When Kent State University president Beverly Warren announced she’d be stepping down this year after five years in office, the school conducted a national search. But it turned out, they didn't go far. The University’s Board of Trustees ultimately chose Provost and Executive Vice President Todd Diacon to succeed Warren. July 1 is his first day on the job. We sat down with Diacon to talk about his priorities and how they align with those of the outgoing president.
Diacon has seven years of experience at Kent State. He joined the university in April 2012, after serving as deputy chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for two years. Prior to that he worked at the University of Tennessee where he taught history. Diacon said those experiences have allowed him to bring new practices to Kent State.
Diacon said he wants to spend as much time on campus as he does off campus. With his time off campus, Diacon hopes to start building relationships with elected officials, both state and national. He wants to learn about everything the university has to offer, both academically and otherwise.
Diacon is also determined to see President Warren's Strategic Roadmap for the University through to fruition, and he's determined to make students the highest priority. "Every decision we make, every deliberation we make, every conceivable idea, plan, policy, program; we think about first how it will impact our students."
Diacon said moving forward the university needs to focus on affordability, while not compromising excellence.
The challenges ahead
Diacon echoed President Warren’s concern with changing demographics around the country. He said Northeast Ohio will see high school graduation rates drop by at least 20% over the next 10 years. Diacon believes the hiring of Mary Parker as Vice President of Enrollment Management will help Kent effectively respond. “She brings a world of experience from holding that position at the Universtiy of Utah, and before that at Louisiana State University.” Diacon said Kent State needs to expand and look at markets where it has not previously recruited students.
On the issue of enrollment, Diacon said he’s confident because Kent State is known around the world. For three years, Kent State and other Ohio Universities saw a decline in international student enrollment. Diacon said that has leveled off recently, adding that fall semester is estimated to bring more international students than in spring semester.
Kent State recently announced tuition increases of 2% for returning students and 3.5% for incoming freshmen. Diacon said he made sure the universtiy set aside $2 million in need-based aid to help students continue their education. “It’s an enormous challenge that we face with student debt, but the enormous tragedy of student debt is when a student contracts that debt but doesn’t graduate.”
Diacon stressed the importance of a college degree, saying the university's greatest responsibility is ensuring students complete their education and receive their degree.
Building for the future
Diacon acknowledged the Ten-Year Plan to be complicated, but maintained he’s confident the University can see the plan to its completion. "Our College of Architecture and Environmental Design building when it was inaugurated was named one of the top 20 best new buildings in the world."
Diacon called the upcoming College of Business Administration building an "early win" with the master plan, but said what’s important is that the University operate in a financially responsible way, only breaking ground after the necessary funds have been raised. He also wants to build a strong working relationship with potential donors. Diacon pledged as soon as the $20 million goal has been reached for the business administration building, construction will begin on front campus within the hour.
Thoughts on collaboration
Diacon said cooperation with other colleges in Northeast Ohio is essential, especially community colleges. He recounted his experience growing up in Kansas, and how few colleges were nearby. Diacon said he’s impressed by how many higher education opportunities are available in the region. He said these colleges should collaborate and share services, purchases, HR functions and police departments.
Diacon has made no secret of his affinity for Elvis Presley. His favorite song is "Suspicious Minds." Diacon said he first got into Elvis after discovering a longtime associate provost, who was an avid Elvis collector, was retiring. He dressed up as the King and sang at her retirement party. Diacon isn’t ready to hang up his sideburns and shades quite yet. He plans to don the outfit for freshmen move-in day. "Here's the interesting thing: I put on the Elvis outfit and parents flock to me and want to take a picture. Students, they don't know who I am," he said.