It is obvious John Nicklow isn’t afraid of a challenge. After serving a brief stint as provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of New Orleans, he was named president of the university in March. It was a controversial pick; with enrollment falling and state budget cuts looming large, many thought a CEO type would be better for the job. But as a former civil engineer for the federal government, Nicklow is a problem solver, and he’s hoping to boost UNO’s reputation as a research institution and bolster enrollment. While UNO doesn’t have the type of Greek life or a football scene of the state’s other public universities, it’s rigorous and affordable – and in the face of crushing student debt and a tough economy, UNO could be positioned to be the modern, streamlined university.

Q: What about UNO appealed to you? The opportunity for growth, the opportunity for partnership with the industry and community members here and others outside the region, and the opportunity to grow our research enterprises I think are unmatched, really, when I was looking at institutions – and I was looking at other institutions and positions at a variety of places. In addition, the culture, the food – it’s New Orleans. It’s just a fantastic place to be. Everyone’s so welcoming. How do you say no to an opportunity like this?

Q: What needs to happen to get UNO to be a great research institution? We need to increase our enrollment. That’s just the highest priority. What we need to do is let more people know, outside this region in particular but also in the region, what a great asset this is. It’s a high quality, rigorous education, and when you come here you get a job – a good job. Our programs are nationally known, world-renowned in many cases. A lot of folks in New Orleans don’t know that. It was interesting to me; I came from Illinois, and I knew the University of New Orleans and a number of its programs. We need to get that message out. I don’t think enough (people) across the country realize we’re here, that we’re better than ever and there’s potential here. And then (we need to) diversify our enrollment portfolio to include out of state as well as local learners, adult learners and online learners.

My first three, four weeks as president I’ve been meeting with a lot of community and business leaders. They’re willing to work with us. We have great internship opportunities for us, they’re willing to support us financially and otherwise.

Q: Why higher education? You were a civil engineer before this. I missed teaching, I missed research and learning at a research level. And to be honest with you, I got a little bored. I wanted to do more. That’s when I finished my Ph.D. and entered academia. I spent 17 years at Southern Illinois University; I started as an assistant professor and worked my way up.

Every time I got ready to leave I had another opportunity. I ended up as Provost.

Q: What were the challenges and goals you faced there? Challenges, goals – they’re the same thing. They point to the same thing. Enrollment was on a decade-long slide.

Research funding was on a slide. We weren’t fundraising enough or partnering with community enough. Kind of sounds familiar.

At the end, we had the two largest freshmen classes in 20 years, and an 8 point increase in retention. It takes a couple of years to turn total enrollment around, but we did that and saw the first increase in total enrollment in about a decade.

New Orleans is such a different kind of destination – it’s one kind of destination for every journey. It is so much to so many different people. And I don’t know many institutions that sit on a lakefront and have this wonderful view. It’s an environment that’s conducive to recruitment and what we want to do.

Q: What’s the future of higher education? People are more concerned about debt and the job market. We really live in interesting times. I guess to put in context: One is, very seldom do you see economic growth of a region without education, especially higher education. So I think that’s a great opportunity for an investment – over and over it shows return on the investment. We could also talk about during the recession, obviously unemployment rate skyrocketed, but it was lowest for those with degrees. Based on exit surveys from our Fall 2015 graduates, about 80 percent of our graduates either had a job lined up, were enrolled in graduate school or had entered military service upon graduation from UNO. If I’m an investor, that’s a pretty good rate of return.

We have increasing student debt across the county, but this is why institutions like UNO remain really affordable. With or without TOPs, we’re still one of the most affordable options for quality education.

Occupation: President, University of New Orleans

Age: 46

Family: Wife, Stacy; son, Ethan; dog, Sienna

Favorite movie: Anything by Mel Brooks

Favorite book: Leading Change by John Kotter, all Tom Clancy books

Favorite TV show: “Big Bang Theory”

Favorite New Orleans restaurant: Katie’s

Favorite vacation spot: The Outer Banks, North Carolina

True confession
I lived on a Navajo reservation for about three, three-and-a-half months as a grad student. It was really eye-opening … they even tried to teach me to wrestle a steer.

How did that work out? Not so good.