NKU celebrates era of transformation, looks ahead to bright future

Former Norse, depending on their year of graduation, often have drastically different accounts of what it was like to attend Northern Kentucky University.
Yours might have been one of the university’s early classes, who saw the dedication of Nunn Hall in 1972 and the W. Frank Steely Library in 1975. Or maybe you shared a class with George Clooney in the early 1980s, when a communications boom spawned dozens of new majors and the immediately beloved WNKU radio station.
If, like me, you attended NKU in the aughts, you probably celebrated the arrival of the Natural Science Center (since it meant a welcome reprieve from entire days spent in Landrum, score!). Perhaps you mourned the passing of Gus, the giant poodle who served as Honors House mascot and resident pizza-swindler.
Regardless of which chapter you claim in NKU’s storied history, though, if you haven’t visited the campus lately you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
A millennial makeover comes to campus
For decades, NKU’s footprint consisted primarily of academic and administrative buildings from the 1970s and ’80s, an age when blocky, nondescript construction trends excluded the university from serious architectural discussions.
That all began to change about 10 years ago, when NKU secured state funding for the dramatically modern Votruba Student Union and Griffin Hall, whose award-winning, LEED-certified designs feature collaborative spaces that promote innovation through interaction.
That beginning of NKU’s physical transformation doesn’t appear to be slowing anytime soon.
Built in 1984, NKU’s original Campus Recreation Center was designed to accommodate the school’s then-population of 8,000. Following a $48-million renovation completed last fall, the center now serves as an activities hub for more than 15,000 community members.
The 18-month project included a facelift for NKU’s intramural sports fields and expanded the center itself from 84,000 to 169,000 square feet, with new features that include:
• LEED-certified geothermal heating and cooling;
• 375,000 gallons of aquatic space;
• Partially submerged bouldering wall;
• Multi-activity courts;
• Deep-water diving well; and
• Common spaces for individual group study and events
“Our students told us they wanted state-of-the-art facilities, and we listened,” NKU President Geoffrey Mearns says. “We are pleased to offer this wonderful new recreation center for use by our students, faculty, staff and the community.”
At another groundbreaking ceremony last October, then-Gov. Steve Beshear and regional health care officials kicked off a new Health Innovation Center that will house NKU’s College of Health Professions when it opens in 2018. The project involves renovating NKU’s second-oldest academic building, Founders Hall, and constructing an additional 95,492-square-foot facility.
St. Elizabeth Healthcare invested $8 million in the project for the addition of a two-story St. Elizabeth Healthcare Simulation Center, where transdisciplinary teams of healthcare professionals, data experts, psychologists and others will collaborate to solve complex health challenges.
Change from the inside out
In addition improving the look and feel of the physical campus, many of NKU’s planned infrastructural changes represent the first of their kind in the nation. Arguably the most noteworthy in that regard is the university’s revolutionary College of Informatics, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The college was introduced as a means of aggregating NKU’s information-related resources — from journalism to cyber-security, health informatics, data science and others — in an effort to tackle modern information-technology challenges. 
“Informatics is an umbrella for all these fields,” Informatics Dean Kevin Kirby says. “Communication is a huge part of that. Because of the profound and sometimes threatening impact digital innovations have on our lives, it’s important not to just train narrow tech experts but to produce true renaissance people who are savvy and insightful. The demand for such graduates is exceptionally strong.”
Major highlights from the college’s first decade in existence include:
• Year-on-year increase in enrolled students from 1,100 to 2,300;
• Degree programs increased from 10 to 15;
• Full-time faculty increased from 40 to 62;
• Helped secure state funds to open Griffin Hall, the college’s permanent home;
• Named an NSA Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education
• Cyber-defense team ranked third in Midwest for five straight years (sixth in nation for 2014) at the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition;
• A number of successful apps developed by students in the Center for Applied Informatics, including the well-known PulsePoint, which uses 911 alerts to connect CPR caregivers with individuals experiencing cardiac arrest;
• Received the American Association of State Colleges & Universities’ 2015 award for Excellence and Innovation in Regional and Economic Development; and
• Home to one of only three Bachelor of Data Science programs in the nation.
The College of Informatics will soon introduce new bachelor’s programs in health informatics and health communication to coincide with the opening of the Health Innovation Center.
“We begin our second decade with a huge emphasis on transdisciplinary work,” Kirby says. “We have special strengths in electronic media and broadcasting, and our online health informatics master’s program ranks in the nation’s top 10. There’s an increasing focus on the Internet of Things, mobile health technologies in particular, and in related issues of security and privacy.”
Across campus, that transdisciplinary spirit is reflected in the new School of the Arts, introduced last summer to combine NKU’s theater, dance, music and visual arts programs under one roof with the goal of fostering new and innovative collaborations.
NKU looks to future, fights for fair funding
Perhaps more astounding than NKU’s multi-faceted, decade-long transformation is the fact that these projects came to fruition despite evidence showing the university receives less than its fair share of state funding.
A recent Enquirer op-ed from Mearns opens with a sobering question: “Last fall, Northern Kentucky University enrolled more than 2,800 new students. But did you know that, if we had decided not to enroll or admit any new students, our university would have still received the exact same amount of state funding?”
Experts say Kentucky’s current funding model has long failed to take into consideration things like increased enrollment or student success, instead divvying up funds based on past allotments. The system results in wide tuition gaps among state universities and provides little incentive for colleges and universities to invest in student success.
Mearns’ op-ed points out that, from 1999 to 2014, NKU increased its number of degrees granted by 84 percent — a larger margin of growth than any other public university in Kentucky for that time period. But despite demonstrating unmatched results, only 26 percent of NKU’s funding comes from the state — the smallest percentage reported by any comprehensive university in Kentucky.
An NKU Foundation website further drives home the point in a form letter that visitors can sign and forward to elected representatives, stating, “Kentucky's students and taxpayers deserve better from our postsecondary education funding system. Kentucky spends nearly $1 billion in taxpayer money based solely on politics, not performance. There is no relationship between funding and student success.”
Lobbying efforts by university leadership are underway in the run-up to the 2016 state budget session in the hope of prompting lawmakers to change what’s been described by many as an antiquated model. In his debut budget address this week, Gov. Matt Bevin expressed support for implementing an outcomes-based funding system for higher education.

Closing that funding gap would help build an even brighter future for NKU.
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