Who is UNA’s president, Dr. Kenneth Kitts?


Brooke J. Freundschuh, Editor-in-Chief

Dr. Kenneth Kitts, President of the University of North Alabama, has not always been the figure many students recognize him to be today. Kitts grew up in rural Waynesville, NC, the youngest of four siblings. He is the son of hardworking parents who fought for their children to have a formal education. He attained both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. 

“It was an expectation that, if possible, we would go to college,” said Kitts.

His parents helped him pay for his undergraduate degree with the expectation of seeing results. Kitts was not a first generation student, but his father was. His parents are from Knoxville, Tenn. His father was able to go to college after serving in World War II because of the G.I. Bill. He became a dentist.

“I’m one generation removed from that, and I’ll never forget that,” Kitts said. ”When I talk to alums now about scholarships and that being a bridge for our students, that really means something to me, because my dad had a bridge, and if it hadn’t been for that bridge and that help, he wouldn’t have gone to college and my life would be very different, but somebody, somewhere believed in him.”

Kitt’s academic background is in Political Science. He began college as a business major. As part of his freshman year electives he took an American Government class, which resonated with him more than business. He went straight from his bachelor’s degree into a master’s degree program, in which he had an assistantship that required him to teach a freshman class. Young for his grade, Kitts was only two years older than the students he was teaching, however, this drew him to the field.

As he neared the end of his master’s degree, he began looking at options, including federal government positions with the FBI and CIA, but he began to see his life in higher education unfold around him. A year-long teaching job became available at Francis Marion University in Florence, SC, so he took it as a first job. He was only 21 when he took this position. 

Kitts says that having finished his bachelor’s and master’s degree programs by 21 is not as remarkable as it may sound. He started college when he was 17. His parents sent him to school on the early side, following his older brother and sisters. He took summer classes, finishing his bachelor’s degree by 20. He did his master’s in a year and a half and was finished by 21. 

He stayed at FMU for the next 20 years, where he met his wife, Dena, a graduate of the university who was employed in their human resources department at the time of their meeting.

After about five years of professorship at FMU, he decided he needed to get a doctoral degree in order to continue moving up the ranks in his career in academia. He completed his doctoral program at The University of South Carolina, during which he took his only break from teaching at FMU. When his course work was completed, he went back to teaching at FMU while completing his dissertation. Eventually he began taking on administrative tasks and became the chair of the Political Science and History Department. None of these fields are a far cry from where he thought he would end up. As a child he saw himself becoming a lawyer. 

He eventually moved to the University of North Carolina campus in Pembroke, where he served as Provost. A recruiter called him in his fourth year in this position in 2015 to encourage him to apply for the open position of 20th President of UNA. He thought he was not experienced enough to take on a presidential role yet and needed a few more years in the Provost position before moving up. However, UNA felt like a good fit after he and his wife interviewed and toured. 

“I never wrote a cover letter for this job, isn’t that a kicker?” Kitts said. “ I got this job without a cover letter.” 

His sons are 13 and 16 now, but they were much younger when he took the presidential job, and he had to make it known that his family was a priority.

“My first priority will always be as husband and father, and I work really hard to be a good president and be involved, but if I’m not a good husband and father, I’m not gonna be a good president,” Kitts said. 

When he moved to Florence, he faced a problem: numerous people kept telling him that UNA was the best kept secret in Alabama, but a secret is not what he wanted. He wanted this university to hold a reputation that mattered to its students and would help them in their future careers. 

“I’ve hopefully changed that narrative to where we’re talking openly about what we’ve got going on,” Kitts said. We’re growing in every way. I feel that we owe that to students. The value of your degree when you walk across the stage depends on the rest of the world knowing that we’ve got a great thing going on.”

One of his major projects on campus is  Project 208, named for the number of miles between UNA and The State’s Capital, Montgomery. Project 208 strives to get UNA adequate and fair funding when compared with other schools of its size in the state. 

“We are closing the gap that has for too long separated us from schools like us,” Kitts said. ”It doesn’t make sense to say we get less funding than Auburn. Of course we do, but if you look at schools that are like us in terms of size and scope and mission, they were getting ten, fifteen, twenty million dollars more every year. That’s crazy. Now we’ve got that closed up to closer to 5 to 10 million. We’ve made some headway that I’m absolutely convinced we would not have made if we hadn’t identified the problem.”

Kitts feels the time in which he came to UNA was ideal for this mission, because of his background in government and public policy, which gives him the skills to advocate for better funding for the university at a state and even federal level. UNA now falls in the Congressional district of Representative Robert Aderholt, a UNA alum. 

“I’m not going away until you treat me and my university fairly,” Kitts said. “I understand the rhythms of state government and what makes them tick, so it’s a problem I felt I could be useful in resolving.”

Kitts does not have a lot of free time, as there is always something going on on campus. His home sits right in the middle of campus, giving him little work/life separation. Says he and his family go to a lot of on-campus events together. The ages of his children limits his free time, and he often participates in what they are interested in. He enjoys tennis, which his sons are now playing. 

“Dena and I love the interaction with students. We really do,” Kitts said. “The job has its headaches. A big chunk of the job is budgets and personnel and politics, and there’s not a whole lot of that that’s fun, but it’s the job, and you’ve gotta do it and you’ve gotta do it well to move your university ahead. When we’re able to set that aside and interact with students and watch them do what they do, that’s the good stuff.”

“I read a lot, no surprise,” Kitts said. “You can usually find me reading something about World War II. I’m fascinated by it. My father was a part of it.”

He says that he and his wife just finished watching the television series “Breaking Bad”, although they got to it 10 years after the rest of the world, and emphasizes how much he loves chocolate. Ultimately, he prioritizes his yearly vacation time when he can make the separation between his family life and his home life. 

Kitts shares one of the greatest lessons he’s learned and best pieces of advice he’s gotten is to turn his “have to’s” into “get to’s”, meaning that, for example, instead of saying he has to go to a board meeting, he gets the opportunity to go and have his voice heard and make the university better. 

“Good funding is not an end in itself. A beautiful campus is not an end in itself,” Kitts said. “This stuff only matters as much as it enhances the experience for our students. I want the educational experience here to be as good as we can possibly make it.”