Ron Nykiel broke the proverbial ice with a joke and a kiss at a University of Akron forum on Monday.
“I’m going to take advantage of it being National Kiss Your Spouse Day,” he said to laughter as he beckoned his wife, Sandy, from the first row of the audience and planted a big one on her.
Nykiel, 68, was the first of three candidates to make a public pitch at an open forum to replace President Luis Proenza, who is stepping down July 1 after 15 years to return to teaching.
“It’s time to tell the world about your accomplishments, your programs and people,” Nykiel told about 175 attendees at the forum in the UA Student Center on Monday. “It’s time to accelerate change.”
He spoke casually, with gentle humor, hands often in pockets. He presented himself as a seasoned leader with wide experience in both academia and the private sector, largely the hospitality industry.
He has been the chief academic officer at the tax-supported University of Maryland Eastern Shore since February 2013 — the first provost ever named at the historically black university, according to its website.
Before that he was dean of the business college at the private Husson University in Bangor, Maine, and an associate professor in hotel and restaurant management at the University of Houston.
Along the way, he has taught part time at the University of California at Los Angeles, Harvard and Florida International University, among others, according to his resume.
He said he excels in marketing and branding: If he can increase the value of an institution’s degrees, “all other objectives have been achieved,” he told the forum.
However, finances and enrollment are the big challenges facing higher education today, in part because of the declining number of 18-year-old students in many parts of the country.
“You have to be out of the box to get enrollment,” which has meant developing partnerships with community colleges, military bases and the like, often bringing classes to students instead of expecting them to come to campus.
First-generation college students require a lot of extra care, he said. They often are shy and bewildered by college practices, so UMES requires them to visit a counselor for a degree audit after their second semester as a way to keep “them in college and moving them to graduation.” About half of UMES’ 4,500 students are first-generation, he said.
Nykiel addressed many wide-ranging questions — how he develops a strategic plan, how he integrates student support services with academia, how he recruits and retains minorities.
When asked about his past philanthropy, he said he supports a charity in Maine that cares for abandoned dogs and cats and has written an unpublished book, Benjamin the Cat, of which the proceeds will benefit the charity. “People can help themselves but animals can’t,” he said.
He also volunteered that his late wife was treated for cancer at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and he “lost everything” in her care.
His answers seemed to strike the right note with some audience members.
“I thought he was extremely down to earth,” said William Landis, a polymer science professor. “What I liked about him is that he wasn’t very pretentious.”
Suzanne Testerman, a project manager in the computer center, said he was “very informative. His responses were very thoughtful.”
He also is no stranger to the snow and cold of Northeast Ohio: He was chief marketing officer at Nestle in Solon from 1983 to 1992. He taught part time at Hiram College in Portage County during much of that time, according to his resume.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3729.