Glimmering Legacy
NKU’s Votruba “Re-Wiring” Not Retiring

As monuments to a legacy go, it’s a spectacular one.

Northern Kentucky University’s new Griffin Hall is a modernistic blend of glimmering steel, glass, wood, and colorful, environmentally friendly lighting, rising five floors on one side and wrapped on another with a two-story “Digitorium” — a high-tech auditorium dominated by a giant screen.

It’s the home of NKU’s College of Informatics, a blending of different professional fields — business, communications, computing, health care, and media mobility — at a center of digital-age information study that’s one of only a half dozen in the nation.

University President James Votruba calls it a defining achievement for the school on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.

“Over my 15 years as president of NKU, I don’t think there is a single development that exceeds the creation of the College of Informatics and Griffin Hall in its ability to impact students and our region, and that’s a big deal,” Votruba says.

It also underscores the hallmark of Votruba’s tenure, which will end with this academic year next spring.

He has helped transform NKU from community college beginnings with such pragmatic vision; making sure the school is relevant to what students — and the region’s businesses and communities — need.

That’s one reason NKU enrollment has grown from fewer than 12,000 students to 16,000, while adding 42 master’s or graduate certificate programs for a total of 49. Faculty, budgets and endowments have all also swelled. It’s also a reason why Votruba got a warm standing ovation at a recent Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce dinner.

The president is quick to credit Provost Gail Wells and other deans and professors at NKU for developing the college that began six years ago. It grew out of studies early in Votruba’s presidency into promising areas for future focus.

Talk of engineering as a field to explore faded in favor of informatics. Votruba admits he first had to learn what “informatics” is, but he was quickly on board as regional business leaders talked about the need for “hybrid” professionals who were adept at making comprehensive use of the exploding amount of information in multiple ways.

“We had this vision that informatics was the way to go,” says Kevin Kirby, interim dean of the college. “We were a young and agile institution without a lot of entrenched opinions . . . so we could go ahead and do it.

“Informatics as we use it here is an umbrella term that unites all the disciplines that deal with information; that’s everything from journalism to software engineering from public relations to business intelligence ... electronic health care records for hospitals and insurance companies,” explains Kirby. “They are all areas important to the region’s economy and they are all areas where these students will get jobs.”

Master’s student Emily Crawford, 22, from Clermont County in Ohio, has become proficient in computer security, helping businesses fight hackers and viruses through NKU’s Center for Applied Informatics, which pairs students on projects needed by companies and communities. Among the projects have been developing information kiosks for the regional TANK public transportation system, doing IT assessments for nonprofits to help them apply for grants, Web design and content managements, and writing iPhone applications.  

There’s already a student-developed iPhone app that can help save lives. The app developed first two years ago for the San Ramon, Calif., fire department and set to be soon used by Erlanger, Ky.’s department, tracks those qualified to use CPR, so if a 911 call goes out, everyone in the immediate area who has registered will be notified, enabling someone nearby to begin helping the victim.

“It has absolutely changed my life,” Crawford says of the experience she is gaining at NKU. “I was doing well in my classes, but I didn’t have any real world experience. By the time I’m done with grad school, I will have that on my resume when I go searching for my first job.”

With backing from media company E.W. Scripps, whose CEO Rich Boehne is an NKU alumnus, the college also aims to produce journalists ready for the fast-evolving field that is moving away from newsprint to digital formats, by embedding their journalism studies amid students and professors with areas of other expertise.

“What better place to be for journalism?” asks Chris Strobel, an associate professor of electronic media and broadcasting. By design, Griffin Hall facilitates a mixing of disciplines, with faculty offices interspersed and corridors dotted with informal huddle areas. “Coming out of different rooms and talking about ideas and hearing those ideas; someone comes out of a speech communications class and talks with someone from a computer class, they find cross-overs there,” Strobel says.

And the college welcomes those who want to learn what Informatics can do for them.
“Griffin Hall is a giant toy that we’re inviting other students, faculty, people in the community to come play with,” Kirby says.

“It’s just so exciting for me,” Votruba says. “We’re positioning this university well for the changing world.”

Votruba hopes to keep NKU moving ahead in his last year. “I love the work; I have for 15 years.”

At 66, he is looking forward to having more time with his wife and family, which includes three children and six grandchildren, then move from organization leadership to what he hopes will be intellectual leadership. He expects to focus on increasing ties to the university with K-12 education, and to help advise future leaders.

He likes to call it: “Re-wirement, not retirement.”