A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

New NKU President Vaidya looks forward to the return of students, embraces challenges ahead

Second of two-parts

By Mark Hansel
NKYTribune managing editor

Northern Kentucky University’s sixth president, Dr. Ashish Vaidya, officially kicked off his presidency July 2.

Northern Kentucky University’s sixth president, Dr. Ashish Vaidya (file photo)

Prior to serving as St. Cloud State’s interim president, Dr. Vaidya served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at St. Cloud State from 2015 to 2016. Previously, he served California State University, Los Angeles, from 2010 to 2014 as provost and vice president for academic affairs. He also served California State University Channel Islands as dean of the faculty from 2005 to 2010.

NKU announced President Vaidya as the next leader of the university in November 2017. He completed his term as interim president of St. Cloud State University in June.

In a wide-ranging, two-part  interview with the NKyTribune, Dr. Vaidya discusses the transition to his new role, his initial impressions of NKU, some of the challenges facing higher education and his vision for the university.

Increased focus on NKU drawing a broader range of students

Northern Kentucky University is seen by many as an affordable higher education option for students from the metropolitan area that want to remain close to home. In recent years, however, there has been an increased emphasis on attracting students from throughout the country and around the world.

Vaidya said initially, the premise was largely enrollment driven and that made a lot of sense.

“Enrollments started to decline, especially in the Midwest, upper Midwest, and parts of the country where you are seeing declining numbers of traditional high school students,” Vaidya said. “They’ve (universities) gone to saying maybe we can increase enrollment ranks and revenue by bringing students from other states, other countries, and so on. While that is certainly one of the outcomes that people are looking for, I would add and submit that building a diverse student body is equally important.”

Vaidya at a welcome breakfast in his first days on campus. Photo credit: Scott Beseler, NKU University Photographer.

That is what drove St. Cloud State, Vaidya said, to begin embracing the philosophy more than 30 years ago.

“We are talking about a university in the middle of Minnesota, with its harsh climate, yet 10 percent of its student body has become international over time,” Vaidya said. “We are living in a global, connected world and events that are happening all over the world affect us. We should be engaged by virtue of the fact that there are common problems and issues that transcend borders, because we are doing business in those markets, for whatever reason. The world has become a very small place.”

He pointed to the recent cave rescue of a Thai soccer team that had people from around the world riveted, as an example.

“Twenty years ago, that would not have seen the light of day, but we were all pulling for them, so we have that connection now and in fact, even deeper connections,” Vaidya said. “So how do we best prepare our students for that world? A part of that is to bring in prospectives, bring in differences, bring in people from other parts of the world, to study alongside our students.”

NKU has a partnership with three universities, two in Europe, one in Ecuador that allows students to come to the campus for research in the summer, working side-by-side with local students and faculty. Recently they completed a poster presentation on the STEM disciplines.

“What a great learning experience for our students to be working alongside (peers from) France, Romania and Ecuador, on a research project,” Vaidya said. “Our students go there as well and that exchange of ideas and perspectives is very valuable. For the kid coming out of a small-town in Kentucky, to be able to engage with a student from (other countries) helps to improve their educational experience.”

Division I athletics

Some have embraced NKU’s move to Division I athletics, particularly the basketball team’s success in the Horizon League, but there was some opposition when the move was made.

“I don’t think you will ever get a consensus on these kinds of issues, but I believe it’s a good thing,” Vaidya said. “If you are a university on the rise, all aspects of the university have to be on the rise. Athletics is an important component of a university’s identity and brand.”

A high-profile athletics program, Vaidya said, is as much about community engagement and connection to the region as student-athletes.

“We are always going to be a student-athlete focused institution in the sense that it’s not about preparing students for the big leagues, necessarily, although we certainly hope that those who have the talent can go on and do that,” Vaidya said. “I was touring the Regents Hall facility and one of the pitchers for the White Sox (Pendleton County’s Nate Jones) is an alum of ours and is doing well, but they are all students first and foremost.”

Vaidya believes athletics brings the campus and surrounding communities together to support students and to see them compete.

“You talk about building the kind of skills and competencies in our student-athletes, hard work, dedication, teamwork, they get that,” Vaidya said. “They are outperforming the average students in terms of G.P.A., but it’s also because of how engaged they are with their sport. The success of the basketball program, we hope, now extends to the community and the campus coming out to embrace our other sports in big numbers.”

The Health Innovation Center and an ongoing focus on the future

Whether it is the College of Informatics at Griffin Hall or the Health Innovation Center that is nearing completion, Vaidya said he is impressed with NKU’s ability to recognize the needs of its communities.

“Those are great examples of how this institution has been forward-thinking and forward-looking in its approach to meeting regional needs,” Vaidya said. “We have taken our cues from what are the important issues in the region and the Commonwealth.”

Some challenges that have become national issues are especially troubling in Northern Kentucky.

“The health and opioid crises are affecting this country, but there is a specific problem in Kentucky,” Vaidya said. “We have to be at the table to find ways in which we address the solutions to this and partnering with St. Elizabeth and others is a great way to do that. We all have a common interest in seeing our population getting better because this is a huge problem for us in this region and especially the counties we are serving.”

A rendering of the new NKU Health Innovation Center (provided image).

One of the things that Vaidya says drew him to NKU is that it had established itself as a national model in being a great steward of place.

“I’m looking forward to actively being engaged in the region, listening to people and talking to them and my hope is to keep building on that, he said. “The Health Innovation Center is just kicking off and I think there is going to be a great deal of opportunity there to think about what we want to do and make a real impact on health outcomes in this area.”

While these are complex issues, Vaidya said he likes to boil them down to very simple things.

“For a region to be prosperous, you need good health, you need a good education and you need good vibrancy in terms of social, cultural and arts connections,” Vaidya said. “We have the ability to do that for this region, by bringing the groups involved together with these common goals in mind.”

Campus safety

NKU was recently recognized as the third safest campus in the United States by the National Council for Home Safety and Security, but like most campuses, it has had issues.

“You think about student welfare and well-being and their families, they are making this big decision,” Vaidya said. “This is sort of a home away from home, we have adult students, veteran students, first-year students, but they all want an environment in which you can thrive and get to your potential.”

Vaidya acknowledges that concerns with safety, well-being or belonging, get in the way of that.

“You’re not going to be as active and as engaged, and you are certainly not going to be able to learn as much,” Vaidya said. “Whether you are a female student, or a male student, worrying about that takes away from what they should be focused on.”

Safety and security, in and around the campus environment, he said, must be paramount.

“I come from a campus in which we were certainly challenged a couple of times with incidents that got everybody on edge,” Vaidya said. “The campus and community support there was a powerful reminder that you can never take that for granted. You must always reinforce that with our constituents, faculty and staff, that there could be all kinds of issues and to look for signs.”

The return of the students and a new strategic plan

“For a region to be prosperous, you need good health, you need good education and you need good vibrancy in terms of social, cultural and arts connections. We have the ability to do that for this region, by bringing the groups involved together with these common goals in mind,” NKU President Dr. Ashish Vaidya

Vaidya said seeing the campus filled with students is what he has been most looking forward to.

“The level of energy just goes off the charts, when students, faculty, and staff come back,” Vaidya said. “Both welcoming new students and greeting continuing students and making sure their summers were productive and they are ready to get back to work. I think the whole dynamism of a campus just goes sky high, so I am looking forward to doing that.”

Vaidya’s first convocation as president of NKU is coming up on Aug. 13, and he said he is looking forward to that as well.

“I’m getting a little nervous because I haven’t prepared as much as I should have and that’s coming up pretty quickly,” Vaidya said. “I have a feeling it will be down to the wire.”

NKU is also in the process of developing a new strategic planning process.

“The current plan which was from 2013 to 2018, is winding down and the question on everyone’s mind is what’s next for NKU,” Vaidya said. “I’m just trying to absorb and learn and listen, so we can put forward something that makes sense. That’s another area that NKU has done really well over the last several decades, beginning with Jim Votruba’s time, about how to gauge and think about what are the goals and priorities for this campus. How to align those priorities with resources to keep the institution moving forward and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

It’s been nine months since Vaidya was introduced as the sixth president of NKU, and he said he and his family are very happy to be settled into the region.

“We have been extremely warmly welcomed these last few weeks,” Vaidya said. “I feel very fortunate, I feel a deep sense of gratitude and understanding. There are high expectations of NKU and what we are expected to do in collaboration with our region and our community partners.”

Vaidya welcomes those opportunities.

“Yes, there are challenges, every place has them, but what I’m seeing is there is a great deal of enthusiasm, coupled with a sensibility of what is going to make this region thrive,” Vaidya said. “It’s a privilege to be in this position and I’m proud to serve.”

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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