Dr. Timothy C. Caboni was sworn into office as the 10th president of Western Kentucky University on July 1, 2017, fully ready to embark upon his self-described dream job. So, wave a red towel, sing out the fight song “Stand Up and Cheer” and warmly welcome home a returning Hilltopper.
While certainly not mandatory, there is a history and tradition of presidents who have studied here since the founding first president Henry Hardin Cherry. Six presidents, including Caboni, began their relationship with the university as graduate students who earned master’s degrees from WKU.
“In any point in one’s career the opportunity to lead a university is a remarkably humbling opportunity, and to get to do it at my alma mater is doubly so,” Caboni said. “It has been a terrific return to a campus I knew well 20-something years ago. It has truly been transformed and is different physically, but there are some commonalities as well. What has remained the same is the focus of faculty and staff on student success and the terrific community that exists here on campus.”
WKU’s roots are traced to the Southern Normal School, established 1884. Cherry enrolled there in 1896 and within six years purchased the struggling institution which evolved into and was renamed Western Kentucky State Normal School in 1906 when he was named president. Cherry became renowned as the leading educator in the state and served as president until his death in 1937. His legacy is WKU, from humble beginnings as a small rural two-year teachers college to the present-day prestigious, nationally-ranked global university with an enrollment approaching 21,000 students that includes three regional campuses in Elizabethtown-Fort Knox, Glasgow and Owensboro. His familiar motto “The Spirit Makes the Master” continues to inspire and challenge each succeeding president.
“To me it means that what we do as an institution is about more than just preparing our students to make a good living,” Caboni said. “It’s about educating the whole person and preparing them to make a good life for themselves and for those around them.”
Caboni has initiated a comprehensive strategic planning or visioning phase during his first year to allow the community to decide together what the shared aspirations are for WKU before implementing any significant changes. His first weeks were spent meeting the extended WKU family and local representatives.
So, what are the new president’s hopes and dreams for the university? An atmosphere of collaboration and a partnership forged to strengthen the university and better the entire community. Applied research education emphasizes the practical application of theoretical knowledge and remains paramount. It’s a university hallmark and was a pivotal and transformational experience for him as a graduate student. Listening, engaging and including the community are characteristics of Caboni’s leadership style. He is easily recognized, with his eye-catching emblematic bowtie, ebullient nature, warm smile and electric, infectious energy.
He is a New Orleans native, the eldest of five children. His dad is a high school science teacher, and his mom has a doctorate in education in Marriage and Family Therapy.
From early childhood, young Caboni was a keen reader, an eager student with a sponge-like memory and zest for living who absorbed the lessons of the value of hard work, dedication and the importance of a good education through the example of his grandfather who went from sweeping floors to owning Southern Paper Company, the firm that made the French bread bag wrappers in the city. His grandmother ran an antique shop on Royal Street in the French Quarter where he spent afternoons after school while attending first and second grade at KIPP McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts.
Hailing from a culinary landmark, food and family are influential parts of Caboni’s makeup.
“My favorite thing to do is to cook,” he said. “And my second favorite thing to do — or maybe my first — is eat what I’ve cooked or what someone else has prepared. My favorite food is actually escargot. I love snails, and I’ve loved them since I was a small child. It’s the food I would always ask for on my birthday, and my parents would make escargot for us.”
Caboni received a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication and Rhetoric in 1992 from Louisiana State University. Initially a music major, he switched when it was suggested he was “perhaps not the most talented saxophone player and music might not be the best career path.” He participated fully in extracurricular activities including two years in the university’s marching band and served as president of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.
“Being a fraternity president might be some of the best preparation I’ve had for being a university president, at least in terms of developing relationships and leading an organization, raising money and other things that I do today,” Caboni said.
Dr. Randy Capps, WKU organizational leadership professor, is credited with offering Caboni an assistantship teaching public speaking after expected graduate school funding from LSU fell through.
“As a student, he represented a professor’s dream,” Capps recalled in the fall issue of the alumni magazine WKU Spirit. “He was an excellent student, always prepared with good questions and observations.”
In 1994, he earned a master’s degree from WKU in Organizational and Corporate Communication.
Hired by Loyola University New Orleans, he worked there from 1994 through 1998. His responsibilities grew rapidly, and his career flourished. He swiftly progressed from development research analyst to assistant director of alumni relations, then as senior development officer and chief of business for capital campaign. He merged his outstanding talents for communication, coordination and strategic planning with a remarkable skill for fundraising that significantly increased endowments and major gifts. He has described his first job at Loyola immersed in “prospect research” or what he also humorously terms “the dark arts of fundraising” of identifying a donor’s capacity and potential interest.
His tangible success was recognized by his future mentor, the late Dave Jones, then vice chancellor for fundraising at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, who recruited him for a doctoral program in Leadership and Policy Studies. He obtained his doctorate in 2001 with a concentration in Institutional Advancement in Higher Education Leadership. He defended his dissertation on fundraising behaviors and in the span of one week went from graduate student to faculty colleague. Caboni has said he has spent every day of his life since high school graduation on a college campus. When he began his doctoral studies, there were only two students in the institutional management program and no specific curriculum for fundraising. He was the founding chair of Peabody Professional Institutes and rebuilt Vanderbilt’s fundraising program. He also collaborated on the creation of summer institutes focused on higher education management and professional development opportunities with responsibilities that included student recruitment, admissions, financial aid and internal and external communications.
Caboni was named associate dean for external relations and professional education in January 2005 while serving as associate professor of the practice of public policy and higher education. In 2011, the chancellor of Kansas University offered Caboni the position of vice chancellor of public affairs.
In addition to his leadership roles as an administrator, fundraiser and public speaker, Caboni has considerable hands-on teaching experience and has published numerous articles in professional and peer-reviewed journals and co-authored the textbook Institutional Advancement: What We Know. His varied skills and career accomplishments to date are vast and would suggest he is a contemporary Renaissance man. While he has little time for outside interests or pets, he does enjoy spending time with his wife while attending WKU cultural and sporting events, particularly college football. He is a self-described political junkie who likes Sunday public affairs shows.
Caboni has been married to the equally charismatic Kacy Schmidt Caboni for three years. They met while working at Kansas and bonded over Jayhawks basketball. Kacy Caboni joined WKU staff as director of principal gifts and special initiatives in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Kansas State and is a veteran development officer and talented fundraiser with 16 years of experience and a proven track record at Kansas State and Kansas, where she served as director of development with the Kansas Endowment Association for the School of Business. She worked to help fund a half billion dollar capital campaign at Kansas State, spearheaded the funding of an $80 million building solely through private contributions and worked on a $1.66 billion campaign.
Dr. Caboni is well-equipped to meet the many challenges facing a university president. Among them are the need to attract and retain top-notch faculty, staff and students; the Kentucky legislative proposed Performance Based Funding; a greater need for private donors, major gifts and endowment fundraising and to grow the stature of WKU domestically and internationally. Focus areas include the need to improve freshmen retention rates to ensure more students move up to sophomore year and graduate in four years.
“The greatest reward for me though will be at commencement shaking the hands of students who complete their degree, particularly those who are first in their families to graduate college,” Caboni said. “I’m so proud that we continue to be an institution of access and opportunity.”