NKU Interim President: ‘She’s beyond an administrator. She’s a leader’

Haley Parnell
Haley Parnell
Haley is a reporter for LINK nky. Email her at [email protected]

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Approximately three months after the abrupt announcement of the departure of Northern Kentucky University President Ashish Vaidya, interim President Bonita Brown took on her new role.

As she wrapped up her first week as interim president, Brown said she had spent much of the time prepping for what could be anywhere from six to 12 months in office. Brown said running a university is like running a city, which means taking lots of one-on-one meetings with various vice presidents and deans to learn more about strategies and concerns.  

“I think once I kind of finish more of those, then I’ll be able to wrap my mind around all the information and probably figure out what kind of things we want to achieve in this period,” Brown said. “So, it’s coming. It’s coming.”

Brown was officially named interim president at the NKU Board of Regents meeting on Jan. 18. She was previously hired as vice president and chief strategy officer in 2019, a role she will return to at the end of her interim period due to the board voting that the university’s interim president will not be able to serve as permanent president.

Through her 20-plus years of experience in higher education, Brown said she has been collecting the skills and knowledge to fulfill this new position. She said she believes in service, and as the university moves through this transitional period, she felt responsible for providing that service during the interim term.

Someone who has known Brown for most of those 20-plus years of experience is Gretchen Bataille.

Bataille is president at GMB Consulting Group and a strategic partner at ROI Consulting Group. She previously hired Brown in 2005 as her general console at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she served as interim chancellor. Then again in 2006, as her chief of staff upon moving to the University of North Texas, where Bataille served as president.

Bataille said the interim role was an excellent opportunity for Brown to demonstrate how skillful she is.

“She’s a woman who can really take any situation and figure out how to make it work,” Bataille said. 

While working together at the University of North Texas, Bataille said it was a campus that had a lot of work to be done. Brown worked as chief of staff to create an ombuds office and a policy and compliance office—both of which the university did not previously have.

Bataille said one project that stood out to her that Brown helped lead was a hurricane shelter set up at the University of North Texas after many people in the area were displaced.

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“Bonita ran the whole thing,” Bataille said. “I mean, she figured out how to connect with the state offices with federal offices with the local shelters. There were a lot of children, and so she worked with the college of education in their early childhood program to establish programs for the children who were in the shelter.”

She also worked with people in the community to get them resettled or put them in touch with transportation to get them back home.

After her efforts with that project, Brown wrote a chapter in the book “Managing the Unthinkable: Crisis Preparation and Response for Campus Leaders” called “A Shelter in the Time of Storm.”

As NKU Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer, Brown was already meeting with deans, students, and various faculty and staff, which helped her gain a cross-divisional perspective. She said this helped her learning curve not be as steep as it may have been for someone else.

“This is a great place. I don’t want us to skip a beat,” Brown said. “And so, I thought, from my role as vice president and chief strategy officer, I know a lot about the university. It will probably be a smooth transition just to move into this interim role and kind of keep the momentum moving until we get a permanent president.”

Upon Vaidya’s departure, some speculated that it was due to the university’s more than $24 million budget deficit; however, NKU Board of Regents Chair Rich Boehne has said throughout the process that isn’t true. Boehne told LINK nky in November that Vaidya’s departure came down to a difference in vision for the university, and the two parties mutually agreed to part ways.

As for the current budget situation, Brown said the university plans to utilize its repositioning plan that was announced at the Oct. 6 budget and strategy meeting.

“In that plan, it included scenarios where we were going to have to take budget cuts, or we’re going to have to realign funds or other parts of the plan,” Brown said. “So right now, we’re working on executing that plan. The goal is to right-size our budget to make sure that we’re not spending more than we’re bringing in.”

Brown said the university is also about to begin planning for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“There are some rumors out there that we’re going to close that we’re broke. We’re not,” Brown said. “We just have to right size and make sure we’re aligning our spending with our revenue.”

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The $24 million shortfall represents about nine percent of NKU’s total annual budget.

Brown said she couldn’t speak on the difference in vision between the university and the previous president because it was a conversation between the president and the board of regents.  

“I think as they’re looking at searching for a new president, they’re listening to hear who is a visionary,” Brown said. “I think they’re listening to hear the experience somebody has, and I think when a new person arrives, they will work jointly with the board to kind of coalesce and learn about this area to develop a vision.”

Bataille said Brown was good at working with people and figuring out where they came from and their needs, which would prove to be good qualities when dealing with NKU’s budget and general presidential duties.

“I think a lot of people can be good administrators, meaning they know a lot of people and can figure out the budget, but it takes a leader to be able to explain to people what’s going on with the budget and what you need to change in order to change the budget trajectory,” Bataille said. “So, she’s beyond an administrator. She’s a leader.”

Speaking from experience, Bataille said being a university president takes someone with thick skin, adding that it’s a 24/7 job. She said this adds a lot of stress on the individual and their families.

The president is responsible for the final say on tough decisions, and they must be available at all times.

“It’s a lonely job because everyone’s going to look to the president and the president’s decisions, and not everybody’s going to like them,” Bataille said. “That’s where the thick skin comes in.”

Bataille said that even in the interim role, the president has to do everything they think needs to be done because the campus can’t remain in limbo until the permanent is named. She said there is freedom in being an interim who is not trying to get a permanent job.

“I understand that she’s not eligible to apply to be named the permanent president,” Bataille said. “So, in some ways, it makes it easier for her to do what needs to be done. I think probably her biggest task is going to be regularizing the budget, and that’s not easy.”

Brown said she plans to utilize her previous experience in her new role.

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Before coming to NKU, another aspect of Brown’s work was hands-on student success work. She led a cohort of 12 universities across the country and worked on student success with their leadership teams, like their presidents and vice presidents.

One memorable example of that work for Brown was getting the presidents of the universities to sit down and go through the transfer process that students would experience if they were coming from a community college to a university.  

“They are sitting around their computers, and I saw furrowed brows, and the presidents were clicking, and like, ‘We can’t find it. We can’t figure out how to do that,'” Brown said. “They were picking up their phone and saying, ‘Hey, I’m at this meeting, and I can’t find our transfer work.’ And so that was a real-time moment where they saw what the student experience was.”

Brown said that moment was a highlight for her because it showed presidents and cabinet members that sometimes they think they are doing something well, but it needs to be considered from the student’s perspective.

“That’s why I came to NKU because this vice president and chief strategy role was over the strategic plan, which is called ‘success by design,'” Brown said. “Our strategic plan is singularly focused on student success.”

As for the permanent president, Brown said that the organizing to begin the search has ensued. She guesses that the process will take anywhere from six to 12 months.

The university has convened a presidential search committee which consists of five Board of Regents members and other university staff.

NKU Board of Regents Secretary Kara Williams will serve as chair of the committee. The NKU Board of Regents Vice Chair Nathan Smith and regents Ashley Himes, Elizabeth Thompson, and Brad Zapp will also be on the committee.

Boehne said at the Jan. 18 meeting that he hopes to have the entire committee named at their March 15 meeting. The final decision of who is named president will ultimately come to the full Board of Regents, but the search committee will help canvas the applicants.

“I’m a consultant now and working with another campus where they have serious budget issues, and they’re going to have to let some faculty go, and that is painful, and it’s hard,” Bataille said. “And there are times when you have to make tough decisions in order to solve the bigger problem. And so I think she’s going to have a lot of work to do this year.”

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