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WKU president says fall semester a time of ‘hopefulness in the face of enormous challenges’

As Western Kentucky University prepares for a fall semester like no other in its history, there are still milestones to celebrate and goals to attain, President Timothy C. Caboni said during his annual convocation address.

Even the address itself was unusual, delivered virtually to adhere to guidelines designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“The past five months have been difficult, each of us experiencing our shared upheaval in in unique and personal ways,” Caboni said. “Today is a reminder of what is important and what is possible — a day of hopefulness in the face of enormous challenges.”

Timothy C. Caboni

In addition to the tremendous work by faculty and staff to transition the spring 2020 semester to online, and prepare for the fall 2020 semester, Caboni cited progress in key areas such as diversity, equity and inclusion, access and opportunity, retention and graduation.

He said WKU is already benefiting from a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team that was restructured last fall. Progress includes the second-highest DEI score among Kentucky public universities as measured by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

“While I am pleased with the progress we have made, we recognize we have more work to do,” he said.

Caboni also announced the largest one-year increase in size of the freshman class this fall, up 443 students over the same time last fall, and the class has the best high school grade point average in WKU’s history at 3.45.

He attributed much of the growth to WKU’s new scholarship program, which removes standardized test scores for most awards, estimating that 84 percent of the fall 2020 freshmen are eligible for some type of institutional financial aid compared to 39 percent last year. “With these new scholarship offerings, we increase access by decreasing cost, and reward students’ hard academic work during high school,” Caboni said.

As recruitment and retention numbers have increased, WKU has set a record six-year graduation rate at 54.9 percent, with corresponding increases in rates for underrepresented minority and low-income students.

And even while meeting the challenges wrought by the pandemic, the university must still continue meeting goals that build on these successes.

“We will continue to work together and stand up for fairness and justice for every person, recognizing systemic change cannot be accomplished by one person or by one committee,” Caboni said. “Our efforts to make our campus One WKU will be achieved only if each of us accepts our own role in advancing equity and inclusion at WKU and beyond.”

The university will also look inward, announcing the formation of a task force to conduct a thorough examination of the history of WKU’s namings, explore options for how to address those that might be problematic, and make recommendations for university leadership to consider.

“The symbols we select and the names we use as a university should communicate our values, honor individuals for exemplary service and recognize philanthropic investment,” he said. “In many ways, the names we carve into our buildings and attach to our academic units should define for members of our community the best of what we have been, what we are and what we aspire to be.”

WKU will also “continue to elevate our communities by deepening and broadening our collaboration with economic development organizations across the region, and our Innovation Campus on Nashville Road plays a critical role in that work,” he said. “In the wake of the pandemic, it will be more important than ever that the university works to improve the entrepreneurial support ecosystem in our region.”

Caboni reminded the WKU community that “each of us wants the best of our university, for each other, for our families and ourselves. And given all we have been through, please strive to treat one another with extra measures of patience, kindness and grace.”

Spirit of WKU Award

Caboni also announced the recipient of the Spirit of WKU Award, Donald Smith.

Spirit of WKU Award recipient Donald Smith.

“Our 2020 recipient discovered the WKU spirit early in life. Descending from a long line of WKU graduates, he knew as a child what it meant to be a Hilltopper and to possess that special feeling or ‘spirit,’” he said. “His accomplishments are built not only on a strong spirit, but also on hard work, determination, and an ever-present commitment to make a meaningful difference in higher education.”

As Executive Director of the WKU Alumni Association, Smith successfully secured significant gifts to build the Augenstein Alumni Center and was closely involved in ensuring that the design of the center appropriately captured WKU’s history and traditions. Today the AAC provides space for both visiting alumni and community groups to hold meetings, presentations, social events and educational programs.

As President of the College Heights Foundation, he led record-breaking fundraising efforts with more than $60 million cash flow during the past seven years. His work has made an incredible difference in assisting and encouraging hundreds of deserving WKU students.

“Additionally, the Spirit of WKU is evidenced in the enormous amount of service he provides to the community, well beyond the responsibilities of his job,” Caboni said.

Smith has served on the boards of the American Red Cross, Bowling Green East Little League, Dugas Community Park in Scottsville, Warren County Pee Wee Baseball, Bowling Green Western Symphony Orchestra, Leadership Bowling Green Alumni Association, Hilltopper Athletic Foundation, W-Club, and the WKU Foundation as well as volunteering for nonprofits such as the Capitol Arts Center, American Cancer Society, Housing Authority, Junior Achievement, and the United Way.

From Western Kentucky University

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