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One-On-One: James Votruba

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Ed Lane: What is NKU’s primary mission?

James Votruba: The primary mission of the university is twofold: NKU educates students so they can effectively compete for employment in a global market, and it supports the aspirations of this region by applying knowledge in ways that are beneficial to the region’s goals and priorities.

EL: What is NKU’s enrollment?

JV: NKU’s current enrollment is about 15,000 students. The university is the second-fastest growing public university in the commonwealth with 26 percent growth over the last eight years. Student applications compared to last year at the same time are up about 15 percent. At this point, the number of “high ability” students is outstripping our ability to provide scholarship support for those students. That’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that most university presidents would love to have.

The Council for Postsecondary Education determined about a year ago that NKU is about 33 percent underbuilt for its existing student population. Our target is to double NKU’s degree production over the next 12 years or by 2020. That’s a very ambitious goal, even under ideal circumstances.

EL: What percentage of freshman graduate from NKU?

JV: Six years after enrolling, about 45 percent of our freshman classes graduate – currently about 1,600 per year. The goal is to create 50,000 new jobs in this region over a 10-year period. An analysis of education requirements in order to support that level of job growth concluded that NKU would have to double degree production and do it as rapidly as possible.

Out of those 50,000 new jobs, 20,000 would require a college degree. The estimate was that the region would need access to about 4,200 college degrees annually. Assuming that other universities and colleges would supply some of those, NKU will have to supply about 3,100 graduates annually.

EL: Where do you see NKU’s enrollment in five years?

JV: It depends a lot on resources. If NKU is not funded to grow both in terms of facilities and operating budget, the university has reached its limits for major growth. We’ll still see growth at the margin, as some of our programs still have capacity, but NKU’s highest demand programs are at their limit.

EL: From what areas does NKU attract students?

JV: About 80 percent are from the metro area (Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati), of which 30 percent are non-resident students primarily from Ohio. NKU attracts a substantial number of students from the Louisville and Lexington areas, and a smattering around the state.

EL: Do students indicate why they came to NKU instead of UofL or UK?

JV: I ask students on a regular basis, “Why did you choose NKU and what are its greatest strengths?” The responses without exception are “small classes” and, in the students’ words, “faculty members who care about us.” And when I ask the students what does it mean to care about you, their response is, “faculty members know their names, return their emails and telephone calls, and are available to them outside the class.” Our average class size at NKU is about 21-22; the student/faculty ratio is about 16.5 to 1. A large class on this campus would be 70 to 80 students. NKU has one lecture hall that can handle 200-300 students, but this campus is build for an up-close and personal education.

EL: How closely does NKU work with Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce?

JV: NKU has had a very close relationship with the chamber of commerce. I sit on its board and executive committee. NKU does a lot of partnering with the chamber in workforce education. We use the chamber as one of several monitors to make sure NKU is producing students in the areas where the skill sets are needed for area businesses. We believe that NKU has a major responsibility to support economic development and help create private business ventures.

EL: Gateway Community and Technical College’s proposed expansion to 85,000 s.f. is designed to accommodate 10,000 students. What is the relationship between Gateway and NKU?

JV: The relationship actually goes back before Gateway was even created. NKU, 10 years ago, was both the community college and the four-year university in this region. There was no community college, but there were a couple of technical colleges; this was prior to the creation of the Kentucky Community Technical College System. The only way this region was going to get what it needed was to create a community and technical college campus. Community leaders in our region knew what we needed and made the case in Frankfort. Then-Gov. Paul Patton supported this plan.

NKU’s relationship with Gateway is exceptional. First of all, I think Ed Hughes, president of Gateway, is one of the finest community college presidents I have ever known. He is Gateway’s founding president. Gateway and NKU have built a partnership that exists on a whole variety of levels. NKU admits Gateway students concurrently with their admission to Gateway. Gateway students understand what they need to accomplish in order to transfer to NKU, but the transfer is seamless. NKU provides all of Gateway’s library needs. Gateway students are able to come to NKU’s performing arts and athletic events. NKU does everything it can to involve Gateway students here on this campus.

EL: What are some of the specific classes NKU has developed to help build job skills for its students.

JV: You need to talk to some of the deans and the department chairs for that. I’m not close enough to individual classes, but I know the demand is around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) areas, education, business – particularly finance, accounting and management.

NKU is the second or third university in the United States to create a college in informatics. The curriculum focuses on the digital management of information across business sectors like health, business, journalism and communications. NKU has a partnership with The New York Times to stream material electronically into an informatics program that we’re teaching. This is a pilot program that the Times created with five universities around the country.

An infrastructure management institute within the college of informatics assists small- and medium-size companies in implementing technology in innovative ways in order to strengthen their competitiveness and help them to grow. The NKU College of Informatics is really on the cutting edge of what this region and our nation needs.

EL: Does NKU have companies eagerly trying to recruit informatics graduates?

JV: Oh, there is a huge demand. Companies on both sides of the river – Toyota, Fidelity, Proctor & Gamble, General Electric, the financial-services industry and certainly health care – Saint Luke East, Health Alliance. There is a huge demand for these students. NKU turns out more IT graduates than any other university in the commonwealth. We made the decision about seven or eight years ago to either develop a college of engineering or expand in some other area important to the private sector. After consultants interviewed employers in the region, we decided to develop the college of informatics and ramp up the number of degrees it offers.

EL: The new NKU Bank of Kentucky Center is scheduled to open in September. How will this facility help NKU and the region?

JV: NKU will have commencement in the Bank of Kentucky Center this May. That will be described as a soft opening, which means the center will then close after commencement for another two months to have the finishing touches completed. The center will open officially next fall. The plan is for that building to be the venue for about 130 events a year. SMG, a national booking service, manages the Bank of Kentucky Center. The firm already has nearly 100 events booked for this next year, which is far beyond where I thought booking would be in the first year of operation.

EL: In addition to sports and school events, will the Center also be used for music concerts and conventions?

JV: You bet! The Bank of Kentucky Center will have 9,600 seats for basketball and about 10,000 seats for concerts. It also has 11,000 s.f. in conference space and a hotel planned nearby will also use that conference space.

My vision is for the Bank of Kentucky Center to be a catalyst to bring people who have never been on a college campus to NKU. Our biggest challenge in Kentucky, I believe, is to get higher education on the radar of young people and their parents. One of the ways to do that is to get them used to coming to a campus for fun things. One of the things I’ve asked our team to think about is what message does NKU want to deliver to the public once they enter the center. It’s not all about NKU athletics; it’s about what it means to be on a campus and why is it important to obtain a college education.

EL: How does the cost of tuition at NKU compare with University of Cincinnati?

JV: NKU’s annual in-state tuition is about $5,900; it will increase this year. The University of Cincinnati in-state is around $9,400. Ohio is a high-tuition state. NKU’s out-of-state tuition is about $1,400 above Ohio’s in-state tuition; NKU’s costs are much lower.

But there are a substantial number of students from Kentucky who go the University of Cincinnati.

I’m sometimes asked “why should Kentucky subsidize Ohio students”? The reality is 29 percent of NKU’s students are non-residents – 29 percent of our students provide about 43 percent of NKU’s tuition income. In other words, the subsidy goes in the opposite direction and benefits NKU.

EL: Which universities are most competitive to NKU?

JV: Competition for students has been shifting a little bit. The University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and University of Cincinnati are major competitors. Our greatest competition is employers. If I look at the dropout rate for NKU students, they often leave the campus not because they can’t afford it or not because they are not doing well but because these students are working 20 hours a week and their employer says, “I can employ you up to 30-40 hours a week. You can earn $30,000 here and buy that car you want.” We’ve been spending a great amount of time thinking about that over the last few months.

EL: Should the state give bonding authority to state universities for funding income-generating facilities like dormitories?

JV: I would. As I understand it, 36 states currently allow universities to issue their own bonds. It was the belief of the Fletcher and Patton administrations – I’m not sure how Governor Beshear feels about this – that bonding on the part of the universities would count against the state’s overall bond rating. They felt that bonding authority needed to be held centrally. I believe in a “free market economy.” When it comes to education and attracting students, the best way to serve the public interest is to let universities compete. It keeps us all on our toes.

EL: What is your position on the “prevailing wage moratorium for education projects” legislation?

JV: As a matter of fact, NKU estimates it would have probably saved between 10 and 15 percent of the cost of the Bank of Kentucky Center it is now building. A 10 percent savings translates into about $6.8 million on a $68 million facility. Now that’s just a statement. Don’t confuse that for advocacy.

EL: Are taxes on cigarettes an appropriate way to increase the state’s general fund revenues?

JV: Actually, I do believe taxes on cigarettes would be an appropriate way to raise revenue. Appropriate in the sense that research seems to suggest as the cost of cigarettes increases the number of young smokers grows smaller. I can support increasing the tax for not only revenue purposes but also for health benefits.

EL: If the urban areas are where most of the economic growth in the state is located, should state government invest tax dollars where growth is occurring?

JV: I think that is true. My argument is that 50,000 new jobs in Northern Kentucky will produce $270 million in new tax revenue. That money travels to Frankfort. Generally, Northern Kentucky gets back about 60 percent of what it sends to Frankfort. I don’t believe we should get back 100 percent; a part of the role of government is to distribute based on need.

EL: Was there a question you wanted me to ask?

JV: We have not talked about how important it is in today’s world for liberal arts to be a part of the university’s education. There’s never been a time when we need students who are graduating from a university to have a better understanding of how they fit in the larger global context. NKU is spending a lot of money to internationalize this campus. By internationalize, I mean building international perspective into the curriculum, and recruiting international students from countries doing business in our region. I tell parents even if you have to borrow some money, allow your children an opportunity to go abroad. Studying local arts is probably more important today. We need to encourage a broader understanding of people, their differences and what we share in common.

Preparing people for jobs is important, but preparing them for life is more important. Much of what we teach a student is job related and will be obsolete by the time they have been out of school for a few years. There are timeless lessons that every student should learn while they are in college, and much of that is found in the arts and sciences and not in the professional schools.

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