The Interview USA
Northern Kentucky University
Vice President for Student Affairs

Eddie Howard Jr.

To provide students with the skills and tools necessary to excel in today's world, the integration of academic, social, and personal development is critical. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Eddie Howard, Vice President for Student Affairs at Northern Kentucky University, who has led the way in promoting a holistic and integrated student experience to set students on the path to success.

Eddie met with GoodCourse to talk about the need to advance cultural competency, the importance of promoting civil discourse, and the challenge of cultivating a safe and secure environment on college campuses. 

Eddie's Journey

GoodCourse: Let’s start with a quick intro to your current role and institution.

I’m the Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrolment Management at Northern Kentucky University.

GoodCourse: What brought you to student affairs?

I was a first-generation college student on both sides of my family. For me, college was a last-minute decision: in my senior year of high school, some of my friends started talking about attending historically Black colleges. So I felt I needed to get a college degree to achieve a stable income. I took to college like a duck to water — I got involved in student leadership, taking part in everything from housing to admissions. As I neared graduation, I was asked if I was interested in a career in student affairs. It didn’t even feel like work to me! So I decided to seek out a graduate preparation program, and I’ve been in Higher Education (HE) ever since. 

GoodCourse: Your university has invested heavily in providing a holistic and integrated student experience. What initiatives have you been working on to this end?

One of the initiatives that drew me here is NKU’s model of “Success by Design.” It’s based on closing equity gaps, increasing access, eliminating pipelines, and empowering students to navigate their way to success. Another great thing about NKU is the approach to coordinated care for students. It includes non-traditional services and support beyond the college campus — helping students facing housing insecurity, food shortages, or financial issues. We understand some things are outside our scope, so we partner with third-party institutions to help students find the support they need.

GoodCourse: Recent guests have discussed the need to advance cultural competency to build a welcoming environment for students. What’s your approach?

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is about ongoing work. At every institution I’ve worked for, there’s been a need to push DEI across the campus, both in the classroom and beyond. As society becomes more diverse, we must make sure people understand the complexity of the multiple identities that people can hold. It’s not just about color anymore. There are a few ways to tackle this challenge: first, to spend time opening minds with programs dedicated to understanding different cultures and identities; and second, to open hearts by providing examples of real stories and experiences. Our campus has a Center for Student Inclusiveness that supports marginalized students and underrepresented groups, especially Black, Hispanic, and LGBT+ students. We try not to create silos. We acknowledge that although our institution has historically been White, we need to immerse everyone in diversity to the benefit of all. It can be an emotional journey. Nationally, there’s been a backlash against DEI, so we need to make the case for a global society where everyone gets a seat at the table.

GoodCourse: There’s been a lot of debate about free speech on college campuses. How are you addressing this challenge?

We need to teach people the importance of civil discourse. It’s imperative to understand that people have the right to disagree and that disagreement can be healthy. When you find yourself having an uncomfortable conversation, it presents an opportunity for growth. Over the last thirty years, I’ve noticed an increase in cancel culture: more people close down if they hear something that offends them. You don’t need to agree, but it’s necessary to listen to opposing perspectives. All sides should have a chance to be heard. Sometimes, we must agree to disagree, but having a different opinion doesn’t need to lead to animosity or hate.

GoodCourse: Students are increasingly concerned about their safety. How can we cultivate a safe and secure environment on college campuses?

As part of my role, the final responsibility for campus security rests with me. Our campus police report directly to me, so if something happens I’m the first to know. I work hand-in-glove with senior leadership and our President to make sure we’re doing everything in our power to keep students safe. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously. I need to rely on my experience, knowledge, and judgment to determine the right approach. You can’t predict behavior, but you can heighten your awareness of potential threats. We’ve also streamlined our emergency response system so all our students receive a text alert during a crisis event. In a situation like that, every second counts. To keep a campus safe, you must be proactive about your processes and procedures and ensure your systems work. 

GoodCourse: You mentioned your use of text message alerts. How has technology changed your approach to student safety?

When I first entered HE, we didn’t even have email! It was nothing like it is today. Over time, we’ve incorporated cell phone technology, so we have many more tools at our disposal. We’ve built an announcement system into our fire alarm system which can reach every building on campus — we also have the ability to remotely lock doors during an active shooter scenario. I still remember where I was during the Virginia Tech shooting: since then, technology has provided us with better resources to respond. When I was a student, college campuses were open places, and there was barely any security at all. But we don’t live in that world anymore. 

We also need to acknowledge the fact that we’re in a mental health epidemic, and Covid has only made that worse. It’s been a passion of mine for a long time, and we need to do more to get students the help they need.

GoodCourse: It can be difficult to keep students engaged on DEI issues. Where do you see the most engagement?

I see many people participating as allies — supporting marginalized students, speaking up about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and being active in DEI work. There’s been huge support for students in the LGBT+ community, especially for our trans students. Ten years ago, it was a struggle to just get heard: but the new generation of students is highly engaged, and they won’t let people get pushed into the corner. 

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