Northern Kentucky University seeks enhanced learning on and off campus in its new five-year plan

Calls for greater role in community development

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Northern Kentucky University released its grand vision for the next five years and its goals are as much about what is happening off campus as what it wants to achieve on campus.

The strategic plan, in the works since January, envisions greater regional influence, a breakdown of barriers between its departments and new outreach toward non-traditional students – all in an environment of slower enrollment growth.

The plan, which succeeds the two-year Points of Focus plan developed by former President Jim Votruba, also includes a new, concise mission statement and five broad goals:

• Student success
• Talent development
• Academic innovation
• Community engagement
• Institutional excellence

Created by an 11-member committee, the plan remains a work in progress. NKU will hold public forums, beginning at 5 p.m. Sept. 5 in Room 506 of the Lucas Administration Center. Officials are taking online comments at  and meeting with faculty and student organizations. The Board of Regents will vote on a final version of the plan during its November meeting.

In an exclusive interview with WCPO Digital, President Geoffrey Mearns said the plan is drawing on NKU's  strengths to create a more vibrant university.

"We are increasingly attracting outstanding students that recognize NKU as their first choice," Mearns said. "What excites me is that we have talented faculty to deliver on that expectation.”

A dip in the population of prospective students in coming years means that NKU’s robust growth over the last 20 years will level off. At the same time, state and federal funding has slowed, meaning that the university will need to look at how it uses its existing dollars rather than expect it will get more.

But Mearns said he will ask the new vice president of advancement to study if the university should begin a campaign to raise money to achieve the goals laid out in the plan. That new vice president, Eric C. Gentry, will join the university in October.

NKU remains an educator for both recent high school graduates seeking a four-year, on-campus experience and for non-traditional students who may uses branch campuses and online classes. The strategic plan identifies goals to improve on both fronts.

Mearns said one of the ways NKU plans to expand on-campus learning is to intentionally cluster students within dormitories who are studying in the same fields, expanding the tradition of honors dorms to non-honors students.

To meet the needs of post-traditional students, the university will expand online class offerings and weekend and night classes to accommodate working students. Its Student Success Center will cater to non-traditional students with expanded hours.

One goal is to “develop and expand trans-disciplinary programs.” That would be done, for example, working with the region's employers to determine market needs and then involve educational programs across various academic disciplines to meet those needs.  Academic departments would be rewarded for collaboration.

“That can be a touchy subject,” said Katie Cox, a senior business management major from Cincinnati and the planning committee’s student representative. “Trans-disciplinary programming is not something a lot of universities are doing. We really want to incorporate the idea of inclusion across campus, and I think that breaking down the silos of departments is part of that effort.”

Mearns said NKU has a leg up on older universities because of its youth and the progress it has made reaching across departments through its College of Informatics.

“As a relatively young institution, NKU has been characterized as innovative and progressive,” he said. “We’re continuing to break down those kinds of barriers. I’m confident that we can continue to develop a culture to make this happen.”

The strategic plan also outlines efforts to enhance its work with area elementary, junior and high schools. Notably, NKU wants to help prepare kids as young as pre-schoolers for learning, work on college readiness programs and increase the array of  dual-credit courses.

In addition, the plan calls for graduating "highly prepared teachers and support the continued professional learning of teachers and school administrators.”

NKU also aims to to extend its focus beyond education to include the “development and wellbeing of our people” and for its graduates to contribute to “regional progress and economic growth.”

Its multi-faceted plan to promote regional growth and vitality includes a new public engagement council, more sponsored research and projects, and the creation of entrepreneurial programs that generate new businesses and high-paying jobs.

The plan also calls for developing a comprehensive marketing and communications plan.

Cox said the plan has been a true collaboration. “We worked extremely hard to continue using people’s opinions and stories, and I think we’ve done a great job of maintaining what everybody loves about NKU,” referring to small class sizes

and personal interaction among students and teachers.

Mearns said metrics will be established to measure the plan's success, with targets established by early 2014.

“We need to be judged as an institution not just by the quality of ideas within the strategic plan but on our execution of those ideas,” Mearns said.

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