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John Nicklow, New UNO Leader, Says Responsibility For Success 'Begins And Ends With The President'

Courtesy University of New Orleans
Dr. John Nicklow, President-Elect of UNO

After a public search, the University of New Orleans has a new president. Dr. John Nicklow has been named by the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors.

Nicklow was promoted from his position as UNO Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, and succeeds Dr. Peter Fos, who announced his retirement late last year. The other finalist for the job was New Orleans Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin. WWNO’s Eve Troeh sat down with Nicklow, President-Elect of UNO.

An abridged version of the interview:

Q. You came to New Orleans last summer, with the state in a budget crisis and the university facing any number of challenges. What brought you here?

A: The fact that it's the city's only public research institution makes it a unique asset that we really under-utilize. The opportunities here to grow enrollment, to work with business partners and alumni, to grow our research enterprise here — few institutions have the opportunities laid out on the table the way we do at UNO. So it was the opportunity to make a difference, and I see that here.

Q. So why haven't those things happened in recent years? Where does the responsibility lie?

A: Let me go back in time. I think the institution went through a difficult time with the storm. But there's more: the TOPS program, the dynamics of higher education changed across the state, the [new] state admission criteria and implementation of that. So those things sort of set the stage. The responsibility begins and ends with the president. And I believe it's my duty to build a team, to make things happen. It's not that someone did or did not do something. I see an opportunity to solve the problem we have today.

Last year we spent a lot of time with faculty and staff and students to look at enrollment issues, not from a 30,000-foot view, but exactly where the problems are on campus. What populations? Like certain students who do take math their first semester versus those who don't, or if they take 12 units per semester versus 18 units. And we got interesting data sets. So understanding where the problem was, was a good first step.

Q: So is an enrollment problem different than, but related to, a retention problem?

A: An enrollment problem is a matriculation problem and a retention problem. We have to do better — and we are — in reaching out to different populations. We are looking at not just regional and local students, but also nationally and internationally. Those differences really make us who we are and benefit the  students.

Q. They also pay full tuition, those out-of-state and international students.

A: That is a benefit as well. The second piece is retention. It doesn't do us a whole lot of good to bring a student here and not keep them. It's in many ways far more expensive to not retain them and have to go find more students. We have about 23 teams looking at that.

Q. You came to UNO from Southern Illinois University, where you also faced declining enrollment.

A: The symptoms were similar. Through getting people involved we brought in the two largest freshmen classes in 20 years, and had the first overall enrollment increase in a decade. That doesn't happen overnight. You don't lose that many students overnight and you don't gain them back overnight. Enrollment is a perception issue. It's important that parents and students know what we have to offer and that we follow through with that.

Q. What would you say to New Orleans parents and high school students?

A: I want them to know we have extremely high quality programs. Our students are employed in music and art and accounting and engineering, and get great jobs. The employability, the value of our degree is very high. And the risk — the debt load — is very low.

Q. Over 80 percent of the faculty and the UNO student body supported you for this job. The other finalist was from government, not academia. "Disruption" is a popular theme in American life and politics right now, but what does academic experience bring to the role?

A: The president is responsible for handing a student that degree, for the promotion and tenure of faculty. That I've been through that, that I'm capable of teaching and researching, is a value respected among the faculty and students. Is higher ed a business? Our practices need to be more business-minded outside the classroom and the lab. But when we're in the classroom, when we're in the lab, we're teaching. There are learning outcomes. That is not a business. That's where things really are different. And we have both things happening on this campus.

Note: While UNO owns WWNO's broadcast license, and provides the station administrative support and office space, the station receives no operational or editorial funding from the university.