Q&A: President Todd Diacon

KentWired Staff

Editor’s note: KW interviewed President Todd Diacon Feb. 13, 2020. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

KW: What did we learn from the spring 15-day numbers compared to the fall 15-day numbers?

President Diacon: Well, I think we were happy they came in with, well, within what we were projecting. So we build our budget in part upon what we think our enrollment will be. And those numbers were within what we had predicted them to be. That’s really good. And if I remember correctly, it’s the first time we’ve been up here to date and international students in the last two or three years. 

KW: We know that Karen Clark was replaced. What led to that happening?

D: I think all I can say about that — typically we don’t comment on personnel matters — is to say that we decided to go another direction and she’s no longer with the university.

KW: We know that Shay Little was working on some small projects. What exactly has she been working on?

D: Her interactions have been more with student affairs and that’s appropriate, because when she agreed to stay on and do some things with us, we knew she would add great value and has great experience in the area of student affairs. So her interactions are more along those levels, not as directly with me. 

KW: When do you see the hiring freeze ending and budget changes so that the vacancies can be filled?

D: We’re right now halfway through the fiscal year, and our numbers are pretty good. We’re balanced so far. We’re up in some things more in revenue than we thought we would be. We’re down in some expenses more. We’re having more expenses in some areas than we thought. But right now we look like we’re pretty even. 

D: We’ll have to then look at what our projected expenses are for fiscal year ’21 and then decide. I don’t know what will eliminate a hiring freeze yet. I can’t say that. We’re not on fire budgetarily. But I don’t know that we’ll have done enough to lift that restriction. I just don’t know yet.

KW: What else do you have planned for this semester?

D: One thing that I continue to do is to meet people that are important for our success as an institution. So for example, this morning at 8 a.m., I had an hour-long meeting with the mayor of Akron; we hadn’t met and we’re doing a lot of things with it act in Akron.  We just did the LeBron James Family Foundation announcement. We have our academy with Firestone. So I continue to meet community leaders, business leaders, supporters, not just in Northeast Ohio, but nationwide. So I’m continuing that.

D: Secondly, starting in the fall, and now we’ll keep doing this in the spring, meeting with various student groups. I want to do that on a regular basis. So I’ve met with Undergraduate Student Government. I’ve met with Graduate Student Government. I’m meeting soon with leaders of those two groups. I’ve had several informal meetings, but I want to continue to schedule meetings with student groups, so that I get to hear what the students are thinking and meet with them. So that’s probably the second major thing that I’m engaged in right now.

D: Then the third thing is really wrapping up the programming for May 4. We know that we’ll have hundreds and hundreds of people on our campus at the concert at Jane Fonda and the Jane Fonda reservations sold out in less than 48 hours. That’s about 5,000 [people] at each of those events, so we have a lot of people on campus. We’re just engaged in a lot of planning. 

KW: Do we have a commencement speaker yet?

D: We do. We haven’t announced it yet. Stay tuned. We are not going to continue with the more recent practice of bringing in someone from outside and which also involves paying them. We’re not going to do that. But nevertheless, we think we know we have a powerful and exceptionally appropriate speaker lined up for this spring commencement. I don’t think we’ll continue with speakers that we pay to come and give a commencement address. Now, they may come from the outside, but we don’t plan on continuing that practice.

KW: You said just now that you plan on meeting with more student groups. What are your plans involving Students for a Democratic Society, Black United Students, their coalition and the letter they delivered to your office on Tuesday morning?

D: I look forward to meeting with them either separately or together. As part of this process of meeting with students, Flashes take care of Flashes and we want our students to feel like they have a home here. I think the best way to do that is to meet with them, and I look forward to meeting with BUS. Absolutely, we’ll meet with them. We’re just going to keep doing that not just this semester, but in future semesters. It’s really one of the primary jobs for the president.

KW: We know the climate survey was done for the athletic department last fall, and there was a follow up email about reinvigorating, or revitalizing the athletic department as a whole. Where do we stand in that? 

D: We just re-administered it, I think starting yesterday, so people haven’t replied to it yet. Those results will then be collected and analyzed and they are part of this larger already regularly scheduled before the field hockey incident. Review of gender and athletics at Kent State, we committed to doing that review every five years. So that’s our regularly scheduled review. 

KW: What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now?

D: OK, I’m going to say it this way. We are living in an environment right now that’s noisily conflicted at a national level. So we’re living at a moment where we see increasing polarization, increasing divisions, noisy standoffs between opposing groups. I have said several times and I will continue to need to say that Kent State University occupies a special place in America because we know the lessons of what happens when reason, conversation and discourse breaks down, and polarization takes over. And we saw that result in the death of four students and the wounding of nine other students on May 4, 1970. 

D: As we make our way up to the 50th observance of the shootings, we have a unique position in the United States to remind people that discourse in a reasoned, non-polarized fashion is better in all of our camps is more in our interest than a violent roiled, noisy alternative. 

KW: What are some of the things you have planned for May 4 when it comes to discourse, because we’ve seen on some social channels already some disagreements already coming to head?

D: So now I’m speaking as much as a historian as the president of Kent State, so the history of Kent State post-1970. And in 1970s, one of contestation, people disagreed. And we have to have a certain level of comfort with that, because people disagree about what happened. People disagree about what the legacies are. People disagree on what the event meant. And so my guess is there will be people in that weekend here that have differing views, and they may be noisily attached to their different views. But we’ve been working very hard in our, we call it our eventualities and concerned planning. 

D: We’re really thinking through what we’re going to do to keep everybody safe. At the same time that we honor the fact that there will be people, likely our campuses that have different opinions. But we want to always lead with our core values as an institution, which is a commitment of freedom of speech, combined with an institutional commitment to kindness and respect. So I will share that message and I will mirror those commitments in my own actions; we know that all of our leaders of the institution will do the same. And we will always refer back to our core values as an institution, not just in those days and all days, but particularly on those days of May 1-4.


KW: Last semester we noticed there was a website for removing Joel Nielsen, director of athletics, and there were some donor names attached to the petition for his removal. Are there ways that you have planned to kind of keep them on board? 

D: So, you know, it’s a free country, and people have the right to express their opinion. Yes. And I think in follow-up conversations, two of the individuals that signed that letter that are affiliated with our foundation board made it clear that they were speaking as private citizens and not members of the foundation board, and they have absolutely every right to share their opinion. They helped us and everyone else make it clear that that’s not the stance of the Kent State University Foundation Board and its membership. That was their private opinions, which they have the right to.