OPINION: WKU needs more events like the DJ Diesel concert

Price Wilborn, Commentary writer

In case you were not aware, let me tell you something awesome: on Oct. 21, Shaquille O’Neal performed as ‘DJ Diesel’ on WKU’s South Lawn before the kickoff between the Hilltoppers and the University of Alabama Birmingham Blazers. He performed for an hour to a crowd that was packed in. It was standing room only.

Before I go any further, I have a confession: I wasn’t at the concert.

I know, I know: that’s a loser move. I had a prior commitment back home or else I would have attended the concert. All my friends went, though, and I’ve heard mixed reviews.

After the concert, OutKick declared that “no matter which college can claim the title year-round, Western Kentucky had the best tailgate of 2022. There is simply nothing that can top a concert from Shaquille O’Neal.”

Of DJ Diesel’s time sharing the stage, OutKick wrote, “WKU’s mascot Big Red joined the four-time NBA Finals champion on stage for what quickly became college football’s most unique pairing of all-time.”

It sounds like it was awesome. It’s past time that WKU began to bring events like these to campus.

A Nov. 2021 Herald piece showed that WKU is one of Kentucky’s three regional universities that has been facing downward enrollment trends in recent years. Eastern Kentucky University is also facing downward trends, while Northern Kentucky University is trending up.

We are still waiting to see the Fall 2022 enrollment report, but it is important to realize that while WKU is not at a critically small number of students, something will need to be changed before that happens.

The university is making good efforts to increase enrollment and retention, however. Opportunities like Head for the Hill and DiscoverWKU do an awesome job at getting the prospective students the opportunity to see what WKU has to offer.

The university is also working towards realizing its Campus Master Plan, titled “Climbing to Greater Heights.” The plan, which began in 2021 and is expected to be completed in 2031, has already shown results. The First Year Village at the bottom of the Hill and the Commons at Helm Library at the top were two key parts of the plan. The plan envisions enhancements to existing buildings like Cherry Hall, a new business college to be located where Tate Page Hall was formerly located and the enhancements to improve green space and pedestrian traffic flow in areas like where Garrett Conference Center was located at the top of the Hill.

WKU invests a lot of money in its athletics programs as well. The 2022-2023 university budget allocates just over $23.5 million for athletics. This is two million dollars less than the allocated budget for the Potter College of Arts and Letters and greater than the College of Health and Human Services, the Gordon Ford College of Business and the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences. Of the five academic colleges that make up WKU, only the Ogden College of Science and Engineering and PCAL have budget allocations greater than the athletics program.

Recruiting top-tier athletes and creating atmospheres for the WKU community are important in increasing enrollment at the university. There must be more of an emphasis on the university as a whole, however. Concerts and events like the DJ Diesel concert can play a key part in this.

WKU used to be a place where people from all over would come to speak or play music. Politicians would come speak at WKU because they could gather news attention from stations out of Louisville, Nashville, Lexington and other large cities around the area. Musicians and comedians like KISS, Charlie Daniels and Nancy Cartwright have performed in Van Meter Hall. Not to mention Cage the Elephant performed on the South Lawn in 2018.

The university could take a page from EKU and invite high-profile celebrities and musicians to come perform on campus. In 2022 alone, EKU has had famous names like Pete Davidson and Waka Flocka Flame on campus to perform, among others.

If WKU wishes to compete with the state’s regional universities like NKU and EKU as well as the large state schools that are the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, celebrity appearances and events could be just what the school needs.

At times, it seems like the University is trying to play catch-up. The Campus Master Plan and the coming improvements in athletics like the coming indoor complex for Hilltopper soccer and softball are great starts, but the university needs to do more. It needs to further its work to create experiences for the student body as a whole.

Individual departments do an awesome job at getting speakers for their students. The history department, for example, just recently hosted Dr. Julio Capó Jr. to speak to hold a talk titled “A Queer History of Latinx Challenges to U.S. Immigration Policy.” The Department of Political Science recently hosted the Kentucky Court of Appeals to hear oral arguments and speak to a group of students.

Individual colleges and departments are great at attracting speakers, but getting high-profile names to hold events for the student body as a whole is something that seems to have been lacking in recent years. Of course, this is in no small part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are now on the other side of the pandemic and back to normal. 

It is time for the university to not just get back to its normal from before the pandemic, but to exceed it. It is making great progress, but let’s hope even more is made. More speakers, musicians and guests can be a large part of this.

Let’s hope that DJ Diesel wasn’t just a one-off performance but the start of a new chapter in WKU’s efforts to attract students, keep students and grow its profile to prospective students, current students, alumni and every member of the WKU community.

I love this university and I have high hopes for what it can achieve. I am excited to see if it is capable of, as the Campus Master Plan title suggests, climbing to greater heights.

Commentary writer Price Wilborn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @pricewilborn.