The ‘adopted midwesterner’: President Warren says goodbye


Illustration of Beverly Warren.

Laina Yost

Editor’s Note: Some changes have been made for clarity. 

During President Beverly Warren’s five-year tenure at Kent State, she has sat down with student media twice every semester. That’s about 20 meetings with journalists to talk about almost any topic. She’s addressed mental health, budgets, enrollment, Aramark and commencements.

Last Thursday, Warren sat down with us for one final meeting in the newsroom. This time, she opened up to reporters in a way that she had never done before.

I’ve attended six of these meetings with Warren and was tasked with writing about her legacy at Kent State. I decided I would rather let the president say goodbye in her own words, and then give them to the readers to decide on their own what Warren’s final legacy will be.

KW: This is it. This is the last one for both of us. How have the last few months been? Has it sunk yet?

Warren: Not until the beginning of last week. I started on a gratitude tour, which is one of the things that I really wanted to do as I’m closing up my time here, and so I traveled to all of the regional campuses just to say thank you to everyone who has worked so very hard. I hadn’t really thought that much about my winding down as much as trying to get the work done until those trips and then wow. It really did sink in.

KW: As it’s beginning to sink in for you that you’re leaving, have you really had time to reflect on your five years here?

Warren: I think I will have more time to do that as the summer comes around. But I have to say, I’ve been reflecting on that. I’ll tell you the one impetus that has caused that reflection is to be invited to be your commencement speaker. And that was a pretty scary proposition. Octavia Spencer, Michael Keaton and then Bev Warren, so I thought, oh my goodness, I feel so sorry for the graduates.

So, how can I think about our time together? For me, it’s been pretty magical. It’s been truly transformative for me. I’ve been in higher education for 40 years, you know my age, you published my age all the time. So, that’s no secret. And so I’m well grounded in higher ed, but I’ve never been to a community like Kent State. And it started first with the students who believe so deeply in the power of Kent State to elevate your lives and send you on a trajectory of a life of meaning. So, thinking about commencement made me think about the reflection of our time together. And what it has meant to me is, I think I’ve grown, I’ve grown as a leader, I’ve grown as a person.

You’ve taught me in so many ways, this true idea of the Midwestern spirit and culture. There’s just a true grit about our community and we’re hard working. We don’t ask for accolades, we just want to get the work done. We have a can-do attitude despite any of the challenges that we see, despite the fact that we might be perceived as the best kept secret. We just have this can-do attitude that we’re going to contribute. And then, this whole idea of ‘Midwest nice’ is something I hope I take with me. So, my reflection is I think I’ve become an adopted Midwesterner and I’m so proud of that.

KW: Can you give us a little taste of what will be in your graduation speech?

Warren: I have to hold that very close. I will tell you, I think you’ll hear about a celebration of who you are, as the graduating class. I think you’ll hear a little bit of how proud I am of the students over my five years. And what classes have brought to the forefront.

I think you’ll hear a little of my admiration for your speaking up when issues matter to you about your courage and what people often call speaking truth to power. You speak that truth to me all the time and I don’t know that there’s power here, but you certainly tell me what you see, whether that’s positive or room for 

improvement. And so, I take a little bit of all of that and I’ve really been reflecting. Still not finished with that little speech yet, but that’s a bit of a taste.

KW: What are some of your favorite memories?

Warren: I think my first six months were like a magic carpet ride. I was able to talk to so many groups and then to hear the passion for Kent State, whether that’s a graduate of the 1960s or the graduates in 1970, who really experienced the biggest tragedy this country, I think, has seen because the shootings and the deaths occurred at the hands of our own government. I was just astounded at how much there was a love and a sense of community about that. So that’s a beginning high point that made me know that it was the right place for me at the right time.

I think the next recollection that’s really vivid is my bout with breast cancer and being public about that and seeing how this community came together in support of me and actually in, support of others.

So, while I might have been the focal point of the support, everyone understood that literally every family, I think, is affected in some way by a touch with cancer. And the painting of the rock with ‘Bev Strong’ on it is a powerful, powerful memory. I still have a photo of that that I keep at home.

KW: How do you want people to remember not President Warren, but Bev, the person?

Warren: I’ve always wanted, no matter what position or what career I was pursuing at the time, is that people can sense that I genuinely care, that I’m authentic in my interaction, that I’m a good listener, that I’m willing to hear perspectives. I hope that they would say I have courage to act when action is needed and the action may not be universally agreed upon. The students asked me in 2014, ‘What should we call you?’ And I said, ‘Most people call me Bev.’ That has stuck through the five years and I hope that resonates as a pretty genuine, down-to-earth approach to our work.

KW: The next day, when you wake up and you’re not President Warren anymore, what’s the first thing you’ll do?

Warren: Wow. I think I want to sleep. I think I am looking forward to the creation of investment of time that doesn’t sit on a president’s schedule. I love doing the work for this community, but I also want to explore how do I give back in other ways? How do I manage my own time toward the things that I think I could contribute?

KW: I want to move to a more difficult topic. As far as we know, we’ve had two student suicides this semester and one suicide in the Kent community. As a president, how do you handle that? And then as students, how do you think we should deal with that?

Warren: It is a challenging thought process. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted us to launch the healthy campus initiative because to me, a healthy campus really starts first and foremost with strong mental health support. And we worked hard over the last few years to bolster support for students, in terms of mental health counselors and mental health options. But we are far from perfect. We still have waitlists for students who want to see a counselor. That concerns me to no end. If you have a mental health issue, I don’t think it’s good and right to say, ‘Well you have to wait two weeks to get in to see a counselor.’ That may be too late.

… It pains me deeply that we have had students who have taken their own life. With such a life ahead of them. And I always remember some of the past slogans that I wish we could help all internalize is, it does get better. It can get better. And that there are people who will support you to get over the humps that seem so insurmountable at any moment in time. So, I hope we can do even more.

I think any time we have a student who takes his or her own life it’s a moment to reflect what could we have done? Were there avenues that we could have taken? Are there lessons learned that will help us prevent that kind of choice in the future?

KW: So, what’s next for you? Where do you go after this?

Warren: I’ve been very public about it and a little hesitant in this much of a public arena, but I have a very ill mother who is really addressing the issues of Alzheimer’s disease. And she’s here with me in Hudson in an assisted-living facility. And we just recently moved to memory care. So, I’m seeing this journey of a woman who’s been a rock in my life. A woman who gave me so many years of her life. And you can imagine I wasn’t the easiest child to raise, a rambunctious, ideas of my own, confidence beyond what I was capable of achieving.

And she was there every step of the way. And so, this commitment is a time to give back, a time to be there for her, to muster up all the courage we’re going to need. Because this journey is not an easy one. And it’s a very tragic one and both of us are dealing with that. So, I will spend the next part of my life really giving back.

KW: That’s beautiful to be able to give back to your mother.

Warren: It is and your time will come. And cherish the moments you have with a very vibrant support structure, the people that mean the most to you. My encouragement is relish that, soak it in, don’t take it for granted. Interaction with people and people that matter in your life is one of the most important things I think we do as human beings. And it makes us more human in our interaction.

And then those moments come where roles shift and so, your parent is much more like being the child you used to be. And seeing that full circle is so powerful. So heart rendering to see it and then to try to live in the moment. And that’s what I’m trying to do. No one has given me a rule book for how to deal with Alzheimer’s. And how do you love your mother when she is declining so dramatically?

But I’ve just decided I’m gonna stay in the moment. Right now I’m her sister and I’m perfectly happy being her sister if that’s where she is in her trajectory of moving through life. So, it will come and open your arms to those possibilities and also prepare yourself for giving back when it’s time.

Laina Yost is a senior reporter. Contact her at [email protected].