Darren Doyle, story and photo:
Dr. Timothy Caboni, President of Western Kentucky University, stopped by our office today as part of the Big Red Caravan tour; an initiative that will bring the president through 27 counties in the western and southcentral Kentucky area.
While we discussed several topics that affect Edmonson County WKU students, the first item of discussion was his signature bow tie.
"Coming from New Orleans, folks not only wear bow ties, they wear seersucker and white bucks," he said with a laugh. "I was in Kansas for six years and as you can imagine, some saw it as an oddity. People would ask me, 'are you really going to wear that bow tie?' and I would say 'well, I've been wearin' it about as long as I can remember, so--YEAH.' And then, they thought "Matlock" had showed up when I broke out the white bucks and the seersucker, but it's a New Orleans-ey thing. Being from the south, we dress a certain way and when it's a hundred degrees, I don't want to wear a wool suit and big strip of material. It's just cooler to wear."
The conversation then switched to more serious topics; such as rising tuition, parking issues, and the importance of building relationships with local communities and areas like Edmonson County.
"Affordability is a major concern," he said. "We want to make sure we stay accessible to anyone that wants to come to the hill."
He said that WKU is working on shifting their policy to provide more financial aid opportunities to more students. "We're going to continue our focus on merit aid; to attract the best and brightest students that we can, but we also know the pressure on families to afford a college education are difficult, so we've really taken a close look at our financial aid and scholarship program, and try to figure out how it is we get more of that into the hands of more people, and so we're going to stay committed to that."
He then discussed the competitive marketplace with comparisons to the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, where he felt strongly that WKU offered more for less money.
"Full professors teach you in your freshman year, (they) know your name, see you outside of class, ask you how you're doing, wrap their arms around you, get you to graduation in four years; if you want a research experience, you get it as soon as you're ready in your freshman/sophomore year--in a way that's connected to a career, not just sitting in a room, pushing a button or poking a rat; a total college experience in the best college town in the Commonwealth, an hour north of the hottest city in the country--and here's the affordability piece--tens of thousands of dollars less than those other alternatives. Why wouldn't you want to come to WKU?"
He carried the conversation right on to parking, which also related somewhat to the comparison of other major universities in Kentucky as he discussed WKU's physical campus, which is becoming known for its aesthetics and beauty as much as anything else.
"One of the ways we've been addressing this is by building parking structures, not just flat surface lots," he said. "Part of the challenge we face is helping students not to go to the usual places they might find parking, but to know there are 300-400 parking spots in parking structure three. That's by Creason Street on the south end of campus."
He said that if you have class on the hill, and you park in that structure, you're going to park then hop on a bus, which takes a bit more time, but he said he understood that; however, the advantage would be to keep the spectacular campus intact without little parking lots popping up all over.
"It wouldn't be that spectacular if we had parking lots strewn all across campus, so it's a give and a take. We want to think even more creatively about how it is we help young people who come to campus know where they should go to park. Sometimes technology can help with that."
He then discussed an addition that could be beneficial on campus that works like an airport. He compared lots at the Nashville airport.
"You pull into the airport and it will tell you: 'in this lot there are this many spots available--this lot--this many spots,' and so we're working toward being able to do something similar to that. As folks are coming toward campus, they don't go to the lot where there's one spot left and they're hunting."
He also mentioned efforts to increase opportunities for non-traditional students that will include more online courses, more efficient satellite campuses in Owensboro, Glasgow, and E-town, and less red tape and bureaucracy in those processes.
As Dr. Caboni concluded his interview and began to shift the focus on a barbecue plate from Walden's, he wanted Edmonson County to know that the purpose of the Big Red Caravan tour was to understand the communities from which so many of WKU's students come. He posed the question of how can the university truly be Western Kentucky University if the university doesn't understand western and southcentral Kentucky?
"We have to get down off the hill," he said. "We have to engage with our community. We have to lift the red and white curtain that sometimes exists around the institution, and we have to get out and be with the folks we're built to serve to actually understand what we need to be doing better."
He added that in his experience as a professor, an administrator, and a president, he's learned that the best way to understand your community is not by sitting in an office.
"You've got to get out from behind the desk and you can't only talk to your major gift donors. You've got to talk to every person that has an interest in the institution. I'm fortunate that I grew up in a community where doing business happened over a cup of coffee or in the community. My grandmother owned an antique store in the French Quarter. My grandfather helped make bread bags for French bread in New Orleans. The way they did business in New Orleans was by sitting down and visiting with folks, and the only way you advance institutions is by developing real relationships with people who care about the university."
He ended the discussion with a firm handshake, a couple of photos, and more talk about barbecue, but said he'd be back in Edmonson County soon. He had already traveled to Morgantown earlier today and was scheduled to travel to Grayson County after meeting with Edmonson County Superintendent of Schools, Patrick Waddell.
He said his focus for the current 170 Edmonson County Hilltoppers and the 500 + alumni members was to ensure them that WKU is a place not only to get an education, but also to enjoy basketball and football games, other events, attend concerts, and be part of an institution that is a community and student partner. The sheer fact that his office contacted us and initiated an interview is certainly indicative of his attempt at bringing WKU and Edmonson County students together.
You can follow Dr. Caboni on Twitter, @caboni.