For the past three months, Kent State’s new President Todd Diacon has been meeting with school leaders and city officials, and on Sunday he planned to start meeting the new class of freshmen when he helped them move into their dorms.
Diacon, 60, was one of four finalists for the position left vacant by Beverly Warren. What set him above the rest was his dedication to students and his significant role in developing the university’s $1 billion, 10-year master plan while serving as Kent State’s provost, Search Committee Chairman Shawn Riley said at the presidential announcement in April.
Recently, Diacon sat down with the Record-Courier to discuss some of his priorities, including increasing enrollment, keeping Kent State affordable, maintaining the town-gown relationship, advancing the master plan and protecting the legacy of May 4, 1970.
Q: Area high schools are focusing on the three Es — enrollment, employment and enlistment — and they’re trying to get students on a path that’s best for them. Higher education is not always that path. In that climate, how do you increase enrollment so the right students are coming to Kent State?
A: First off, I don’t think there’s any wrong kid to come to Kent State. One of the great things about Kent State University is, with its Kent campus and regional campuses, you can literally go from getting an associate’s degree in occupational therapy technology to a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Unlike a lot of universities that wouldn’t have multiple campuses, at Kent State you can get an associate’s degree in airplane maintenance, which is a field that’s in great demand and we’re gearing up that program, but you can also get a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics with a flight training emphasis and go fly for a commercial airline. We just signed a deal with Delta Airlines where they hire our pilots straight out of college, so I would say that Kent State University, with its multiple campuses and degree programs that span the associate’s degree to the doctorate, plus particularly our regional campuses that do a lot of certificate work as well, we’re uniquely positioned in that market to be all things to all people in a good way.
Q: A big part of that is promoting the regional campuses and the associate’s degrees they offer. How do you push those ahead and make them more visible?
A: Our regional deans do a great job of explaining what they offer and the attractions of their programs. That’s going to look different in Ashtabula than it does three hours away in Tuscarawas, but they each have programs that other ones don’t. For example, Tuscarawas has a great associate’s degree in agricultural technology that Ashtabula wouldn’t, but Ashtabula has degrees in viticulture that Tuscarawas doesn’t, so it’s really their menu that they advertise in their region.
Q: How do you keep tuition affordable at every level?
A: At the same time we announced our first tuition increase in five years for all our students, we also identified $2 million more in need-based funding. We really work hard to generate efficiencies in various sectors of the university and use those savings to reduce the cost of attendance for the students with the highest amount of financial need. I’m really proud of the fact that literally at the same meeting where the trustees approved an increase in tuition, they approved an increase in $2 million in need-based funding.
Q: Where did the university find that $2 million in savings?
A: It’s through efficiencies. It’s through our initiative to coordinate better, for example, our printers and copiers so that we reduce the number of copy machines, but we didn’t reduce the service that those machines provide. We’ve been on about a three-year now effort to become more efficient in our back office activities and we pile those savings back into things like need-based aid. That’s one way.
And then the single best way to control the cost of earning a higher educational degree and a bachelor’s degree is to graduate in four years. We have dramatically increased our four-year graduation rates [from 21.1% for the freshmen who entered in 2000 to 47.3% for the freshmen who entered in 2014], and that just means that you’re not spending another semester in tuition, room and board or another year in tuition and room and board. For our part, we’ve identified more need-based financial aid. For the students’ part, the best way they can control the cost of earning a degree is to earn it in four years.
Q: What accounts for the increase in four-year graduation rates?
A: We’ve done a multiplicity of things. The first thing we did was launch a Got 15 campaign. That’s where we explain to incoming freshmen and their parents that if they pass 15 credits every semester, they’ll be on track to graduate in four years, and that’s a message you’ll hear throughout the institution. On Monday, when we have convocation for our entering freshmen, you’ll hear me mention three magical numbers: 15, 30 and 48. Fifteen is pass 15 credits each semester. Thirty is start your sophomore year having earned 30 credits, and 48 is if you do those two things, you’re on track to graduate in 48 months. So we’ve really schooled students and parents in the importance of that.
Q: Every president has a different relationship with their students. What kind of relationship are you hoping to have, and how do you think that will be different from the relationship you had with them as provost?
A: I think in general, I’ll have a lot more opportunities to interact with students as president. Although I will say that one of the great things at Kent State, and I can brag on this because I didn’t start it but I led it for seven years, is the Provost Leadership Academies. Each year about 75 incoming freshmen spend an entire year studying how the university works and then in the second semester they divide up into teams and they create a project to make Kent State better. We typically will implement one or two of those. For example, one year, one of the teams said, “We really need a food truck.” Well, now we have a food truck.
So I did interact with students quite a bit as provost through the Provost Leadership Academy, and it’s always just really gratifying to me when I walk across campus and someone will come up because they know to come up to me and say, “Hey, I was in Provost Leadership,” but I’ll have more opportunities to do that as president. That will start on Sunday when I go around to all the residence halls and introduce myself to parents and incoming students and help them move in.
Q: How is it living in a working environment in the presidential residence?
A: Well I’m enormously thankful that we have that residence because it gives me an opportunity to open up the university that much more in different settings to visitors and then to our supporters. For me, it’s great. I love it, and I’m now a Kent resident which I love and I have a real passion for town-gown relations.
Q: Let’s talk about the town-gown. Your first meeting as president was with the Kent Chamber of Commerce and city leaders. At the time, you talked about setting up monthly meetings with [Kent City Manager] Dave Ruller. Have those started?
A: They start[ed last] week. We’re going to have coffee at Scribbles, and I’m going to order the Aztec Junior Bolt. That’s my go-to drink at Scribbles, an Aztec Junior Bolt. It’s a great drink by the way. We’ll choose a different place each time to meet, but this time we’re starting at Scribbles. Scribbles is the bomb.
Q: What kind of topics will you touch on?
A: Dave and I are always looking for win-wins. It just sounds so trite, but it’s really not trite at all. Typically we’ll explore housing, business development, business location and relocation, and we might talk about opportunities when it comes to the university increasing its presence downtown.
Q: Another thing you touched on at that first meeting was the new College of Business Administration building and turning Route 59 into a tree-lined boulevard. Where are you at in that project?
A: For the business building proper, when we raise $20 million we’ll break ground. To do this in the most fiscally responsible way, we need to have $20 million in donations to begin building the building. We’re at about $8 million right now. So one of the pleasant tasks I have this year is to meet with donors and potential donors to raise that money so that when we build that building, we do it in a way that doesn’t add to our long-term debt and is a fiscally responsible construction. Even before we break ground on the business building, we’ll start making other changes like closing Midway [Drive] and re-aligning Terrace [Drive] because that’s a road that needs to change. We’ll start that probably next summer.
Q: How will the projects affect the greater Kent community in terms of road closures or delays?
A: It won’t lead to any closing. The building won’t lead to road closures. I can’t speak to the tree-lined boulevard concept [on Route 59], which by the way I’m a huge fan of. If you’ve ever seen a picture of that road in say ’61, ’62, ’63. That road was a two-lane street and the trees grew on each side. ...The boulevard is a city and state project, but that’s one of those great partnerships because now we’ll have both a fantastic building, a heightened beauty for the front campus and a much more attractive boulevard running through town from Willow [Street] to Horning [Road]
Q: Your transition coincides with the 50th Commemoration of May 4. How do you balance the weight of that anniversary with becoming president?
A: My Ph.D. is in history but you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in history to understand the impact of May 4 on the history of the United States, but certainly I’m well familiar with that, given my historical training. ...When you look back to May 4, what you see is a poisoned and polarized discourse with people on two different and separated sides and the discourse was very negative and we know what happened. I think we have a powerful lesson for today’s world where we see also a polarized national discourse, and we want to use this year of commemoration to remind the world of the dangers of polarization.