Kitts says he is ready to keep promises as UNA’s new chief

President Ken Kitts greets faculty, staff and students in the GUC Atrium during his first official day at UNA, March 31.

Big expectations awaited Ken Kitts when he arrived at UNA to begin his tenure as President March 31.

A five-year enrollment decline and decreasing state funding are on his list of things to turn around. But, first, Kitts is learning the ins and outs of UNA and the Shoals.

“It was almost all introductions, meet and greets, things designed to help me acclimate to UNA,” Kitts said about his first week on the job. “Everyone has just bent over backward to make us feel welcome. It’s very affirming about the decision we made to come to Florence.”

His week began in meetings with the university vice presidents and academic deans, and continued with meeting students, faculty and staff.

“They’re the people who make things happen,” Kitts said. “It’s my job to take the good start we have here and nurture it.”

Kitt’s wife, Dena, and sons, Corbin and Colin, joined him for his first week at UNA, but will not make the move to Florence until this summer when the children finish school.

Kitts said he has plenty of “marching orders” to keep him busy until then.

He said the enrollment decline UNA faces is not unique to its campus, as public regional universities across the nation are seeing state funding dwindle and tuition rise.

“The truth is state funding and student tuition don’t provide enough money,” said former Interim President John Thornell. “They provide for you to be at status quo — you can pay the bills. But, if you want to step out there and expand, you have to think about revenue from a different perspective. Whenever we want to hold student tuition down, lower state funding makes that difficult.”

Kitts said increasing revenue entails spending much of his time in Montgomery with state legislators, and meeting with community donors. On the homefront, increasing funds means bringing enrollment up.

“There are already a lot of good things beginning to come together here,” Kitts said. “You can begin to see a university beginning to position itself for enrollment success.

“As far as marketing, it’s such a beautiful campus and nice town that I think for a long time there was just kind of this assumption that it would just market itself — that it’s so nice that word will just get out, but you can’t make that assumption.”

He said stepping up the marketing game will likely include reaching out more to community college students, which the university has already begun doing.

To reach students across the state, the size of UNA should be a focal point, he said.

“This size university has been my life, and that’s by design,” Kitts said. “We’re small enough that the personalized touch should be evident in all we do. Professors should get to know you. At the same time, we’re not so small that we cannot offer opportunities and the full collegiate experience to students.”

Freshman Suzanne Berry agreed with Kitts, saying the “close-knit atmosphere” drew her in the first time she visited UNA.

“Every one you pass on campus will say ‘hey, what’s up,’ and you get to know students better than you would at a bigger college campus,” Berry said. “There are so many extracurricular you can get involved in.”

Junior Zachary Wright said it is unlikely students walk across campus without seeing someone they know, and that should be a major point in university marketing.

Kitts said he also hopes part of the collegiate experience for UNA students is getting to take a class with the university president.

“I can think of all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t teach in the fall, but what I keep coming back to is its just the right thing to do,” he said. “I stood over there in the GUC when in interviewed, and I said it’s important for administrators to teach. I’ve got to make good on that.

The plan is Kitts will enter the classroom this fall as a political science instructor, and he says he hopes the experience will allow him to understand students’ needs and concerns.

“I’m not going to be teaching a whole lot — maybe once per year — to remind me what our faculty do everyday and how amazing our students are,” he said.

Freshman Elayna Lauck said having the president in the classroom will make him more in tune to the issues students face and the needs they have.

“It will make a positive influence because he’s not only doing this for himself, but trying to bring the university to another level of academics,” Berry said. “He’ll get to know the students a lot more than just passing them on campus He’ll know our names — we won’t just be a number.”

Senior Kanisha Mitchell said she looks forward to seeing the difference having the president in the classroom will make.

“Since it hasn’t been done by the last president, we can see how it helps the students, or if it does,” Mitchell said.

Kitts said he hopes to further increase the personal engagement students get with faculty and administrators. When students who are in good academic standing make the decision not to return to UNA during later semester, it is mandatory to find out what went wrong, Kitts said.

“That hasn’t been done in the past, but it’s underway now,” Thornell said. “We also need to put in place some steps that follow-up with the kids who drop out, who don’t return. They could tell us why they weren’t able to come, or we could learn from our mistakes. We’re doing a number of things, but we could more.”

Kitts said another piece of the enrollment and retention puzzle is strengthening the connection between UNA and the Shoals communities.

“Just like we have a story to tell, the region has a story to tell,” he said. “If people start paying attention to the Shoals, then by extension, they will pay attention to UNA, so we’re going to celebrate the Shoals.”