Thank you, Provost Lee, very much. And wow, that took me back. And Peggy, thank you. What a special morning this is. I’m really proud to be a part of this academic community and to have the opportunity to address my colleagues, the faculty and staff across this campus. There are a lot of things I want to say this morning, but I will try to get through them as quick as I can. And I will try to keep my composure, because I think there’s going to be a lot of lasts this year. I will try to move through in a thoughtful way. What an amazing team in WKU Public Broadcasting. Well done, WKU-PBS! Thank our team of public broadcasting.
Reflecting back to 1997, the Board of Regents did challenge me to lead a transformation of WKU from something of regional importance to something of national and international prominence. And that was the key word that went through all of our conversations with the board at that time: lead a transformation. The Board wasn’t satisfied with what WKU was then and knew we had much great potential. And for the last 19 years, we’ve been about the business of pursuing that potential. Specifically, two things stood out in the Board’s charge: rebuild the campus and lead us into a culture of philanthropic behavior. Those were the two primary challenges that we faced in 1997. With nearly a billion dollars invested in our campus physical plant, including some of the projects currently underway, two capital campaigns, which raised over $300 million, and over $23 million in gift deposits this past year, we have achieved those two specific challenges. We have also grown our enrollment from 14,000 to 20,000. Through significant tuition increases and the ebbs and flows of state funding, we’ve grown our budget from $130 million to over $400 million. We have added engineering degrees, doctoral degrees, and online programs to ensure relevancy in our curriculum. We have established the Gatton Academy and the Honors College, which have been key planks in improving academic quality at WKU. We have internationalized the WKU experience. By any account, we are a more vibrant, civically engaged, high energy, ambitious, and progressive institution than the complacent institution we inherited 19 years ago.
We are not without our challenges today, however. My successor will inherit a campus with momentum and quality—and one which is poised to face the needs of a new generation of students.
Last year at this Convocation, I spoke about three crossroads which would frame the 2015-16 academic year, the year we ended last May. They were enrollment, state funding, and faculty/staff compensation. While we had numerous achievements on the part of our faculty, staff, and students, including a record number of Fulbrights, continuing national recognition for Journalism & Broadcasting and Engineering, and an Art History Professor—Guy Jordan—who knocked it out of the park on 500 Questions, I will frame the transition from last year to this year in the context of those three crossroads around which I built my remarks one year ago.
The enrollment crossroad has not been fully navigated. Our applicant pool this year was up by nine percent over last year. Our focus this year, and our focus in future years must, therefore, be a higher yield from a growing applicant pool, while also growing our transfer population and adjusting to a changing residential, out-of-state domestic, and international student mix. The bottom line is we still have considerable work to do before resuming a growth mode with our enrollment. We have stabilized our recruitment efforts, with our incoming class—data I just received last night—is ahead of last year, showing gains over last year. And we are looking at for our class coming in this year a 75 percent in-state, and 25 percent out-of-state mix, including international students; and an 87 percent undergraduate, 13 percent graduate mix. Where we continue to struggle is freshmen to sophomore retention. Our sophomore retention number is down some 250 students compared to the same date last year, which is going to make us very close to whether we come out to an even enrollment or not, because we have to overcome the losses in retention with gains in new student enrollments. Our enrollment profile is also affected by 384 students who will not be allowed to enroll this year because of failure to pay their bills last year.
Poor retention is offsetting recruitment gains. And that has to be a focus for us going forward. Succinctly stated, recruitment and retention cannot just be the job of the Admissions staff and the staff in the Advising Center. These two tasks are everyone’s responsibility through this academic community. More and more faculty and staff are absolutely engaged in our recruitment activities and our Topper Orientation Programs (T.O.P.), and we all must be engaged in our efforts to retain our students through the completion of their degree programs. If we admit them and they enroll, then we have a responsibility to make sure they persist and graduate. And that role is completely different than what it was in 1997. Seventy-three percent of last year’s freshman class returned to campus this year. That number has to improve. So, consider the enrollment crossroads still more ahead of us than behind us.
The second crossroads we faced this past year was state funding. Geez, what a mess that was. This time last year, being the eternal optimist that I am, I fully expected the 2016-18 state biennial budget to include improved funding for higher education. I knew then that the state’s economy was improving and the state’s reserve funds, if not flush, were at least growing in strength. Sure enough, the state ended the year just completed on June 30 with a $52 million reserve surplus. I could see no reason eight months ago why state funding would not improve when the Spring 2016 General Assembly convened in January. Elections, however, have consequences, and we found ourselves with a new governor who believes strongly that nearly everyone in state government needed to reduce their budgets in order to contribute to a very real pension fund solvency problem.
No need in rehashing all the drama we experienced last spring leading up to the year-end budget cuts and the compromise cut we took in the current fiscal year. But it did make putting our $402 million budget together a very difficult challenge. I am, however, proud of our campus community and the manner in which we were able to cut more than $6 million dollars from our budget, while protecting salaries and all but a handful of campus jobs. And although 202 members of our staff did change employers, many of those Facilities employees are still, however, very much a part of the University family and are delivering services of the highest quality.
So, I am not sure whether we fully navigated the state funding crossroads or not. And again, always looking at a cup which is half full, it is my belief that Governor Bevin plans to initiate tax reform and tort reform and find further efficiencies in state government, all with the intent, I hope, of increasing state revenues. I also believe that higher education will be a beneficiary of improved state revenues in the future. But, as one of my favorite authors, Jeffery Archer, titled one of his books, “Time Will Tell.”
The third crossroad on which we focused this past year was faculty/staff compensation. This was clearly a priority for our faculty, for our staff, for our administration, and for our governing board. Even with a $6 million budget reduction, we held firm to our priority to at least, in some small way, address salaries. And we invested a modest amount of money in our benefits programs, and we were able to include in the budget a three percent salary increase over a 12-month period. One percent went into effect on July 1; one percent will go into effect on January 1; and, another one percent will go into effect next July 1. The January 1 and July 1 increases will be funded through the one positive dynamic enacted by the General Assembly when putting the state’s biennial budget together. The General Assembly included an “equity adjustment” for WKU, which funded half of what WKU and the Council on Postsecondary Education documented as an inequity in the state budget when it comes to funding per student among Kentucky’s public universities. And this is primarily a result of our dramatic growth at a time when the state couldn’t fund that growth, so we watched our state funding per student continue to drop. We ended up getting half of what we received. The remaining half will need to be a priority when the 2018 General Assembly convenes to enact the 2018-20 biennial budget. And I’ll leave that note in one of the drawers in the president’s desk for the next president. The equity adjustment coming our way next year totals $2.3 million dollars, an amount close to what is needed for the final two steps in the three percent salary increase included in our current year budget. The reason, however, this particular crossroad has not been fully navigated, is that three percent is only a modest down payment on what is needed to ensure that our faculty and staff compensation is at or above the average of both in-state and benchmark institutions, and that our compensation variables allow WKU to remain competitive in the marketplace for world class faculty and staff talent.
Just a few days ago, we received the benefits committee’s recommendations for changes in the health care premiums for 2017. And we will follow up with you shortly in this regard, but the University is committed, at this early juncture when we look at next year’s budget, to bearing 70 percent of our health care costs and will be devoting an additional $550,000 in next year’s budget to our health care premiums, meaning that WKU will be paying $600 per month per employee in our self-funded health care program. And that’s up from $575 currently. I also just learned that 92 percent of our employees participate in the Top Life Pledge in our Wellness Program. So that’s an important accomplishment on all of our parts because that’s new behavior on the part of our faculty and staff in recent years. So well done to all of you! If you are in that eight percent not in our Wellness Program, I want you to listen to this message from Greg Keightly in our Alumni Office.
Greg says: Upon starting at WKU last January, I joined the Top Life Wellness Program and went through the process of completing a biometric screening. During that screening it was discovered that I had elevated blood pressure levels and immediately was placed on medications to control it. I started noticing shortness of breath and tightness in my chest as I walked up and down the Hill for meetings so I made an appointment to get it checked out. I was referred to a cardiologist for a treadmill stress test, which I failed. The next day the doctor did an arteriogram on my heart, which uncovered four major blockages. I was sent straight into open heart surgery for a quadruple by-pass. Without the Top Life Wellness Program, I may never have known I was a walking heart attack waiting to happen. Walking this hill again as a healthy employee has opened the door to better health and saved my life.
As we turn our attention to this coming year and beyond, there are eight dynamics which I believe frame the challenges we face as an institution going forward, and that all of us as educators face as a community of scholars. The first two of these are WKU specific, and the final six are more general to higher education.
I believe that everyone in our University family now understands the importance of yield and retention. The other factor, however, is less defined at this point, but almost as critical in defining our financial stability going forward. That has to do with a performance funding model for higher education in Kentucky.
A few months ago, I was appointed by Governor Bevin as the chair of a performance funding workgroup, which is charged with defining a performance funding model for higher education in Kentucky. This workgroup includes each university president of the public universities of Kentucky and the KCTCS president, plus a representative from the Governor’s Office, the state budget director, and representatives from both the House and the Senate in Kentucky. And our task, and we are well into it, is to define those criteria on which a portion of each university’s budget will be distributed in the future.
We have decided on an outcomes based model which will accommodate historic performance, rather than a goals approach which only measures future performance. And that’s good for us at WKU. The current state budget calls for five percent of higher education base funding to be put into a performance pool. Five percent of our base budget amounts to $3.7 million. And this money will have to be earned based on each institution’s performance judged against a yet-to-be determined set of criteria. So in our cases, as we start next year, $3.7 million will be taken from our budget, be put in a pool, and we got to earn that back with our performance. Governor Bevin would like to see as much as 25 percent of the state’s higher education appropriation earned through a performance funding model. Regardless of that number, whatever it might become in the future, it is important that we define the criteria on which we can earn back the money that is taken from our base budgets and put into a performance funding pool. Once the criteria is set, then we will negotiate exactly how performance in each category will be measured. It will likely be a combination of volume (for example—number of degrees awarded, number of credit hours earned, number of degrees in certain disciplines, etc.) and percentages (for example: graduation rates, the percentage of students who persist and graduate, percent of students who enroll in certain disciplines, etc.). Numbers based on numerical volume typically favor larger institutions. Percentages of certain categories typically favor smaller institutions. Given that we need to achieve a model that has consensus approval, is scalable over time, and will need to stand the test of a contentious political environment, we must arrive at measures to which eight universities, a community and technical college system, the Governor’s Office, and both chambers of the General Assembly all agree. So there you go. I guess you can see how I will be spending a significant portion of my time this fall! This model needs to be in place by November in order to be rolled out at the general assembly convening and put into statute.
One of the key dynamics in finding the political compromises and the pragmatic measures of a Kentucky performance funding model is the Executive and Legislative branches preoccupation with job preparation. It know it’s a political reality—and I acknowledge an economic necessity—that we prepare students for the jobs that Kentucky business and industry have to offer. Disciplines that produce graduates which match up with jobs in Kentucky will most certainly be a factor on which we will be evaluated in the future. More on this particular dynamic as we turn our attention to broader issues, issues that not only have our attention, but the attention of nearly every university in America.
So, let’s talk about that jobs thing for a moment. There is no question that we invest our hearts and our minds in the development of human potential. There is also no question that, as James Madison acknowledged over 200 years ago, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.” So, as we continue to prepare students for jobs, I hope that we will always, always remember our equally important responsibility of producing a learned, well-reasoning generation of civically engaged young minds that will not only fill the job sector de jure at the moment, but will also prove to be leaders where they are employed and within their respective communities.
It is also important to note that coming out of the recent recession, as over three million jobs were added to our nation’s workforce, nearly all of those jobs were filled by college graduates. Yes, many of them in managerial, STEM, and healthcare professions. But, nevertheless, jobs in the highest paid tier of occupations are considered the good jobs, and they are filled by our graduates. 83% of our graduates are getting jobs two months after graduation. Most of them, 67% are staying in Kentucky. That’s good for Kentucky, it’s good for WKU, and it’s good for our nation. WKU, like all American public colleges and universities, must be responsive to the workforce needs of the state in which we are located. And we do need a core curriculum—as we certainly have with our Colonnade Plan—which broadly prepares students for civically responsible leadership roles. We must, however, know what students and employers want and need and be able to change and adapt and deliver a curriculum that meets those needs and desires. We must find the balance between traditional, but still important majors and minors, and those degree programs which are relevant to what employers want and students need in order to respond to workforce demands. Both our enrollment stability and our state funding will, in large measure, be determined by this new paradigm where curriculum and funding are intrinsically linked going forward in Kentucky.
Another challenge we face is a result of the marvels of technology. The pace of change, which is shaping the Millennial generation, or Generation Z—I guess the Millennials are now young alumni, it’s hard to keep up with—is both confounding and challenging to my generation, which, I guess is anyone who is not currently a Millennial! Things happen quickly, far more quickly than certainly was the case early in my presidency. Millennial and Generation Z expectations of instant gratification, social media pressures, connectivity, and activism all represent variables about which we must be mindful, and which we must embrace if we, as educators, are to meet the needs of today’s teenagers.
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, said in one of his speeches, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, then the end is near.” It is no longer business as usual, and the pace of change will either motivate us, or it will bury us.
Charles Darwin figured it out when he stated “Not the strongest or the smartest which will survive; rather it is those who will change and adapt to that which is changing around them who will survive and thrive.” We cannot just keep pace. We’re a university—we need to shape the learning curves. As an institution of higher learning, we must set the pace and charge that learning curve. It does not matter whether it is financial, technological, environmental, or political; what happens on our campus, or in our state, or any state, or any country, will instantly affect us and everyone in other states and other countries as well. This generation expects us to be fully engaged in instant communication. One of the challenges for us is to be able to sort through the accurate and the inaccurate. Information is often shared in tweets and texts, and unfortunately, what is shared may not always accurate. But if enough people retweet it, then it becomes an issue for whatever organization or individual it affects.
Another variable which has dramatically affected a number of campuses across America, is the matter of activism. We are growing, educating, and graduating a generation around which business, communities, and communication will be built—are indeed currently being built. But, the generation we are now educating is quick to draw conclusions and be active in expressing their thoughts and views, and in many cases, expressing demands with complexities that will challenge those who must address them. Examples are many. Cable TV talk shows put civility aside to pursue political ends. Social media turns a single phrase or gesture into a viral phenomenon. Truly significant and global issues of racism, entitlements, income and social inequality, and climate change prompt tense political behavior, or unfortunately, often get less public attention than a celebrity’s fashion choices.
So, my challenge to all of us who are charged with this educational process is to help this generation of students understand civility and prudence while expressing their anger and frustration. Good judgment and the Golden Rule still need to be part of how we raise a generation of civically engaged young minds. In my opinion, the price of transparency is often paid by the ethics of discretion. First Amendment Rights still need to be tempered with civility, respect, and judgment. One’s haste to exercise freedom of speech should not supersede one’s responsibility to exercise freedom of thought.
Finally, it is incumbent upon all of us to understand the many ways in which higher education is under siege across America; from the federal government on Title IX compliance, from the courts on sexual assault cases, from society in general on the overemphasis of athletics, from the very real financial challenges of student loan debt, and from the whims of a hoard of writers who believe they are the end all to solving problems in higher education—problems which each of us are employed to address. We must be prepared to deal with the ever-changing dynamics of complete inclusion, performance funding, Title IX integrity, the challenges of internationalization, the short fuse of Millennial expectations, the connectivity and prudent use of social media, affordability, and on and on and on. Our world is changing and higher education must change and adapt to embrace these things which affect everyone one of us every day, and will affect us to even larger degrees in the future.
So let me turn my attention now to the next ten months. In spite of the many challenges we face, I encourage all of us to keep an open mind and a determined spirit. Remain flexible and be all in for WKU. I say that because I will be all in for WKU for the next 10 months. As I indicated in my campus message last January when I announced my retirement, I intend to quicken my pace and double up my efforts to achieve as much as possible before turning the reigns over to my successor on July 1, 2017. I commit to you, to each one of you, my total effort until then. I have every intention of presenting my successor with an institution which has a stable enrollment, high academic quality, a rebuilt campus, good positioning in a state performance funding model, and a campus ready to launch its next capital campaign. The Board of Regents and I have a mutually productive arrangement. The Board is entirely focused on its search for WKU’s 10th president, while sustaining its responsibility to approve policy and general strategic direction. The Board has, however, charged me to proceed full steam ahead in completing as much as possible of the transformation it challenged me to pursue in 1997.
I am very much aware that opportunity is not a lengthy visitor. Because, however, of my time on the job, my knowledge of our partnerships with the private sector, my engagement in the economic development of our community, my deep-seeded political relationships in Frankfort and Washington, and the relationships that we have established with many of our major donors, I am uniquely positioned to get some things done in the coming year. It will take my successor some time to develop those same relationships, and by the time those relationships are built, there will be a whole new set of challenges to overcome.
So, the things that will occupy most of my attention these next 10 months include the aforementioned performance funding model for higher education in Kentucky, and any other political or financial dynamics that might surface and must be addressed promptly. More close to home, we will be fully engaged in bringing a University of Kentucky Medical School to Bowling Green, and fully develop a growing partnership with The Medical Center of Bowling Green that will pave the way for the first class of students to enter a new four-year UK Medical School in August of 2018. This partnership with WKU, University of Kentucky, and The Medical Center will meet a critical need for a physician shortage across our region of Kentucky. It will engage our faculty in the life sciences and healthcare in the first and second year courses, and will create a path for our Pre-Med majors to enroll in and complete medical school in our Med Center/WKU Health Sciences Complex on The Medical Center campus. We’ve already begun to have discussions about early acceptance for our Pre-Med students and Gatton Academy graduates into medical school here in Bowling Green. This partnership also paves the way to strengthen our partnership with The Medical Center in the months and years ahead.
I intend to devote some attention this year to helping us more effectively address our student persistence and retention problems. How can we improve undergraduate advising? What can we learn from other institutions which have improved their retention rates? What can we learn from our own Pam Petty and Daniel Super and their experience with their Literacy 199 course, and how can we institutionalize their success, not just in Reading, but in English and Math as well. How can we fully wean ourselves from non-credit bearing courses? Retaining a higher percentage of students is the right thing to do. It also has two huge financial incentives: better performance in an outcomes based performance funding model, and more revenue in our campus budget. Remember, one percent increase in retention—from 73 percent to 74 percent—means $3 million in additional revenue. There are plenty of altruistic and pragmatic incentives to help our students.
Another major initiative which is under way and will need to be well-defined and initiated in the next few months relates to the next iteration of residence life improvements across our campus. Our Student Life Foundation was created and began renovating our residence halls over 16 years ago. It has been nearly 10 years since most of those renovations were completed, and, while our campus housing went from being a recruiting disadvantage to a recruiting advantage, we have now fallen behind. Most campuses in Kentucky have taken pages out of our book, but instead of doing it themselves, they have gone to the private sector to create partnerships with for-profit developers to rebuild their campus housing. The WKU Student Life Foundation, however, is the one big advantage which we continue to have in this regard. Most campuses are generating significant for-profit sums for their private sector partners, whereas we are making our improvements through our own not-for-profit Student Life Foundation, where every penny spent by our students on bed rentals is put right back into the properties they enjoy. This has allowed us to keep our residence hall price points below the norm in Kentucky, and will allow us to embark on a $120 million residence hall program upgrade over the next 10 years without losing that competitive advantage with residence hall rates. The 10-year goal is to replace at least three residence halls with three new buildings. The goal is not to increase the volume of on-campus beds, but rather to improve the quality and relevancy of the 5,000 beds that we will offer our students.
Remember that Generation Z thing. Today’s students have different expectations than students who came to us 10, 15, or 20 years ago. This work will begin with a new residence hall to be built starting this fall which will serve as swing space for when Bemis-Lawrence and Barnes-Campbell halls are razed and replaced with two new 400 bed residence halls on that footprint. In the meantime, we will create an honors residence hall with an improved Southwest Hall and a predominantly international facility with an improved Northeast Hall. Other improvements include expanding Bates-Runner Hall and replacing either Hugh Poland Hall or Rodes-Harlin Hall depending on how the first few years of the upgrade unfold.
Housing, like a lot of our campus variables, must continually be changing and adapting or we will quickly become outdated and, worse yet, undesirable in the minds of a Generation Z, which has high expectations. The good news is that because of our Student Life Foundation and its sound financial position, these residence hall improvements will have no bearing on the Education and General Budget of the University, and our students will continue to enjoy residence hall rates at or below the norm in higher education in Kentucky.
The other major variable that is already under way is the bidding of a new dining contract for WKU, which will go into effect on July 1 next summer. Because our current dining contract with Aramark ends in 10 months, we’ve already begun the bid process leading to a new long-term dining contract. The campus RFP committee has been working for these last few months, and issued its dining RFP five weeks ago. We are pleased with the competition we expect in the bidding process. Proposals are due October 7. A contract will be finalized in January, giving the successful bidder the opportunity to gear up for the beginning of the new contract on July 1. At the core of this RFP process is a commitment to an enhanced dining program that contributes to student recruitment and retention through improved services and facilities. Much of the Garrett Conference Center includes food services. While DELO and Forensics will continue to occupy significant space in Garrett, most of the building will be dedicated to exciting new food service venues. In order for this to occur, however, a complete renovation of that building, and it’s 1950s electrical and plumbing systems need to be replaced. Heating and cooling is failing. As I said, 1950s vintage. We are expecting, therefore, that the dining contract bidders will include in their proposals, funds to renovate this building, which has been done recently with similar bid procedures on other university campuses across Kentucky.
It is important for the campus to understand that our auxiliary operations follow a sound higher education business model. Auxiliary revenues—housing, dining, bookstore, etc.—cannot be used for Education and General expenses. Money generated by food service is put back into improvements for food service; revenue generated by housing is put back into housing improvements. No dining contractor will provide money to do things that do not directly enhance the dining operations and the facilities from which they generate their profits.
The bottom line for me is that I will continue to do my job, including working closely with Provost Lee, our Chief Academic Officer, to ensure that our academic programs are sufficiently administered; and our enrollment and retention challenges are met; with Vice President Mead to ensure that our financial systems are sound, stable, and fully audited to ensure integrity and compliance with all accounting standards; with Chief Facilities Bryan Russell to ensure that our buildings and grounds are well maintained; with Vice President Johnson to ensure that our campus I.T. networks are relevant and efficient; with Vice President Archambault to raise as much private money as possible and engage our alumni in the presidential transition; with Vice President Kuster to ensure that our student life programs and services are responsive to what our students need and expect and that they are vibrant and multi-dimensional; with Vice President Taylor to ensure that our political, our marketing, our media, and our social media operations are timely and effective; with General Counsel Wilkins to ensure that we are making sound decisions which do not land us in court, but when we do, that we are positioned well to win whatever cases which might confront us; with Athletics Director Stewart to ensure that our athletic programs are fully compliant with NCAA regulations and that the academic performance of our student athletes continues to exceed our all-student averages, and to ensure that our athletic programs are nationally competitive and well-respected by our Conference USA peers.
So, while I began this convocation by saluting the last 19 years, it is time to look forward. No need to look back anymore; we are not going that way. Before I finish this morning, however, there are some things I would like to say, which are important to me and hopefully to each of you as well. I will start with our nation’s motto—E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One. I have said as often as possible in recent years that everyone on this campus is as important as anyone on this campus. Everyone is equal and everyone must be treated with equal and high respect. As I have reminded our graduates at the last few Commencement ceremonies, I hope we always follow the Golden Rule. As I have said at the last few Convocations, please remember that nice matters. Let’s tune out some of the political and social chatter that surrounds us. Let’s continue to do the right things for our campus. Respect people. Respect privacy. Respect dignity. Respect each other. Embrace the resolve to stand against those external forces of discrimination and intolerance. Let’s be strengthened by our inherent diversity. Each of us. All of us. These are the values with which I have tried to serve as WKU’s president these last 19 years. I have tried to serve as everyone’s president.
I was proud last spring to have been inducted into our 25-year Club. And while I will never catch Mary Ellen Miller and her 52 years of service, I am proud to have served this University, beginning as an Admissions Officer in 1974 and an Associate Alumni Director before leaving on an 18-year road trip in 1981. Coming back to this University as President in 1997 was the proudest moment Julie and I could ever have imagined in our professional lives. We were proud that both of our sons, Patrick and Matthew, and one of our daughters-in-law, Brooke, spent their undergraduate careers on this campus, and distinguished themselves in their own right with their own WKU legacies. And, that Matthew and Sandra were married in our Chandler Memorial Chapel two years ago.
I want to thank those with whom we have worked most closely these last 19 years. I have invited here this morning each Board Chair with whom I have been fortunate to serve. So I start with Peggy Loafman who chaired the Board of Regents which hired me in 1997. Then it was Cornelius Martin, who will always hold a most special place in my heart following his tragic death 10 years ago. Then Kristen Bale. Then Lois Gray who is now suffering from an aneurysm which has confined her to her quarters in Elizabethtown. And Earl Fischer. And Jim Meyer. And David Porter. And Fred Higdon, our current Board Chair. I think it is important to note that Earl Fischer, Cornelius Martin, Lois Gray, and Freddie Higdon are the only four members in our history, the history of our governing board who served maximum terms as a chair, and then came back to later be re-elected again as chair by their peers on the Board. I will forever be grateful to all eight of these dedicated leaders with whom I was fortunate to partner these last 19 years. Please stand up and let us thank you for your service to WKU. And, will our current Board of Regents please stand and be recognized. Freddie Higdon, David Porter, Cynthia Harris, Gil Johnson, Phillip Bale, John Ridley, Barbara Burch, Tamela Smith, Jay Todd Richey, and our two newest members—Julie Hinson and Jason McKinney.
I also want to ask the current members of our Administrative Council to please stand. Administrative Council, stand. I want to thank each individual who has served in an executive leadership position during my tenure as president. Thank you for your dedication and your loyalty to WKU; for your intellect and your talent that you dedicated to this university; for the tough decisions you had to make along the way; for your humor; your energy; your spirit; and most importantly, for your teamwork with your colleagues across the divisions of the University. Each of you has earned my respect and appreciation for what you have brought to our beloved University. Thank you.
And to Julie. I noted in my Inauguration address on May 8, 1998, that it is for Julie and our sons that I live each waking moment. Whatever I have done for my University, I have done also to provide a good living and pride for our family; which, by the way has included five incredible dogs which have brought richness to the President’s home these last 19 years. I can assure you that when acknowledging those who have had to roll with the flow of a crazy schedule in the President’s home, if I had not have mentioned those dogs, Julie would let me know about it when I get home tonight. There was Maggie and there is Tsavo, named after an African game reserve we visited with Biology students on a study abroad trip back in 2006, and of course Topper and Spirit and Diddle.
She would never say it, but I will. For 19 years, Julie has been one of our most dedicated and gracious members of our campus community. She has worked without compensation and with no expectation of acknowledgment. Never can I recall a time when an event, either at the President’s home or anywhere on campus when she was involved, that was not done well and where our guests were not made to feel welcomed and embraced. She never liked that term First Lady because that is not how she thinks, but I can promise you she is a lady who knows nothing but class, dignity, and graciousness. She has always viewed her first responsibility to be a good mother to our two sons, and now to be the a grandmother, the best ever, to our two grandchildren, and oh yes, did I mention the dogs? So, her job as “First Lady” was always secondary, but that is the thing about Julie. No one would ever suspect that it was not anything but her highest priority. Jules, you have been the subject of some weak attempts at humor in these Convocation speeches over the years, but no jokes this time. Rather, a heartfelt Thank You, and I Love You!
This job has always been only about WKU for both of us. This was never a job for me with an eye for the next job. This is the only institution I have truly and deeply cared about throughout my profession. I have been fortunate to work for two other universities, and while I loved those institutions, the passion that has characterized these last 19 years makes my commitment to any other institution pale in comparison. This is where Julie and I wanted to be, where our passions have been and will always be. Passions as a couple of young lovers on this campus, married our senior year, and where we watched our sons become successful young men. And, yes, we were very proud to watch both sons take the field in a WKU Baseball uniform. This is where their wives and their grandchildren now call their campus home.
We have never allowed anyone to question our loyalties. While some of you may not have agreed with some of the decisions which had to be made along the way, I doubt that there is any among you who has questioned that loyalty, that passion, that absolute WKU spirit where every ounce of our intellectual and physical energy has been spent, and there is still plenty left—I can assure you—for these next 10 months. I can assure you that there is no other institution in the world that can hold a candle to WKU. And even though there may have been some disagreements, we have, for the most part, managed to keep issues from becoming controversies and controversies from becoming crises. When viewed in total, I hope that everyone in our University family can find something in these last 19 years in which you can take pride.
So, join me for this last chapter over these next 10 months. When Commencement occurs next May, the thing I will take the most pride in is the fact that more than 50 percent of the living alumni of this University will have graduated during my presidency. That’s some 60,000 degrees awarded since 1997. It is those students and what they have gone on to become that we are most proud of and to whom we have committed ourselves. Thank you, each and every one of you, for the important roles you have played in serving them, and helping to make their dreams come true.
So I’ll close with a few thoughts about staying power. The future. WKU has been blessed for 110 years. Blessed with fortuitous geography and a defining terrain. Defines our personality. Blessed with a unique spirit nurtured by leaders who cared, and students and alumni who embraced our own special spirit. Blessed by an independent attitude—an attitude that screams we would rather be emulated than to emulate others. Because of 110 years of dedicated service by amazing faculty and staff, we are blessed with strong academic quality, students who want a better future for themselves than perhaps their parents experienced, a beautiful campus that offers the best quality of life for our students that can be found on any campus anywhere.
Because we are so blessed, we are well prepared for whatever the short- or long-term future brings. I have no doubt that our next 110 years will be stronger, better, more exciting, more energetic, and more inspiring than the incredibly rich and unique history we celebrated just 10 years ago during our Centennial.
We will get a lot done over the next 10 months, but I ask you to join me in doing all we can to turn over to our tenth president a campus and a team of faculty and staff that is confident, sound, cohesive, and ready to boldly move forward.
There is nothing in which I will take more pride than knowing, first, that I did the best I could; but, more importantly, that I will retire from a great and a unique, and a proud University; that does, indeed, make dreams come true for thousands of students each year; and provides a great place to work and study and play for everyone in the WKU family.
I tried the best I could. I came in with big plans, and most of them were realized. I tried to follow the wisdom of that great British Philosopher Mick Jagger who taught us that “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try hard enough, you just might get what you need!”
I am not objective when it comes to fighting for and defending our University. But, I am objective in knowing that our students, and I hope each of you—love this place. I see it in their eyes and their smiles, our students. That won’t change no matter who sits in the President’s Office. That’s what I challenge each of you to sustain. Strength. Love. Respect. Honor. Spirit. That’s our WKU. That’s your WKU. That’s the WKU of 120,000 living alumni.
For all of the things we’ve done together, I thank you. Thank you for progress, for friendships, for spirit. Thanks to each of you, and thanks to more than 100,000 students who came our way over the last 19 years, and thanks to the 60,000 alumni we created over that period of time, and thanks to the thousands who graduated before 1997, for all their tangible and intangible support. Thank you, Hilltopper family.
I challenged you 19 years ago to help build a University for the ages. I actually believe we’ve done that. We are here to stay, and we will take a back seat to no institution in this or any other state. You will make sure of that, just like you held me accountable, you will make sure our next president, and the next 10 presidents, fight for and build the public and private coalitions to take what we have built, and make it better than anything I or my eight predecessors could possibly have imagined.
WKU. Strength. Love. Respect. Honor. Spirit. Forever. Thank You.