Q and A with President Todd Diacon


President Todd Diacon meets with Student Media representatives on Oct. 15, 2019. 

KentWired Staff

Members of the KentWired staff sat down with Kent State President Todd Diacon to ask him some questions about his first year as president. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KENTWIRED: What would you say has been the biggest challenge of your presidency so far?

DIACON: It’s really the biggest opportunity to learn about all facets of the university. I know a lot about the university; I’ve been here for seven years. I was in charge of academic affairs, which is a really big part of the university, but that doesn’t mean that I know everything there is to know about fundraising, or about our buildings and maintenance and landscaping, et cetera. So I don’t know that I would call it a challenge, but I would say my biggest opportunity is to learn even more about the institution.


KENTWIRED: What is your full background with higher education?

DIACON: I started teaching in 1987. I spent 21 years at the University of Tennessee in various positions and I was deputy chancellor of UMass Amherst. Then I came here to be provost in 2012. That’s the short version. 


KENTWIRED: What are your goals for this year as president?

DIACON: One of them is to get to know the institution at the highest and broadest levels. Another one is to represent the institution beyond the borders of the campus. It’s spending quite a bit of time getting to know leaders in Cleveland and leaders in Akron. Kent State president serves as an ex-officio member of the Cleveland symphony for example, so I’ll go Wednesday to my first Board of Trustees meeting of the Cleveland symphony because I think it’s important both to learn about the region at large, but it’s also a really great opportunity for me to meet leaders in Northeast Ohio and put Kent State front and center.


KENTWIRED: Could you give an update on what sort of positions would fall under the hiring freeze or what sort of positions would be hired?

DIACON: I would say the easiest way for me to say it, is for all intents and purposes, we will be able to make somewhere between six and 12 hires of tenure track faculty. 


KENTWIRED: How long will the hiring freeze last?

DIACON: It’s for this fiscal year, which ends June 30th.


KENTWIRED: Were there any other options that you had decided upon before you decided to go with the hiring freeze?

DIACON: Well, we had a $12 million gap to present a balanced budget, which we have to do by a state of Ohio mandate. Typically you either balance it through making expense reductions or you’ve drawn your savings. Our Board of Trustees and I agree with them 100 percent given the experience of other neighboring institutions with drawing down their savings to make balanced budgets. That can get you into trouble and we don’t want to go that route. We then had to figure out how we were going to reduce expenses by $12 million to balance a budget, and there have been various ways to do that. The hiring freeze makes sense because our number of employees has grown while enrollment has declined. At some point I think you have to ask yourself, what’s the right number of employees for a university that has 3000 fewer students than it did say in 2015. That’s why a hiring freeze helped us. First of all, it helped us balance the budget. So that’s very important. And then the second thing it does is gives us a year to do the contextual research to look at the data, to think about what’s the right size of our workforce for the university.


KENTWIRED: At the last Board of Trustees meeting they talked about enrollment and numbers being down, but also the quality of students being up; what are your comments on that?

DIACON: When we talk about the academic profile of our students, we tend to talk about it in terms of the class of freshmen we just admitted. It’s the largest freshman honors cohort we’ve ever had in the history of the university and I believe their average ACT is a 29. The academic profile of the entering freshman class on the Kent campus is a notable and a very diverse class and we’re happy for that as well.


KENTWIRED: How did you end up having a $12 million budget gap?

DIACON: Our projected expenses were $12 million more than our projected revenues. So keep in mind that a budget is our best guess for how the year is going to happen. We’re looking at where our income is coming in and where our expenses are going out. 

Now, part of that is an educated guess. We hope there’s not an energy crisis that drives up the price of natural gas by 150 percent. So we didn’t budget for that. But when we look at our expenditures versus our revenue, that’s where the $12 million gap was last year.

Last fiscal year, we ended to the good $3 million, but that’s one half of 1 percent variance between what we projected the year to be. And then at the end of the year when we did the “truing” up of the numbers, we were pretty close within one half of 1 percent. So we’re pretty good at predicting what our expenses will be, personnel, salaries, benefits, how much it’s gonna cost. It may sound flippant, but we had a $12 million gap because our projected expenses were running $12 million more than our projected revenues. And then when we look at the number of employees we have, we thought that’s a lever that we could move through a hiring freeze to make that budget balanced. 


KENTWIRED: Do you think the hiring freeze has been effective so far?

DIACON: It’s been effective in the sense that we’re not going to make hires that don’t allow us to balance the budget. Again, there are some hires that were well underway before and had been approved with funding from last year’s budget. 


KENTWIRED: As far as the budget goes with the master plan we are on right now, how is that looking as far as fundraising?

DIACON: Well that’s kind of a more complicated question than it might appear because the master plan doesn’t really rely on annual base budget dollars, that relies on savings that we had from state funding, on fundraising. The master plan funding is kind of separate from the annual budget. We’ve got that pretty much funded and that will continue, but that’s just a totally different animal than the annual budget. 


KENTWIRED: Is that on track so far? 

DIACON: When we raise $20 million in donations, we’ll break ground on the College of Business Administration. Then when we’re in good financial standing, we’ll be able to build that building in a way that doesn’t drive us into too much debt.


KENTWIRED: How is the partnership with Pontifical Catholic University? Are there any updates on how the program is doing? 

DIACON: It’s met our expectations. We hoped by the beginning of the second semester of the partnership we would have 60 or more students enrolled in the American Academy, and we do. So, we’ve met our enrollment goals and next July, we’ll graduate our first students from the American Academy. Then, as per the plan, they can either finish their bachelor’s degree at the Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil or they can come here. They’re already Kent State students. They can come here and finish their bachelor’s degree.

It’s really on track and it has been a great partnership both because we’ve created the American Academy, and because we’ve identified our great faculty and researchers who were doing things of interest. This has been, not unexpected, but certainly a welcomed aspect of the partnership. Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil is a fantastic university, so we’re really fortunate to have them as a partner and they are now starting to send their students to our Florence program as well. 


KENTWIRED: What is your response to the open letter from the athletics supporters and their website?

DIACON: I want to make it very clear that we’re just very transparent about this and we are very much driven by the appropriate process and procedure and we’re going to continue with that commitment. As our ongoing followup of the cancellation of the field hockey event, we said that we were going to conduct an already scheduled gender equality and athletics review.

Up until 10 years ago, the NCAA mandated that every athletic department undergo a review every 10 years. They abandoned that; they don’t make athletics departments do that anymore. At the time, former President Lefton, said, “Every five years we should conduct a review of gender equality in athletics.” We did that five years ago, it’s now time this fall to put together the committee. We’ll lean on the great talents and leadership of Kathy Wilson, our faculty athletics representative. I suspect the kinds of issues that were addressed in that letter, and on that website, will be reviewed as part of the gender equality review committee. 

Four years ago, athletics generated a strategic plan for athletes. It’s called “the game plan” and at the time we said at the end of four years we would conduct a review of the strategic plan and we will do that. So that was the second part of my response to the investigation on field hockey. Part of that review, will be to reach out to all kinds of stakeholders to get their opinions. What’s working and what’s not working. I think that’s another great venue for them to address the kinds of things that come up in that letter and on that website. And thirdly, I would say that when I became president of Kent State, I was not ever involved as provost in the leadership of athletics and the athletics department. When I started on July 1 I had in seven years been privy to no information or data or decision making about athletics.

As part of my due diligence, after the field hockey event, I’ve met with our faculty athletics representative Kathy Wilson. That’s the first time I saw the results of the climate study that the university did for the whole university. I had never seen the results for the athletics department. When I saw those, I thought that the results merited a follow up of that climate study. That climate study was administered three years ago. I thought, well, as a first step of addressing those results, we should re-administer the climate study. And then we’ll start thinking about a followup. 


KENTWIRED: What was the reason the university went with an in-house investigation rather than bringing in a third party for looking into the field hockey game cancellation?

DIACON: Typically any assertions of gender inequality are investigated by our (Office of Compliance Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action), that’s the policy. I think that is driven by federal guidelines and they’re independent of me. I had no input into that investigation and that’s the appropriate thing. I want to say this about that letter and about the website, I want to make it very clear that if any individual on this campus or off of this campus, has a specific allegation of sexual harassment of any kind, it behooves them to file a formal complaint with our office charged with investigating those complaints. That’s our process and procedure and mechanism for investigating these kinds of issues.

I would very much encourage the writers of the letter, the signers of the letter, the people behind that website that instead of lobbying assertions, if they have specific complaints to lodge about sexual harassment in athletics, it’s their responsibility to file those complaints to allow an investigation to occur.


KENTWIRED: We wanted to know about Shay Little’s position as the agreement from September 13 said she wanted to leave the university, but through a public records search she will be staying until March, we wanted to know what exactly her new position is?

DIACON: Shay agreed to lend us her great expertise on a variety of issues ranging from meal plans to promoting and defending freedom of speech. She agreed to do that in this interim period. I think that’s the best way to characterize that. We really appreciate Shay’s experience and expertise and I look forward to working with her on a variety of things as she advises this office.


KENTWIRED: What has been your favorite thing about being president so far? 

DIACON: It’s a hard question because there’s just so much, I mean, part of it is meeting great students, so that’s really enjoyable. I’ve met some amazing alumni who’ve done great things, so there’s that as well. I think I’m gaining a bigger appreciation for the impact that Kent State has on not just Northeast Ohio, but all of Ohio and the country and the world. I mean, you meet these fashion graduates that are vice presidents of design for major fashion houses. You think about the fact that we graduate so many great nurses and we just dominate nursing in Northeast Ohio, and Northeast Ohio dominates healthcare worldwide because of the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. I think the thing I’ve enjoyed the most is gaining even a bigger appreciation for what a powerhouse university we are.