards their personal interests like investing money from a donor passionate about preserving Monarch butterflies into landscaping that is butterfly friendly. Donations from corporations such as Koch Industries and Forbes were also incorporated in different fixtures in the building.

The business school campaign had several large donations, numerous small donations and even students chipped in with t-shirt sales and fundraisers. Kacy Caboni, who has been at KU for 10 years, said seeing the people she’s known for a while come together for the school has been a delightful experience.

“We wanted everyone to feel involved in helping this project be realized,” Kacy Caboni said. “It was tough, but these people have been like family and it’s been a great opportunity.”

‘I want to understand a place’

Caboni reports directly to KU’s Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little but, in general, university leaders agree the administrative core of the school is collaborative. This reflects the kind of leadership methods Caboni said he subscribes to and hopes to bring to WKU.

“One of the things people will get to know about me is that I want to understand a place before I make any decisions,” Caboni said. “I’ll be spending some time in the transition getting to know the folks who will be working with me but also how the organization is structured.”

While managing public affairs, Caboni also continued to teach classes on policy in higher education. Similar to his tenure at Vanderbilt, Caboni couldn’t be kept away from the classroom. But instead of graduate classes, he was now teaching courses like the freshman seminar course attended by Gabby Murnan.

Murnan graduated KU in Spring 2016 and considers Caboni a mentor. She started a major in environmental studies and later added political science because of her interest in writing environmental policy.

This drew her towards Caboni’s honors seminar on higher education policy but she said she didn’t know what to expect from the excitable man in the bowtie.

“At first, I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’” Murnan said. “But after a while, I started to see what a great teacher he was and he really spent time with his students trying to help them understand clear and concise writing. He wanted them to ask questions about things that mattered to them, whether its policy or just something you’re reading for class that day.”

Remembering his days in Vanderbilt, Wes Fugate seconds Murnan’s comments on Caboni in the classroom. He said the graduate courses Caboni taught at Peabody were on Friday and Saturday for about 15 hours between two days.

“You can imagine if you were going to be in a course that long with one professor, they need to be incredibly dynamic and engaging,” Fugate said. “That is probably what I remember about him most as a teacher. I could have stayed in his classroom for days just engaging with him on the material.”

Murnan agreed on Caboni’s ability to draw his students’ attention into the world of policy. Skeptical at first, Murnan left the class with a new understanding of how to apply her environmental interest and became Caboni’s student assistant for the next two years.

Caboni said he doesn’t anticipate being able to teach a class at WKU within the first couple years of his presidency but wouldn’t turn down the opportunity for a guest lecture. He said he would likely teach a course on public relations and communications, fundraising or higher education policy.

Aside from sparking interest in the classroom, Caboni also has a pattern of offering applied learning opportunities such as allowing several of his Vanderbilt graduate students to have staff responsibilities. While at KU, he offered a learning position in the public affairs office to Murnan.

“Tim doesn’t just do one conversation; he continues to follow up and push you until you reach what you want,” Murnan said.

She said the position offered her a chance to work hands on with public policy for state relations and provide research assistance for the various offices. She was even given the lead in KU’s involvement with the local “Free State” art festival held in Lawrence.

Murnan has been dedicated to her path since she first started KU but she said a large part of her being able to continue that interest lies in the opportunities people like Caboni have made available.

“You see students spread across the different parts of the enterprise here but I’ve always tried to create opportunity for talented students to work in issues they are interested in,” Caboni said.

Murnan, who received a White House internship she partially credits to Caboni’s mentorship, is now taking a slight break from environmental policy. She joined AmeriCorps after graduation and is now teaching English to adult learners in Florida while applying for graduate programs.

Despite the laundry list of accomplishments and experience seemingly crafted to modern administration specifications, Caboni’s real talent shines through when he’s least aware.

Near the middle of Massachusetts Street, a wide drive of community favorites and main draw for tourists and college students in downtown Lawrence, the barber shop of Mike Amyx is already filled at 7:30 a.m.

Several of the regular coffee drinkers greet Caboni, including a man known in town as “Red Dog” who leads an early morning exercise routine. He has some wonderful words to share about the young men on the football team.

Caboni is in the chair getting a trim, just the back and sides, as three-term former mayor and owner Amyx tells the story of how the men met. When Caboni was preparing for his position at the University of Kansas, he made several preemptive visits to help his adjustment, just as he plans to do during his transition to WKU. While on one of those visits, in the early hours of the morning, Caboni said he was desperately searching for a barber shop to accommodate his schedule when he found one open to his surprise.

Amyx describes the small talk they made during that first cut: Caboni mentioning his new job at the university and Amyx discussing the town.

“We had a good conversation but it was a short cut with the hair he had at the time and I just knew he worked at the university; I didn’t know he was important,” Amyx said. “So we shook hands and I handed him my card.”

“Mayor,” Caboni said while laughing. “Now of course I’m thinking, what did I actually say?”

It was a typical Caboni experience: meeting the right person, saying the right thing, whether by luck, training or charm. He treats each new conversation as a moment to learn and persuade, to find the right message that will let others know what he’s about. He acts with the skill of a master public relations practitioner, but people who know him buy what he says as genuine.

According to Caboni, that’s because he believes what he has to say. It’s more than putting theories to practice.

“You have to believe what your organization stands for before you speak for it,” Caboni said. “That’s one of the reasons I love working in higher education; I believe in what we offer students. If it’s spin, it doesn’t hold up long.”

Jacob Dick can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jdickjournalism.