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Q&A with new president of Northern Kentucky University: Ashish Vaidya looks to chart path forward

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By Rodney Wilson
Editor, NKU Magazine
Northern Kentucky University has named Dr. Ashish Vaidya the school’s sixth president.

On the day of the announcement and after introducing himself to the university, talking to reporters about everything from administrative objectives to his hobbies (dining out, playing tennis and enjoying his family’s pet Chihuahua mix, Coco), and meeting with community representatives and student leaders, Dr. Vaidya settled into the presidential conference room for a chat with NKU Magazine.

Q: What made you choose public higher education for your career path?

Ashish Vaidya: I think that what public higher education does, from an access and opportunity perspective, is not exemplified anywhere in the world better than the United States. We have a rich history in this country with respect to public higher education which is thought of as the launching pad — from here you can go anywhere. There are two enduring principles in this country — opportunity and intergenerational mobility — both of which are, frankly, at risk right now because we’re not doing enough. And to me that’s exemplified by a K-12 free public education system around the country, and further exemplified by two-year

Ashish Vaidya

community colleges and four-year state universities. There is a pathway for an individual, in a very affordable manner, to eventually move into the middle class and beyond. And future generations will continue to benefit from that, because we know that your chances of completing college and moving beyond are significantly improved if your parents have a college education. That sets that whole thing in motion.
And I enjoyed teaching. I loved the joy of being able to teach students about different issues within the field of economics. I think the importance of how a college degree changes the trajectory of an individual dawned probably a little bit later in my career. [In the beginning] I was driven by a passion for the subject and being able to have the flexibility of an academic life.

Q: Do you miss teaching?

AV: Oh, there’s no question. It’s been now more than just a few years since I have been in the classroom. When I was dean, I was still teaching and I felt it was important. What I enjoyed, and maybe — hopefully — will someday enjoy again, is the notion of meeting different students. They challenge one to think differently about things. It’s a learning process on both sides. The administrative part is so time-consuming, though, and after a couple of years as the dean I realized I was short-changing my students. But I do miss it. I miss the engagement of the classroom and being somewhat engaged in the discipline as well, because that was such a big part of my identity. People asked me, “Well, what do you do?” And I used to say I’m a professor, I’m a teacher — it was easy, it just rolls off the tongue, and I have a harder time telling people what I do now!

Q: And can we assume you’ll bring this desire to connect with students and the campus at large to your presidency?

AV: That’s who I am. That’s part of my core belief and DNA. I feel it’s a very important part of the work, being able to do that. And this last year-and-a-half has reinforced that in me even more.

Q: Can you talk to us about the professional, as well as personal, challenges of taking over as interim president following the tragic death of St. Cloud State University President Earl H. Potter III?

AV: He hired me as the provost just a year before the accident. There was a national search process that culminated in my being selected and his being very enthusiastic about my joining the team at St. Cloud State. So I started only in July 2015, and the tragedy occurred in June 2016 —it was just a few weeks short of my one-year anniversary.

In some ways, I was still new to the campus, and the campus was still new to me. And the chancellor wanted to make it a two-year appointment, given the way the tragedy occurred—he knew it would take some time to think and work through it. Otherwise they would have to start a search right away, and we agreed that would be too much. We needed to continue the important work of keeping things moving.

One hopes an educational institution would never have to go through that kind of a situation, but it did teach me a lot of things about how a campus and a community can come together in the face of adversity. It shows resilience, it shows discipline and it shows a commitment that goes beyond individuals. I was very careful to make sure we paid appropriate tribute, respect and recognition to the former president of nine years — that’s a long time — and to allow the campus and the community to heal, as well as his family, who still remain in the community. But all the while, the work of the institution had to keep going. That was the challenge, and it was a collective effort. Everybody really rolled up their sleeves and did a little bit more.

Q: What about NKU attracted your attention?

AV: I’m seeing a young institution that has done some tremendous work in the region and the community, that serves its students well, that takes that commitment to heart and is hungry for more. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to not just maintain the status quo, and there’s a desire to think about the next level of excellence for NKU. There’s a really great, strong foundation, as NKU progresses to that next level of excellence.

That’s part of what I have yet to discover. What does it mean for NKU and the community to be at the next level? Is it simply rankings? We’ll see how important that is and what’s the motivation for that. There are a whole new set of rankings now that are being developed and have more to do with the difference you make in the lives of students rather than the size of your endowment or how selective you are as an institution — which is good, because I don’t think those things are in line with what NKU wants to do either. So if you’re making a social and economic impact, then maybe that’s what we highlight. Institutions that produce students who spend a large number of hours volunteering, who give back to the community —things like that make a huge difference. How many universities are making a difference in the lives of first-generation students or students of color?

How are we doing on these things?

And I want to go back to my regional and economic development focus to say, okay, we’re tying ourselves to this community, this region and the Commonwealth of Kentucky — I’m going to have to learn to say “Commonwealth,” by the way — so what are those measurable outcomes that will allow us to know, in five or ten years, that we’ve made a difference? That doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We have the Health Innovation Center that’s coming on board — what are the outcomes we expect to see? How will we know in five years that it’s been successful or that it’s on a path to success? What are those metrics that we will look at? Beyond just saying we have a nice-looking building on campus, because that’s not enough.

So all these factors: the positioning of the institution, the possibilities that exist to capitalize on that and the fact that the institution can be nimble to address these things. And also the challenges — the challenges are very real, and they happen to be there for lots of other places. For example, one of the challenges may be, are we trying to do too much? Are we trying to be all things to all people? Does it just seem like we have so many initiatives going that we don’t have a focus? So I’m hopeful that the strategic planning process will lead to a new plan will allow us to address challenges and opportunities. And I say that because this was my most recent experience at St. Cloud State. When I first arrived there as provost, I asked people, in general, what do you like about the strategic plan. Most people couldn’t tell me what it was. There were five goals and six sub-goals, 23 other things — it was just this document that nobody paid attention to. I believe that [a clear vision] should be the driving force for the framework of the institution.

I’m hopeful for that process, which I know we need to do here. And I’d like to see engagement across the campus, in the community and certainly with alumni. That’s a standard question they asked the candidates: What’s your vision for NKU? Well, I would be foolish to say I knew what the vision for NKU is yet. I have some ideas about things we could be doing and should be thinking about, but a vision is borne out of collective thinking.
Q: You had very specific priorities for St. Cloud State. Will you bring those priorities to this university as well?

AV: Well, no, not necessarily. That was a very specific plan that was borne out of what St. Cloud State, I believe, needed at the time. And it was borne out of very wonderful, inclusive conversations across the campus. If there was one slight difference that I would have liked to see, and which I would like to do here, is engagement of external constituents in the conversation. We did some of that, but not as much as I would have liked. But I think the plan is still very robust and makes a lot of sense for the institution. It’s tied very much to the engagement theme that the university has adopted—being the 21st-century engaged university for Minnesota.

Q: You’re an economist, and we’re in the middle of a campaign for higher-ed reform. Do you believe you’ll contribute something new that we haven’t been able to bring to Frankfort before?

AV: I hope so. I think if there’s a receptiveness and a way to think about things differently, I’d be more than happy. I think there’s an obligation, regardless of my disciplinary background (which I do think is a slight benefit), to provide some clarity around the expectation of state support for higher education. When I started in this business, 70 percent of the funding came from the state, 10 or 15 percent came from tuition and the rest from auxiliary services, grants etc.. Well, I don’t think there’s a single state in this country that has anything even remotely close to that now. You’d be in great shape if you said you had 40 or 45 percent state support, the balance is tuition and other forms of revenue. So I think there’s an opportunity to rethink higher-ed reform, but in a way that allows our state legislatures to think through investing in higher ed. And we have an obligation to demonstrate how investing in higher ed is the best form of raising income levels. It’s an investment, and it will pay off with a return.

What we have to do internally is ensure that investment is as low-risk as possible: making sure students are retained, complete their education and keep moving forward. Because otherwise, think about it — it’s a time commitment, it’s a resource commitment of $40,000 or $50,000 over 4 years, and if you add room and board it could be even more. That’s a big investment, and people want to know if there’s a payoff. The answer needs to be an unambiguous “yes.”

Q: You’ll need to gather some metrics to support performance-based funding too.

AV: Absolutely, and in fact the national literature on the effectiveness of performance-based funding is uneven at best. So I think there’s an opportunity to educate ourselves and others about how we could do something that’s very helpful.
NKU: And it’s an opportunity for you to engage with the study of economics again.

AV: Yes, absolutely!

Q: So you’re coming to a Division I school. Are you excited? Because the Norse are excited.

AV: I am. I consider myself a bit of a sports fan, yes. I enjoy watching many sports. But, at St. Cloud State, I’ve challenged folks to think about sports in a slightly different way. It’s clearly an important aspect of the student experience — student pride, alumni pride — but, in this very tricky global environment that we live in, sports can play a very remarkable role in peace-building as well. So what are some ways we can expand our thinking around our student-athletes and the teams they represent? Every two years with the summer and winter Olympics, we see the spectacle in which countries come together in joyous celebration of the pure, competitive nature of sport. And of course that level of talent is amazing, but it’s also wonderful to watch 200 countries set aside all differences. It’s the best example of what’s great about humankind. Can we advance that kind of thinking as well?

Q: Are you going to miss Minnesota winters?

AV: [laughs] I have to be careful how I answer this, right? I think St. Cloud State would be shocked if I said anything else. They’ve made fun of me ever since I stepped foot on the campus. They will claim that their winters build character, I said I could do with less character if that’s the case. But I will say this: I’ve grown to appreciate how they embrace winter and don’t let it get in the way. To a certain extent, I’ve tried to embrace it too, but they’re out and about with outdoor activities. Of course, when it goes to 20 below, you stay at home and have hot cocoa and whatever else you want to put in there, but that’s a pretty hearty spirit they’ve been able to adopt. But it was a big change from all the years I spent in southern California, obviously.

Q: We were sad to see your wife wasn’t able to make it today. Is Nita excited about moving to Northern Kentucky?

AV: Change is something that’s always a little hard for her. It took her a while to get used to California, after spending her youth in India. But once she’s there, she embraces her surroundings. This goes back to our graduate school days when we had a tiny graduate student housing apartment that she made feel like home. And she certainly enjoys the work and the people — she’s an academic herself.

Q: Is she considering teaching sociology classes here?

AV: I think she misses teaching more than I do, and at some point she may want to consider that for herself, to teach a class or two. But right now the flexibility of being able to visit India and visit her mother, who is by herself —Nita’s an only child, so the burden of taking care of an aging parent falls squarely on her shoulders — is very important to her. 

Q: Tell us about your kids—and feel free to brag about them.

AV: Our two children are our pride and joy. They are truly wonderful. My daughter is one of the most resilient, tenacious, driven, smart and gracious people ever, with a really strong commitment to goals. And my son has matured so wonderfully over the years. He gave us headaches in middle school and high school for sure, but he’s now entering his fourth year in university and exemplifies a lot of the values that I hold dear. To see him become a poised young man who understands the nuances of what’s going on around him — it’s been great to watch. I’m just very proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish, and I think what I’m most proud of is that they understand the privileged backgrounds they’ve been fortunate to have and now feel the need to give back.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?

AV: I really want to be clear that I know every place is different. And I know that one of my strengths is the ability to listen to other points of view and to consider that when charting a path forward. So that’s how I’m going to approach the opportunity of this position as well. People should not hold back. The campus and the community should be willing to have a conversation and talk about things we could be doing together.

Dr. Ashish will become sixth president of Northern Kentucky University on July 1.

See the NKyTribune’s story about the announcement of Dr Ashish’s presidency.

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