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New NKU president Dr. Ashish Vaidya talks about what drew him to the university and his goals

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By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

Dr. Ashish Vaidya was introduced Thursday as the sixth president of Northern Kentucky University.

Dr. Ashish Vaidya waits to speak with the media following his introduction as the sixth president of Northern Kentucky University (photos by Mark Hansel).

Following his introduction, Vaidya, who is currently interim president at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, talked about what attracted him to NKU and what he hopes to accomplish there.

“NKU was always on my radar as an institution of significance, back from the work that was done by the former president Jim Votruba about regional stewardship,” Vaidya said. “It’s something that spoke to me as a co-philosophy of what state colleges and universities should be doing.”

He knew peripherally what NKU wanted to accomplish as an institution, but he did not have an in-depth understanding of its goals.

“Then, the more I learned, this is a young institution, it’s got this entrepreneurial spirit, the mission, its core values, the kinds of things it seems to be doing, were a fit,” Vaidya said. “Its focus is really on what are the regional needs, through the health innovation center and other things. It just spoke to me as being a place that I think I could come in and join the team and be able to serve in this capacity and make a difference.”

While it’s a little early for Vaidya to speak in detail about the challenges facing the university, he said they are not much different than those facing institutions of higher learning nationwide.

“The funding support is always a challenge, the question of cost and affordability is always a challenge,” Vaidya said. “People are questioning what the value proposition is – “what do you do, how do you bring value. I think NKU is really well-positioned to make that argument about why it is such an important part of this ecosystem to change people’s lives and to change the nature and trajectory of this region.”

He believes NKU is poised to have a seat at the table and bring the leadership to help make that happen.

“I’m told there are a very high number of start-ups, which is great in terms of how people can build on that,” Vaidya said. “Plus, we have established companies here, which is wonderful. I think the coming together of business, industry, government and education is really what will drive regions to be prosperous, not just from an economic standpoint, but from a civic and social standpoint as well.”

Dr. Ashish Vaidya (left) with Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Brent Cooper, moments after he was named the sixth president of Northern Kentucky University. Cooper was a member of the selection committee tasked with recommending the next NKU president.

NKU began its search for a new president in February, a few weeks after Geoffrey Mearns announced he would be leaving the position to take on the same role at Ball State University in Indiana.

NKU Board of Regents member Norm Desmarais was chosen to head a search committee and an outside firm was retained to assist in the process.

Board Chair Rich Boehne praised Desmarais for his work and said the search process was exhaustive.

“I come out of the business and corporate world, so when they told me this could take eight or nine months, or even a year, I said, ‘how could that be?’” Boehne said. “We had 19 on our search committee, and if you go back to when Jim Votruba was chosen (in 1997), I believe it was seven, which shows you how things change.”

In fact, the process has changed significantly just since Mearns was chosen for the position in 2012. At that time, finalists for the position were identified publicly and brought to campus for a screening process that included input from faculty, staff and the community.

“You start looking at candidates, knowing you are going to have to make a decision somewhere down the line about whether this was going to be almost a fully confidential search or if it was going to be where multiple candidates walk through campus and spend a couple of days,” Boehne said. ”It became clear very quick that 80 to 90 percent of searches done in higher education today are done confidentially.”

Candidates are not willing to make themselves known publicly, he said, if they are applying for jobs at other universities and that’s a big change from the way it used to be.

”It’s a seller’s market,” he said. “If you said we are going to run a wide-open search, many people would not apply. Most of these candidates have a job they like, they are well thought of, and you are trying to convince them that this is a better opportunity.”

Many, if not most of the candidates, Boehne said, were people the search firm and committee identified and reached out to, to see if they had an interest in the position. In some cases, Boehne even flew to the cities where top-tier candidates were located, in an attempt to sell them on NKU. He said Vaidya was one of those candidates.

“We were very aggressive and we played offense,” Boehne said.

“It’s really about the student experience, it’s not what they learn that day, but what they take away when they complete their education,” Dr. Ashish Vaidya, who was named the sixth president of NKU Thursday

While the search was more confidential than in the past, there were 19 people on the search committee and Vaidya had people that he wanted to talk to , to better understand the job and the region.

That was very important to Vaidya, whose previous experiences in Minnesota and California were at universities that are part of state systems They included a system board, a chancellor and individual campuses with presidents that ran those institutions.

“In Kentucky we have an independent board, of course, they have taken a great deal of pride in the institution, they are very vested in the future success of this institution, which is wonderful to see,” Vaidya said. “They have key knowledge, many of them are alums, so the partnership between the institution and the board is so strong and that makes a big difference.”

He admits, it’s one of the things that attracted him to the position.

“The ability to work with a board and to be able to do some things – higher ed, especially public higher ed – is not known for being nimble and quick to change,” Vaidya said. “I think a place like NKU, with the kind of independence that it has, with a board that understands what needs to happen and that can work and support the president is what I was very pleased to see.”

Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Brent Cooper, who served on the search committee, said the business community is thrilled, and he, personally is also excited about the selection of Vaidya.

“He is going to help us compete not only nationally, but internationally,” Cooper said. “He’s exactly the type of leader that brings energy and enthusiasm and an entrepreneurial spirit to our shining campus in Northern Kentucky. We are truly On the Rise.”

Vaidya said attracting international students is very important and he knows it is an area of growth for NKU.

“I believe from a disciplinary standpoint that we live in an interconnected world,” Vaidya said. “If we have to prepare our students for meaningful careers, which is what we want to do, they must be able to navigate the world. They are not just navigating the small part of this region, or just one state, we are being faced with competing forces from all around the world and they have to be able to understand what that means.”

The way to do that, he says, is to have much more of an international approach to education in the curriculum.

“You do it through mobility – having students come here, but our students go there as well – I really believe in that process,” Vaidya said. “Engagement with the world is something that I have always believed in and I think it’s something that will be able to help, not just our students, or the international students that come here, but the region be able to understand the context of the world as well.”

Vaidya was also attracted to NKU because of its combination of history, which includes distinguished alumni from the prestigious Chase College of Law, and its innovative new programs.

Northern Kentucky University Board of Regents Chair Rich Boehne embraces Dr. Ashish Vaidya, who was named the sixth president of NKU Thursday. Interim president Gerard. St. Amand is at left.

“You sort of look at all of the aspects,” Vaidya said. “You look at the history as much as you can, you look at where the institution is now and then you look at where it is poised to go into the future. You try to summarize all that and you hope that there is a good match between the skill set that you bring, the philosophy and values that you bring.”

He points to the College of Informatics as a great example of how NKU is thinking very carefully and strategically about what the needs are in this region and creating an asset and a source of strength that can match that regional need.

“That’s something that will have to continue in the future – what exactly is needed in the community and in the region to drive the kind of economic growth and social growth that we want to have happen,” Vaidya said. “The Health Innovation Center is another exciting project and it will probably be up and running next year, is what I’m told. Health care and health outcomes is a really big challenge certainly in this state and this region, but all over the country, so those institutions are really thinking a little bit ahead. It’s the kind of forward looking idea that really captures my attention.”

One of the biggest change he sees is the way students will need to be educated in a rapidly changing world.

“The whole process of teaching and learning is very different than it was, certainly when I started off as a faculty member many years ago and it has involved and changed because of what we want to do,” Vaidya said. “We are bringing in the relevance of the real world in the classrooms, there is talk of flip classrooms, which is less lecture and more problem-solving, more project-oriented learning.”

It is a change that Vaidya said doesn’t apply to just the professional schools, but to all disciplines.

“You can make every discipline very much alive by bringing experience into the classroom,” Vaidya said. “In the past, we have had partnerships with schools and museums to create new kinds of courses that would expand the student experience. It’s really about the student experience, it’s not what they learn that day, but what they take away when they complete their education.”

Vaidya will officially take over as NKU president on July 1 of next year.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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