About nine years ago, Northern Kentucky University officials sought the opinions of Tristate business leaders regarding the school starting a college of engineering, the kind of program that an up-and-coming university would naturally seek to establish, at least in the past.

But employers surprised the university with their answer.

"The response was, We can get engineers from University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky and University of Louisville. What we need is digital expertise. We need IT professionals, because we can't find them in sufficient numbers to meet our needs,'" says NKU president James Votruba.

As a result of that input, the university changed course and established the College of Informatics, one of only a handful in the country, "a place where aspiring artists, musicians, doctors, entrepreneurs and scientists come together to learn about technology and how it is taking their fields to the next level," as described by the college's website.

The response to the informatics venture was so positive that the college vaulted to the front of the line when it came time to invest in the latest major capital project. The result: Griffin Hall, a 110,000-square-foot, $53-million project under construction and due to open next fall.

Perhaps more than any of the numerous capital projects undertaken on the campus in the last decade, the establishment and expansion of informatics symbolizes how NKU has become the second-fastest growing university in the state system, behind Western Kentucky. The growth has come hand in glove with responding to employers' needs, whether through embracing the potential of digital education or training more health professionals in the rapidly growing College of Health Professions.

"Without question, this university has responded to businesses that have changing needs and aspirations for the graduates that they hope to employ. They're planning for maybe not today's jobs but, even better, for tomorrow's," says A.J. Schaeffer, a Northern Kentucky attorney who co-chaired Vision 2015, the Northern Kentucky planning project, along with Votruba.

"It has unequivocally evolved into a foundational pillar in our community."

NKU's enrollment grew this fall by 2.6 percent to about 15,800. Undergraduate enrollment has grown 25 percent since 2000. Since then, the school has built the $70 million Bank of Kentucky Center; $35 million Dorothy Westerman Herrmann Natural Science Center, the $35 million student union (paid for with student fees that were instituted by a student vote); a $3 million welcome center; the $13.7 million university suites housing; and the $6.5 million soccer stadium.

According to Votruba, the university graduated more than 2,500 students last year, an increase of more than 11 percent compared to 2008. Degree production has mushroomed 71 percent in the past 10 years, nearly double the average percentage increase of the other Kentucky public universities.

A tour of Griffin Hall quickly establishes its credibility as a new kind of learning center. Its digitorium is a theater-sized space that will employ microtiles embedded in the front wall and digital ribbons stripped along every wall, all of which can display a series of small images, or one big one on the front wall, suitable for teaching, performance and live interaction with other educators, students or performers anywhere in the world thanks to high-speed internet connections.

A digital video production studio is across the hall from computer servers, which, in keeping with the digital education theme of the school, are housed behind a glass wall. Similarly, the bullpen for aspiring journalists also will be on display next to an expansive, daylight-flooded atrium where students from the divergent informatics specializations can converge over a cup of coffee and, most likely, smart phones and laptops.

Chris Strobel, associate professor of electronic media and broadcasting and vice chair of communication, says the college pivoted with the times, transforming its radio and television major into a broader electronic media one.

"We changed our curriculum pretty drastically from big core, little tracks to here's a broad thing about making media and you need to know some business, some more production so you choose out of these courses, law and ethics "¢ they get an idea of the real world and get to learn about some electronic storytelling," Strobel says.

As a result, informatics has placed nearly all of its graduates in high-paying jobs.

"The college of informatics must be a textbook example of responding to the community," Schaeffer says. "In business and in this community, the discipline of informatics would have been rarely mentioned, certainly not a commonplace aspiration for either students or small businesses, a few years ago."

Similarly, what was once NKU's department of nursing has responded, at breakneck speed, to a rapidly expanding healthcare field by creating and growing the College of Health Professions, which encompasses
nursing, radiologic technology, respiratory care and health science programs. The nursing program was only a department until 2005, when it became a school. In 2009, the school became the college.

"During the early 2000's, even through 2009, there was a tremendous shortage of health professionals," says Denise Robinson, dean and regents professor of the College of Health Professions. "In most of the programs, but primarily nursing, we doubled the number of students we took."

Today, the nursing master's program has expanded to 280 students compared to 60 just seven years ago.

"We don't start a program at this university without asking, "¢What is the market for that program? What's going to be the demand?'" Votruba says. "We're a $200-million enterprise that offers educational programs and services in a very competitive marketplace."

The College of Health Professions turned away 200 qualified candidates last year. As a result, NKU's next major capital project is a new home for the college, which it envisions to include state-of-the-art simulation labs and much more high-tech gear to help students understand and lead the way as healthcare providers carry out federal mandates to move into the digital electronic age. The school is seeking funding for the facility, estimated to cost $92.5 million.

The college has created a Master of Science in Nursing program and plans to introduce a Ph.D. program next fall, pending accreditation, another response to the community need for nurse practitioners, with its ranks expected to swell as the need for healthcare professionals rises to accommodate more people as a result of national healthcare reform.

Students at the college aren't sequestered in the classrooms and labs. They engage in internships at area hospitals and work at housing projects in Covington, offering basic services like blood pressure tests and offering access to further care.

The college's Pathways to Nursing program recruits junior high and freshman high school students for overnight visits and tag-along visits to hospitals to get students thinking about their opportunities.

Faculty members keep their fingers on the community's pulse as well. Robinson finds four hours a week to work as a nurse practitioner outside the school. For 20 years, the chair of nursing has worked every other weekend in UC Medical Center's emergency room.

It's adding up to continued expansion of enrollment and facilities, even during tough times, a consequence of a consistent philosophy.

"I've believed all my life that higher education in this country is not viewed as an end in itself but a vehicle to accomplish a broader set of public purposes," Votruba says. "When the public views universities as being strongly aligned with their broader aspirations, they're more likely to support higher education."