Podcast with the Provost: Diversity, the strategic plan, student debt, rugby and the Beach Boys

Fall 2015

Provost Kruger reflects on his first semester at Appalachian, and shares some of his personal and professional highlights to date.


  • Megan Hayes: Today we are here with Provost Darrell Kruger who came to our campus in July of this year. Provost Kruger, after a few months on Appalachian’s campus, I know that you are well at home. You’ve been “out there” a lot talking with faculty, staff and students across campus – you’ve been in every building talking with lots of people individually and in groups, but we thought this podcast format would be a helpful way for you to reach even more people, so we invited you to the studio today — and you generously accepted our invitation — to come in and answer a few questions about yourself and also about your plans for the future.

    Darrell Kruger: Certainly, sounds good. I’m glad to be here.

    MH: Welcome. Let’s get just a little bit of background about you. Can you tell us what’s been the most fun you’ve had since coming to Boone?

    DK: Well, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to get out, but we’ve had some fun. One of the highlights was going to Elk River Falls. We didn’t jump off the tall ledge there, but it was nice, such a beautiful location. Then we were here for most of the summer festival. One of the most exciting things was seeing our daughters enjoy The Beach Boys and seeing them dance to that. Post Modern Juke Box was really good, too.

    MH: That’s great! One of the things I learned about you while chatting with you prior to a meeting earlier is that you are a quote collector. I think most people who have spent a little time with you know this because you tend to put them in written communications with folks and also in some of your speeches. What is your most recent acquisition or do you have a favorite quote?

    DK: Sure, as you said I like quotes a great deal. I think they capture wisdom from the past and we can learn from them. I tend to have a knack for remembering them or at least storing them away. As I’ve gotten older, I tend to write them down more. I like a number of quotes for different contexts. The one I really come back to again and again is Mark Twain’s one where he says, “If you have nothing to say, say nothing.” Which I think is important because sometimes people just feel compelled to speak. One that I come back to again and again, if you speak to my wife and my children they will certainly reference it, it’s one by Max Ehrmann from 1927. Now, I wasn’t around in 1927, but I ran across it as an adolescent and it’s called Desiderata (The Things Desired). It’s a long poem. I come back to it frequently especially the line at the beginning and the end where he talks about… my daughters ask me, “what are you going to be doing today?” And I say, “I’m going to be going placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.” I think it is a great way to think. In the world we live in there is so much noise and haste. Sometimes it is good to reminder that we can have silence and just reflect and think about things. At the end — the one I really like is — he says, “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams it is still a beautiful world.” And he says, “Be cheerful and strive to be happy.” I think that is the lesson no matter how old you are. You can come back to it because it is something that sustains us and gives us motivation to move forward. I have a lot of other ones, but I’ll probably use some of them through the course of the conversation because I tend to think in quotes sometimes.

    MH: That’s nice to have that inspiration moving you forward. It’s always good to have that touchstone to help get you back to where you need to be sometimes.

    DK: To see the forest for the trees.

    MH: Do you mind telling us just a little bit about your family? I didn’t put that in here, but I thought since you mentioned your wife and kids a couple of times…

    DK: Sure, my wife is a political scientist who worked in business for some years and then was a non-traditional student. We have a son who is a junior in college, a pre-med physical chemistry major, and two daughters, Casey and Sarah, who are ninth and eighth graders here with us in Boone. I’m impatient by nature, and having children has been a great blessing on a number of fronts. One is that they enable you to see things in perspective. I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve become a better academic and a better administrator because of that experience. They’re a blessing to me and a great support system. We are very close and we certainly appreciate each other.

    MH: I can relate to that too, the parent of a seventh grader and a third grader. What’s something about yourself that would surprise people?

    DK: Well, I’m an avid rugby follower. I played competitive rugby. I played through college actually. It was a great bonding mechanism for my father and me. We watched rugby and followed rugby from the time we were very young. I think it’s not about playing competitive sport, because I think that’s important in its own right, but what I think about and reflect upon is what I got from playing sport and following it increasingly, and that is the ability to work in teams, which I think is very important and the ability to collaborate. I think a team sport teaches one that. It also teaches you work-life balance and the ability to be able to compete. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but you learn something from the competition. I think that is something I continue to follow and it continues to be something I enjoy. That’s what I tend to watch most on television. Actually I don’t watch any television except during the World Cup.

    MH: Is there one benchmark that you have for yourself that you have set for your first year here on campus?

    DK: Yes, I think probably two. First of all, that’s listen, listen and probably listen. I mentioned this when I interviewed. I think listening is important as part of communication. It seems almost counterintuitive, but I think you can learn a great deal about people and organizations if you listen, especially if you are new to a community. I don’t understand the context and the culture of Appalachian given that I’m relatively new, so the listening part I think is important. A second one, is to obviously get your team in place and I’m in a spot where — I have three deans, three of the degree-granting colleges — we are searching for deans and that’s a high priority. I have a couple of line reports that I need to get filled as well. Probably those are the two primary ones, although there is a plethora of other things that we need to work on from day to day.

    MH: Let’s talk for a few minutes about the university’s strategic plan. I’m curious why is it important for an academic institution to have a strategic plan? Isn’t this what our faculty and staff have been doing already as part of what makes Appalachian this place where we all want to work?

    DK: I think there are few reasons and one of those reasons is that it provides continuity from one plan to the next. I think it’s sometimes clichéd that every time you get a new chancellor or provost you get a new strategic plan. I think one reason for having a strategic plan is it provides for continuity even as the players tend to change. Most institutions have an institutional DNA and I think respecting that and building on that and growing that makes a great deal of sense. That’s one reason. It provides for continuity. The second reason is a very practical one. It provides a framework or roadmap for resource allocation, especially for someone like the provost. As you can well imagine, I get a lot more requests for resources than what I have and that provides a road map of sorts for determining what initiatives to fund and which ones to wait on or maybe do it over a multi-year period. Finally, from the Chancellor’s prospective as the leader of the institution, that enables her, in this case, to be able to message and sharpen the message both internally, but especially externally for stakeholders.

    MH: Speaking of those communications, you are committing quite a bit of your time to meeting with groups across campus about the strategic plan. Why is it a priority to do this now?

    DK: Well both the Chancellor and I are relatively new and that’s one reason. We’ve had a leadership change over the course of the last 15 months. The strategic plan was approved about 18 months ago by the trustees. The Chancellor and I respect the work from the university…the UPPC [University Planning and Priorities Council] committee that went into fashioning that strategic plan, but because of the leadership change the strategic plan has in some respects been on the back burner. I think these conversations with campus stakeholders, about 15 groups currently, we will have conversations with those stakeholders and the goal is to learn from the campus community which elements of the plan to prioritize and make actionable. We have a smaller group called the Strategic Planning Advisory Council, it’s about a 17- member group. That group is mainly facilitating those conversations, enabling us to collect information that we can then work more closely with the UPPC to implement and make actionable those elements of the strategic plan. Those face-to-face conversations are one venue to learn and prioritize the elements of the plan. There is also a web portal where folks can go ahead and post comments and when we have those face-to-face meetings people are able to provide comments on index cards. Between those three tracks, if you wish, we hope to have lots of raw material that will then feed into the campus master planning in 2016.

    MH: It sounds like the active process of seeking that input is really important for you to hear back from the campus community. This is our chance to say: “Hey, this is important. Can we make sure we get this in the conversation in terms of funding and other types of resource allocations?”

    DK: Yes, certainly. That is the goal. The strategic plan in many regards, as I said, has served as a road map. Obviously we don’t have resources to do everything, but we need to prioritize those and listening to what the community thinks are those priorities and what we can move on more quickly is important.

    MH: Let’s talk for a minute, if you would, about the innovation campus and the Broyhill Inn property. I’ve heard a lot of conversations about this around campus and I’d like to get you to tell us what the goals are for this project. It seems like from what I’ve heard around campus that some of what you’re thinking about in terms of the innovation campus meets the goals that are outlined in the strategic plan. Can you talk a little about that? And, also there is always the time line question, if it’s possible to answer that as well.

    DK: Sure, I think I can hint at the timeline towards the end. You know the goal of the innovation campus project, which will be on the Broyhill site, is to provide academic space to facilitate 21st century teaching and learning as well as research and creative expression. Appalachian is a growing institution, it’s not a bad problem to have. We had over 14,500 applications last year for a class that’s much, much smaller. We are growing, but that places stress on academic teaching space and research space for faculty. So the cornerstone of the innovation campus must be an academic space and I think the Chancellor and the cabinet, as we’ve had those conversations, agree on that. In addition, faculty and staff housing is also an important consideration as we move into the planning stages for the innovation campus in 2016. Later in our conversation I think I’ll have more time to speak more to the need in that regard for housing for faculty and staff. Finally a conference facility that would serve Appalachian as well as Boone is another possibility in the development of the innovation campus. It’s sort of three interlocking elements that have been mentioned and need to be further discussed in 2016. In terms of a timeline, the board of governors a few weeks ago approved millennial campus status for both the Broyhill as well as College of Health Sciences property out at State Farm. The millennial campus status basically enables public-private partnerships. This will assist us in making funding flexible and will not negatively impact our debt load and ultimately our Moody’s ratings. In terms of time line, we will have the strategic planning conversations this fall and hopefully early in the spring and in 2016 those priorities will feed into the campus master planning conversations of which the Broyhill site is a central component. We will be seeking campus-wide input as part of that process. I think actually this week, maybe yesterday, we were looking for faculty participants to participate in focus groups so we can learn what specifics we need to be focusing on around faculty and staff housing.

    MH: The Broyhill Inn itself…that property, I understand is not viable to renovate, is that correct?

    DK: Correct. Yes, in fact, I think with the board of governors, when we got approval of millennial campus status we also got approval to demolish the current facility. Hopefully sometime during 2016 we would move with the planning and hopefully groundbreaking eventually.

    MH: I wanted to switch gears just a little bit. One of the things that was really an incredible experience for those who could attend. There were many members of our campus who had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Zaphon Wilson talk about his work to increase the diversity of Appalachian’s faculty in the 1980s. This was during our Commemoration of Integration event that happened over Homecoming. Dr. Wilson outlined some tactics for recruiting faculty of color that were in place when he was here. He was an advisor to the provost when he was here and obviously that was some years ago, but can you talk about what we are doing now on our campus to increase the diversity of our faculty and also our student body?

    DK: Certainly, let me start with some numbers. For the last five years the percentage of Appalachian faculty that come from historically underrepresented populations is at about 10 percent. It’s remained fairly constant over that period of time. I think two of the six initiatives from the Chancellor’s Commission on Diversity that we’ll begin to implement this year specifically pertain to strategies to increase the diversity of our faculty in applicant pools. I and the deans and chairs continue to work with Bindu Jayne to implement this year. When I say implement, we really are planting a seed. You don’t implement something for one year and then just move on. We try to make it part of the institutional fabric and culture. As Claude Steele’s work “Whistling Vivaldi” reminds us, contextual factors become critically important. It’s one thing to recruit faculty from historically underrepresented populations, but we have to have the requisite services and the environment to cater to folks from historically underrepresented backgrounds so they can truly make Boone their home. I think you have to work on both ends, both on the recruiting end, but also on the contextual factors. Steele’s work also reminds us that, irrespective of who we are, stereotype threat is something that is part and parcel of our daily existence. We need to be mindful of that and attempt to create an environment that is welcoming for everyone at Appalachian, but especially to those individual who are historically underrepresented in this part of the country. In terms of student numbers I think we’ve done a little bit better. Fifteen percent of our incoming class comes from historically underrepresented or diverse populations. For Appalachian as a whole, it’s close to 14 percent. I think we are making some ground in that area, but I think we have to do more work on the faculty and staff piece in particular. In terms of initiatives for students there is a fairly long list on initiatives that we continue to work on, I think. The Chancellor’s Student Advisory Board for Diversity Recruitment is one. That’s a broad-based representative group across campus that helps us with email and telephone communication with prospective students from all parts of North Carolina and the country. We also have expanded the holistic admissions review process, which really counters the focus on GPA and test scores primarily. We’re going to build on those efforts moving forward. Hiring is also important in the Office of Admissions and Enrollment Management. We are currently seeking a director of diversity recruitment and then we are offering some selective services in Spanish as well as Mandarin, whether it is virtual campus tours or if Spanish tours are requested. I think that’s something we need to increasingly pay more attention to because if we look at the current demographic of the U.S. and what is moving forward it’s going to become increasingly diverse and the most rapidly growing underrepresented population is Hispanic and Latino. If you look at our student body, both for our first year class as well as our overall student body, Hispanic-Latino is the largest proportion of underrepresented students. I had a great interaction just this weekend. We held the fourth forum of the UNC for Hispanic-Latino Faculty and I opened up with some remarks and emphasized to folks that I’m an immigrant, I’m bilingual and I’m a first generation. I shared that because the longer I’ve lived in the U.S. the longer those signatures have become increasingly common. That’s something I bring to my work as provost. I am an immigrant. I am bilingual and first generation and increasingly that’s what our student body is and will become.

    MH: Just to digress, what is your second language?

    DK: I speak Afrikaans. In South Africa when we grew up… in Apartheid South Africa my first language was English and my second language was Afrikaans. Everyone had to learn that at school. It is close to Dutch and German so I can actually read Dutch and German as well fairly easily because they’re Germanic languages.

    MH: When you and other members of the Strategic Planning Advisory Committee attended the October staff senate meeting, the topic of student financial literacy was brought up. Can you talk about what concerns or possible solutions you might have around that issue?

    DK: Certainly, student debt remains a concern to me both as a provost and as a parent. It is one thing to know what college costs. It’s another when you actually have to write the check when you have a child in college. Nationally it’s a challenge as well. For the average student graduating from college debt is well north of $20,000. I think it is a reflection of a number of things including the disinvestment from public higher education, which will continue moving forward. At Appalachian we continue to do a number of things mainly on the educational front with students. For example, providing information each semester to student loan borrowers outlining estimated total educational loan debt and estimated monthly payment. That is one component. Another is to encourage students with educational loan debt of greater than $12,500 to complete online financial awareness counseling. It’s a tool provided by the federal government. Then once students actually graduate provide letters to student loan borrowers who are near default. I think some of those educational initiatives have paid off well for us. Default rates are one measure of our relative success here at Appalachian and if you look at the most recent data we have for 2012 our default rates were about 3.4%. What does that mean? Compared to 2011 it was a reduction of about 1.5%. I think we continue to do those educational pieces which hopefully continue to move these numbers in the correct direction. As a context national cohort default rate for public institutions is close to 12% and for all UNC institutions it’s about 8.5%. If you look at our peer institutions it’s about 5.3%, so I think our numbers obviously are good. Like with everything, whether it is increasing diversity of students and faculty we can’t become complacent we have to be vigilant and continue to work. The numbers I’ve just shared with you are a great credit to the staff that we have and the mechanisms that we have in place to support students. As you continue to grow you have to provide the requisite resources to ensure that students can be successful, can graduate with the least amount of possible debt and we can maintain our graduation rates and retention rates.

    MH: Something that is interesting to me as someone who was a student here in the ’90s and someone who has been on staff here for nearly 17 years…it feels like there is a lot of change on our campus right now and I’ve heard that theme just from colleagues across campus. I think a major factor contributing to that is that we are seeing the beginning of a retirement wave, which is a national trend and this is one that our community is going to feel the effects of in a big way over the next five to 10 years. This also came up at the staff counsel meeting recently. What are your thoughts about preparing for the baby boomer retirement eventuality and what incentives do you see for recruiting and retaining top level faculty?

    DK: You’re correct. I think faculty is critically important to Appalachian and probably to most colleges and universities for our continued success in the transformational education experience that we are well known for. I think housing, which I mentioned earlier, and specifically the cost of housing in beautiful western North Carolina where we’ve got mountains and other amenities. That creates a real challenge for our faculty because of the price of housing. The housing survey that we conducted within the last year certainly indicates that as well and I think the Chancellor has referred to some of the comments in that survey as “heart-breaking.” I myself have not looked at that survey in particular, but I have looked at exit surveys from faculty and staff who have left Appalachian and selected to participate in an exit survey. One of the real needs that I see and that is the need for housing. That is why we are currently hosting faculty and staff focus groups to look at what specific needs there might be for housing. There is a plethora of housing options, but it is trying to determine what we specifically need at this juncture and also looking forward, as you said, with the increased movement of faculty and staff through the work cycle. We have to be able to provide housing for people across the spectrum, but certainly try to predict what the need will be especially for those coming in at the assistant and associate levels. That again feeds into the campus master planning work of 2016 which again is connected to the strategic plan. So, I think housing is one component we need to pay attention to. I think another one is flagging faculty and non-tenure track faculty salaries. That remains a challenge like housing actually, nationally. I think the campus too should increase…the Chancellor got approved last year to provide raises for faculty in the next two years at least. I think housing pay is certainly important and as important are academic facilities. I mentioned a number of times during our conversation that we continue to grow. That is not a bad problem to have if we provide the requisite resources to support the academic enterprise. The Chancellor and cabinet are committed to providing resources. For example Howard Street Hall, the old College of Ed annex, is a property which we will probably invest close to 1.5 million dollars into that facility to provide more teaching space as well as office space for faculty. I think at the outset you mentioned me getting around campus. I’ve probably spent about six hours sort of boots on the ground in buildings and academic spaces to try and see the range of facilities that we’ve got. I think that an investment in academic facilities is attractive to faculty, but it’s also attractive to students. I think the Chancellor and I are committed to building an Appalachian looking 15 to 20 years down the road. We don’t want to build an Appalachian that’s two to three years, we need to build for the future and I think investing in faculty will continue to remain important.

    MH: To bring it back a little bit closer in time, what’s on the horizon for you for the spring semester?

    DK: Well on a selfish level, I’m confident that the work of the search committees for the three deans positions will wrap up successfully. I’m grateful to the faculty serving on those search committees and that’s a major goal… to use a Jim Collins quote, “We don’t only need the right people on the bus, but we need the right people in the right seats on the bus.” So it’s a good opportunity for a provost to build a team especially with people retiring and I think that’s important. Then working with Vice Chancellor Lovins and the degree granting college deans we’ll host budget presentations in the spring. The goal is to share accomplishments from the current academic year, but for deans and others to identify goals for the next academic year. Equally important to identify the resources they will need to accomplish those goals. The Chancellor and I value transparency and I think we can say that, but it means… my late father used to say “Talk is cheap, but it’s the money that buys the whiskey.” I think the Chancellor and I are committed to shared governance, but I think we have demonstrated record of working in shared governance environments. The budget presentations are a tangible example of that commitment to transparency. The Chancellor says there are no secrets with a budget and I think often times if you share that information and have conversations around that it informs people, but more importantly, provides an opportunity for input from individuals to strengthen decisions. I think that goes back to the diversity piece and the diversity of opinion is valuable in strengthening administrative decisions as well.

    MH: In your letter to campus at the beginning of the semester you used the phrase “tikkun olam.” The phrase means to repair the world or to make it a better place. I had to look this up a little bit. So I reviewed some videos and watched several Rabbis talking about their experiences with “tikkun olam” and their interpretations of it. What does that mean for you? You said it resonated with you because you had heard so many stories about the Appalachian experience that reflect that idea. Can you share one specifically that stuck with you or what that impression is and why that phrase came to mind for you.

    DK: I think there’s a couple, but before I address that directly I’m an anthropologist in cultural geography so I certainly like many academicians read broadly and I think one of the reasons that diversity resonates with me is because it enriches me as a human being. I first ran across this some years ago, and it comes really from Scott Cowen’s work, he is a retired president from Tulane University. He was speaking about it in the context on Katrina and Tulane’s role so that’s sort of the larger context for it. As I got onto Appalachian’s campus, before I had been offered the position, when I was interviewing I was doing my preparation and reading the strategic plan and trying to determine what the DNA of the institution was as I mentioned previously. I think sustainability is one piece that it’s hard to read that plan and come away from it not saying, “Okay I think there is something about sustainability here.” The devil is always in the details and I think one of the benefits that I’ve had since being a member of the community is to look at the lived emphasis of sustainability in particular. I think the energy summit, which I had the good fortune to attend, was a good setting to see people living sustainability. It’s not just lip service. We do a number of things just to feel good about ourselves. This continues to be the case as I go to events whether I eat lunch on campus in the Roess Dining Hall or whether I go to football events or summer festival events. We have students at recycling bins basically saying that’s where the landfill goes, that’s where that goes, if people might be uncertain. I think that represents the institution’s commitment, not at the Chancellor level, and not at my level. Those levels are important but it’s in the DNA of the people who have boots on the ground. We live that. That’s clearly, being a good steward of the resources we have and the environment we live in. Trying to sustain an environment for the next generation two, three or four hopefully. The other one that I think about and you mentioned it earlier in our conversation is the integration commemoration. The story that was probably the most moving for me for that from that and I had read about it before the event as well was back when we still had segregation in this country and the Appalachian band was traveling back from an event and they were pretty close to home and they went into a restaurant. One of the band members, an African-American, basically was refused service. When that happened the entire band put their menus down and left the restaurant. I think that is a tangible example from the past that we still find threaded through our institution today. In addition to that my interaction with Thomas Kaplan, the director for the Judaic Holocaust, Peace and Studies Center, and their students has been very enjoyable and insightful and moving in some regards. I mentioned this in my back to school remarks at the fall faculty staff meeting. I ran across Dr. Allen Bryant’s work in the College of Education with the Cherokee program, which has now existed for about 10 years and very few people on campus know about that. I think those are a small collection of examples that speak to our consciousness at Appalachian that we understand that the world isn’t a level playing field. We have an active role in that to shape it and to make it more equal and to have more social justice for the next generation and other generations to come. I tell my wife and children most mornings that, “It’s a blessing and a privilege really to be Provost at Appalachian because I continue to serve as an advocate for very good work that is done by over nine hundred faculty and that’s done by close to 3,000 employees each day.” Having an institutional DNA and a commitment to social justice and sustainability is something that resonates strongly with me personally and certainly as a geographer in that formal educational background.

    MH: Provost Krueger thank you so much for spending time with us today. We covered a lot of ground. You have shared a lot of interesting insight that I think will be really valuable for our campus to hear. So thank you for taking the time to meet with us today.

    DK: I appreciate your time. Thanks for having me. I look forward to more conversation.