By Judy Clabes
Geoffrey S. Mearns officially became Northern Kentucky University’s fifth president on Aug. 1, a few months after the announcement that he would be replacing retiring President James Votruba. Fresh in the starting gate, he addressed a full house at the university’s annual convocation Friday, kicking off the start of a new school year.
President Mearns has been in a steep learning curve — making his way around the region and meeting and listening to lots of new people — and demonstrated his acuity as a quick study as he outlined opportunities and challenges for NKU.
“Over the past four months, I have received extraordinary assistance from many people on campus and in the community,” he said. “You have made the transition so easy for me and my family.”
Mearns said there were too many achievements to celebrate but he cited a few as examples:
• “This year’s freshman class is the most academically qualified class in our university’s history. This achievement is the result of a deliberate enrollment strategy to recruit outstanding students.
“In fall 2010, the average ACT score of the freshman class was 21.4. Last year, the average ACT score was 22. This year, we project that the average ACT score of the freshman class will be 23. This progress is steady and significant. Our retention and graduation rates also continue to rise.”
• Excellent student-athletes. “This year we will compete in Division I. But the transition will not dilute our commitment to academic quality. In fact, last spring our student-athletes posted their highest combined GPA in school history, and more than 100 student-athletes were recognized as Great Lakes Valley Conference All-Academic honorees. The women’s cross country team had the highest average GPA– an impressive 3.6.
• Commitment to returning veterans. “Last year, we had a 41 percent increase in student veterans enrolling at NKU. As a result of our efforts to support these courageous men and women, NKU was named one of the “most vet-friendly campuses” by GI Magazine. Only 15 percent of the country’s colleges and universities earned this distinction.
• Accessible campus. “This spring, NKU was also named one of America’s most disability-friendly colleges in a new book, College Success for Students with Physical Disabilities. The guide provides disabled students with the confidence, strategies, and guidance they need to choose a college, prepare for university life, and make the most of the collegiate experience.
• Professional research and creative activity. “Last year, more than 575 students collaborated with faculty on research or creative projects that produced posters, presentations, publications, performances, analyses, and organizational studies.
• “The College of Infomatics has been working with the Kentucky Department of Education and the Southern Regional Education Board to create a four-course informatics curriculum for high schools. In June, the college hosted a two-week professional development workshop for teachers from high schools in six Kentucky districts.”
• “Through the Center for Applied Informatics’ mobile/web academy, NKU students have completed more than 32,000 hours of applied research and development for businesses and nonprofit organizations from California to Switzerland. Universities such as Notre Dame, Bellarmine, UK and UC have come here to study the “virtual co-op” model used by the center. The work done by the center on its pioneering fire department mobile application continues to receive awards, including the Fire Service Global Award for Excellence.”
• “This fall, the Haile/U.S. Bank College of Business will start a new MBA program that promises to change the nature of business education in the region. Using an integrated approach to teaching and learning, the program is a model of innovation and excellence in this competitive MBA market. “
• “In the College of Health Professions, the Nurse Advocacy Center for the Underserved just received the 2012 Award of Excellence in Public Health by the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department. The center received this award because of its efforts to provide flu and hepatitis B vaccinations to the homeless and because of its efforts to reduce unnecessary visits to local emergency rooms.
“NKU’s Department of Advanced Nursing Studies has just added a family psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner concentration. Our veterans deserve the best care, and our faculty and students are going to provide it.”
• “In the College of Educationand Human Services, two teams of education students were winners in both the graduate and undergraduate divisions in the international leadership association’s 2011 student case competition. The competition pits students attending an annual global conference against one another. Teams analyze real-world cases involving contemporary leadership issues and develop a strategy that best addresses those issues.”
• “The College of Arts and Sciences teaches the majority of our students, and the faculty in the college continue to be engaged in significant research and creative activity.”
He cited impact on the external community — the college faculty reached nearly 57,000 P-12 students, more than 5,000 P-12 teachers, and 43,000 community members through academic summer camps, presentations in local schools and bringing K-12students to campus.
The college also developed and refined an online tutorial to assist students in strengthening fundamental technological skills that will help them to be more successful in face-to-face, hybrid or fully online classes.
• The Chase College of Law: “In 2011 Chase’s moot court program was ranked 15th in the nation out of more than 100 law schools in a ranking of the best legal advocacy programs in the country. This spring, Chase students finished as national runners-up in two moot court competitions. In the past five years, Chase competition teams have been national champions six times, national runners-up eight times, and regional champions six times.
• “In a partnership that is the first of its kind in the nation, Chase College of Law and the College of Informatics established the NKU Chase Law and Informatics Institute. The institute explores key issues facing business and develops original research in the regulation and use of information.”
• “The university created four new programs. Two of the new programs are fully online degree programs: the doctor of nursing practice and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Clearly, NKU’s reputation for educational excellence continues to grow. And the campus environment is keeping pace.”
• Forbes magazine just announced that “NKU was selected for its Best Colleges list” for the fourth consecutive year.
Mearns also paid tribute to the leadership of James Votruba and credited him with being a great mentor.
“But we cannot be complacent; we cannot assume that our winning streak will continue,” he said. “We know that there are genuine and substantial challenges that lie ahead – for our university and for higher education as a whole.”
He cited a dependence on state funding, which continues to decrease, the need for ready access to federal financial aid, the need to focus on outcomes and accountability – retention and graduation rates and the competitive field.
“We must find an answer to this critical question: what are the distinctive attributes of our traditional, place-based university?” he said.
That is the question he will be attempting to answer as he looks deeper into the challenges and opportunities at NKU.
“As I continue to meet with people, and as I walk across campus, I also sense genuine enthusiasm and positive energy. I regularly hear people tell me that they are confident that our university’s best days are still ahead of us. I share their confidence. I share their faith,” he said.
Prior to coming to NKU, Mearns was provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Cleveland State University, a public university with more than 16,000 students. Before that, he spent four and a half years as dean and professor of law at Cleveland State’s
Cleveland-Marshall College of Law At Cleveland-Marshall, Mearns taught complex federal criminal investigations and prosecutions, criminal law, and white collar crime. He was a practicing lawyer for more than 15 years, including serving as a federal prosecutor in the United States Department of Justice. He has a juris doctor from the University of Virginia.
He and his wife, Jennifer, have five children.