| 2014 Q3 | story by EMILY MULLIGAN | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
He has so many responsibilities and roles, that even as the University’s spokesperson, Tim Caboni, University of Kansas Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs, cannot list them all, except to sum them up, “My job is whatever the Chancellor says it is.”
Regardless of his job description, Caboni has made many imprints in Lawrence and Douglas County in just three years on the job. He is an academic in a public relations role, a lobbyist in an academic role, a citizen in an advocacy role and many other seemingly contrasting descriptors.
Aside from serving as KU’s spokesperson, he coordinates KU’s legislative agenda, oversees public affairs for all of KU’s campuses and also serves as associate professor of educational leadership and policy.
As many community activists and local officials will attest, one of Caboni’s main roles is to serve as a liaison between KU and the community.
“What we want to ensure is that we lift the crimson and blue curtain that sometimes surrounds the university, get down off the Hill and engage in the community, to ensure that every constituency knows that Lawrence and the University of Kansas are great partners,” Caboni said.
Caboni came to KU in June 2011 from Vanderbilt University, where he was associate dean of education. A native of New Orleans, having spent his entire educational and professional life in the South, he nonetheless settled right into life in Lawrence.
“His title is the Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs, the city is part of that ‘public,’” said Lawrence City Manager David Corliss. “He’s been a good liaison for us to various KU administrative bodies. When we need to know who to contact at KU, we usually start with Tim.”
Doug Gaumer, Northeast Kansas Regional President for Intrust Bank, has seen Caboni’s impact from his positions as previous chair of The Chamber and as a representative on local community boards.
“The relationship with the university is as strong as it’s ever been from a community perspective, and I think Tim Caboni is the main reason,” Gaumer said.
Caboni sees his job as being part of infinite collaborations – some very public, such as Rock Chalk Park, and others that are more behind-the-scenes of KU and the community.
“The university benefits from a strong community, and the community benefits from a strong KU,” Corliss said.
The Bioscience and Technology Business Center (BTBC) stands out as an example of Caboni’s collaborative efforts. The BTBC serves as an incubator and consultant for emerging biotechnical businesses, providing office space and resources for those innovators and small companies that want to locate in Lawrence. It is a partnership that Caboni has helped facilitate among the City of Lawrence, Douglas County, KU, KU Endowment, Kansas Department of Commerce, The Chamber and the Economic Development Corporation, to lure, launch and secure business in those sectors for Lawrence and Douglas County.
“The project has been an unparalleled success. It is the largest incubator in the Midwest. We were at capacity years ahead of schedule,” Caboni said.
This fall, the BTBC will open its second phase, which includes additional physical space and the introduction of the Catalyst Program, to provide resources for entrepreneurial KU students while they are in school.
The BTBC is not the only entity in which Caboni has a role in attracting businesses to the area. He also is an ex-officio member of The Chamber’s board, where he works with community leaders to attract and retain businesses.
“We have 20,000 talented undergraduates who would love nothing more than to begin their careers here in Lawrence. But for them to have a place to stay, we need to do everything in our power to bring companies to town to create those jobs,” Caboni said.
Bonnie Lowe, chief operating officer of The Chamber, has asked Caboni for help from the university in reaching out to local employers and making a connection. She has been surprised at how willing he is to be personally involved.
“He not only supports job development and growth with his words, but he puts his time and his talents in. When it comes to economic development, he gets it,” Lowe said. “He can talk to academics and talk to the business world, and he can figure out how all these things can come together to be a successful business driver.”
Caboni’s community involvement does not just entail meetings and work-day dealings with the business community. His job can have a fun side, as well.
“One thing about having a flagship university in a community this size is that we can create opportunities for entertainment that might not otherwise exist in a town of 80,000 people,” Caboni said.
He cites the touring groups that visit the Lied Center, exhibits at the Spencer Museum of Art, hundreds of intellectual activities with guest speakers and presentations and, of course, athletic events.
This year, Caboni helped take KU role in community entertainment even further by working with the Lawrence Arts Center to expand the Free State Festival into more than just a film festival, by adding the “ideas” component and hence more activities and promotion to the events.
He says that the root of his job is building relationships and creating opportunities for individuals and entities to interact with the university.
“I can bridge any number of gaps, either through my academic background or sometimes even through force of personality,” Caboni said.
Community leaders note Caboni’s personality, and not just his penchant for bow ties and loud patterns, as one of his strongest attributes.
“Tim is a strong advocate for KU’s initiatives and the Chancellor’s priorities, as KU seeks to continuously improve and maintain its flagship status in the state,” Corliss said. “I think he has that uncontained enthusiasm for KU and the individuals involved with KU.”
Lowe says that the local business community is learning more about KU because of Caboni.
“At the forefront, he’s a wonderful ambassador for the University of Kansas, and he’s very important to our community and region, as well,” Lowe said. “How he articulates the mission of the University of Kansas is so incredibly professional and insightful. It is helpful for us to have a better understanding of the University of Kansas and their operations.”
Caboni says that he and his team in public affairs both perceive and talk about the university not as it is now, but instead what they aspire for it to become in five years. This helps them to remain positive, and not just in a “spin” way, even when faced with difficulties.
“He holds himself and the university accountable, in that he never views himself or the university as a victim, but rather puts the on us back on him or the university to achieve goals in the situations,” Gaumer said.
For example, Gaumer says that during the past year, when faced by cuts from the state legislature, instead of complaining or blaming anyone, Caboni’s response was, “We’re going to have to make adjustments.”
Caboni has become part of the fabric of Lawrence and Douglas County in his three years, and he points to several developments as signs of significant change in the area.
“As somebody who lives downtown, the interest and investment in East Lawrence is going to be transformative, not just for that neighborhood but also for the increasing vibrancy of downtown as a place to live, work and play,” Caboni said.
He says that the development of Rock Chalk Park, in which he played a large role for the university, will be a catalyst for development and change in many ways, most of which remain to be seen, but he is confident this will be positive for the community.
He also cites KU’s master plan, which not only will expand the university physically, but could also promote corporate investment, allowing companies to co-locate directly next to academic buildings.
“That will be a game-changer,” Caboni said.
Caboni occasionally finds time to enjoy Lawrence’s amenities, even if it means being interrupted by Lawrencians who would like for him to pass on a message to the chancellor, which he says happens quite a bit.
He lives downtown and often can be found eating and drinking at local establishments. Caboni admits falling prey to the winning ways that take place in Allen Fieldhouse.
“I have come to love and understand Kansas basketball in a way that I just couldn’t imagine, having grown up in the SEC,” Caboni said. ■