Northern Kentucky University is in the midst of an explosive period of growth, maturing, and self-discovery. There are construction projects; a move to Division I; and, as of July 1, new leadership. Ashish Vaidya, formerly the interim president of St. Cloud State University, tells us about himself and his plans for NKU as he prepares to become the university’s sixth president.
Why did you decide to take the position as president of NKU? When the opportunity came across my desk, I was excited, intrigued; there were so many elements I was seeing at NKU that seemed like a good fit for me. NKU is a very young institution, only 50 years old. St. Cloud State, in comparison, is celebrating its 150th anniversary next year. But I got a sense that youthfulness was also a way to be nimble, entrepreneurial, innovative, responsive to changing needs and a changing landscape, and that there is a lot of momentum that’s been building over the last several years that is putting NKU on a trajectory of excellence. It’s really an opportunity to help shape what the next iteration of NKU will be.
Tell me about your priorities at St. Cloud? The priorities that emerged, I like to say, were from a collective envisioning that happens. We must focus on advancing student success, on building the most sustainable university, and on deepening strategic, mutually beneficial strategic partnerships. The ideas of student success being we must provide a holistic experience for them that prepares them well for what I would call life, work, and citizenship. It’s about leading meaningful lives, but also leading good lives that prepare you for career or post-baccalaureate success. Many students here [St. Cloud], as with NKU, are the first in their families to go to college. The access and opportunity mission is very important. I believe that institutions like St. Cloud State and NKU create economic and social mobility and really, at the core, are critical elements of a thriving democracy.
What might your priorities look like at NKU? I’ve been trying to listen as much as possible about the hopes and aspirations of the region, community, and campus, so that I’m prepared to get started with the idea of how we may coalesce around a collective vision that guides us into the future. I think there are some enduring aspects of NKU’s legacy that we certainly want to keep: its focus on students, its focus on being a valued partner with the region and the community. There are certainly important fiscal and budgetary challenges that we have to navigate that I’m certainly being made more aware of in the transition. But the idea of using this opportunity to really focus on priorities—that’s an important word. I’m a big believer that you don’t try to take on too many things because frankly you just don’t end up doing them very well and my belief is let’s focus on those two or three things that we will excel at with a passion and deliver a value proposition that will really solidify our reputation going forward.
You’re coming to Kentucky in a time of turmoil in higher education funding. You have a background in economics. How might that serve you in this new role? It’s been helpful to have to think about the pros and cons of what happens in terms of margins, costs, and benefits. How do you state your case and make the argument of where investments make the most sense? Economics, in a general sense, is really about the allocation of scarce resources to maximum benefit. Certainly public institutions have had to deal with that for many years. There is an obligation, as a part of the state and to tuition-paying students and the community, that we deliver on our outcomes and we manage our resources carefully. But I will always advocate that we need investment. This is not something that you write-off or a charity donation. I honestly believe that we are and have been engines of economic and social mobility. We help drive economic and social prosperity in communities and regions. In order for us to do that well, we need the resources and support, from all aspects, including the Commonwealth of Kentucky as an important partner in this.
You grew up in different parts of India, speaking multiple languages while being exposed to different cultural and religious norms. That background differentiates you from prior NKU presidents. How will that shape your leadership at the university? That fact has not gone unnoticed by me [laughs]. I’ve said it before: your identity is shaped by all of these different events that happen over the course of your life, and certainly it has in my case. And those identities are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They all form a part of your whole. I was fortunate growing up in a middle class family. My father was a government officer. He was an engineer by training. We had the good fortunate of living in different parts of India. Others, my wife included, say, ‘well you have no roots because you just went from place to place.’ And it’s true in some ways. We didn’t stay too long—three, four years—as my father was transferred from one place to the other. I ended up in boarding school because I needed some stability during high school. But what I think I was absorbing through those early years and my college years was being a part of a multicultural society and learning that different people bring different perspectives and that there is strength and value in that. That has really helped my understanding of diversity, inclusion, and equity a great deal; especially in the role I will play at NKU. I think it’s something we have to be aware of, support, and nourish. It is a knowledge-based, interconnected world we live in and many of the issues that affect us, affect all of humanity. Whether you’re in a small farm in rural Minnesota or a big city, there are so many ways in which world events will shape us and influence us. Our students need to have that perspective both in their education and life experience so they are prepared to become global citizens.