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HomeEducationAustin Peay State University: The Licaris come home

Austin Peay State University: The Licaris come home

Austin Peay State University - APSUClarksville, TN – On a pleasant, late winter afternoon in March, Dr. Michael Licari stood inside his new kitchen, rummaging through a box of dishes. Plates were stacked neatly on the counter behind him, waiting to be placed inside cabinets, and the bare walls still smelled of fresh paint.

Michael Licari and Kirsten Licari
Michael Licari and Kirsten Licari

“This is home,” Licari said. “As we speak, we’re still unboxing stuff.”

In years past, he’d spend March afternoons in heavy winter boots while trekking through the snow as provost and vice president of academic affairs at Indiana State University. But last fall, he heard Alisa White had left Austin Peay State University (APSU) to become president of Sam Houston State University in Texas. Was he interested in moving south to become APSU’s 11th president?

“I didn’t have to think too long about it,” Licari said. “With the University’s mission, the quality of its education, and what it’s been doing, it was just a no-brainer.”

Still, he needed to make sure his wife, Kirsten, was onboard. The couple had been together since they were undergrads, and they’d spent their married years at colleges across the country. Was she ready to start over on a new campus?

“I just love the energy of campuses – everyone has their dream, and they’re working hard, but they’re also having fun,” she said. “When he told me about this job, I said, ‘Go for it.’”

He did, and on December 21st, 2020, after a long, four-month national search process, Austin Peay State University’s Board of Trustees named Licari the University’s next president. A little more than three months later, he stood with Kirsten in the Archwood kitchen, unpacking dishes and marveling at the journey that brought them to that moment.

‘We just jump right in’

Austin Peay State University Athletics Director Gerald Harrison presents a jersey to the Licari family. (Robert Smith, APSU Athletics)
Austin Peay State University Athletics Director Gerald Harrison presents a jersey to the Licari family. (Robert Smith, APSU Athletics)

In the fall of 1989, 18-year-old Michael Licari left his home in Rochester, Minnesota, to study engineering at the University of Minnesota. Once on campus, he felt energized by the lectures and debates in his non-engineering classes. As the months passed, he felt himself slowly drifting farther away from that field, and when his freshman year ended, he decided to change his major to political science.

“I never had aspirations for elected office,” he said. “I just found public life to be really fascinating. I was interested in government operations and policy.”

 


 

When he wasn’t in class or studying, Licari played trumpet for the university’s marching band. That’s where he met a young alto sax player and Minneapolis native named Kirsten.

“We met literally lining up next to each other for the pregame show,” Licari said. 

Kirsten had enrolled at the university to pursue her dream – creative writing. While Licari met with his political science professors, she worked on stories, poems and essays for her English classes.

“I’ve loved writing my whole life,” she said. “I wrote stories when I was little – I love fiction.”

In June 1993, Michael and Kirsten graduated with their bachelor degrees. A month later, they were married. A week after the ceremony, the newlyweds moved east so Licari could begin his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“We tend to do that,” he laughed. “We just jump right in.”

‘This is a great way to make a difference’

During his student career, first at Minnesota and then Wisconsin, Licari quickly realized he wanted to spend his life in academia. He, like Kirsten, loved the energy on a college campus.

“When I was an undergrad and also as a grad student, I loved interacting with my professors,” he said. “That academic life was really, really intriguing, and I also saw the power that was there, that you could just transform so many lives. That’s really what got me even as an undergrad, when figuring out what I wanted to do, how to make a difference. This was a great way to make difference. You touch so many people and change their lives forever, and you also change their families’ lives. Anyone who comes after, their kids. It lasts for generations, which is humbling.”

In August 1997, four years after he arrived in Milwaukee, Licari graduated with his Ph.D. in political science. He and Kirsten then moved to Binghamton, New York, where he began his academic career as an assistant professor of political science at the State University of New York Binghamton. That’s where the Licaris experienced another pivotal moment in both their lives – the birth of their son Daniel.

The Licaris decided it was important for Daniel to be closer to family during his childhood, so after four years in New York, they moved back across country to Cedar Falls, where Licari took a job as assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa. He’d spend the next 14 years at that school, serving as professor, department chair, associate dean, associate provost, interim provost, and, for the fall 2014 semester, interim president.

“Administration – that wasn’t the goal early in my career,” he said. “When I think about my course, it’s the same advice I recently gave students in the Morgan University Center. ‘Always be ready for the opportunity to knock. Work hard and do your current job as well as you can, so when opportunity knocks, you can not only open the door, but say yes.’ You have to be ready, and you have to open the door. I kept saying yes and found every step in my career to be more rewarding then the last.”

While Licari moved into administrative roles at Northern Iowa, Kirsten focused on raising Daniel and, late at night, her writing. Over the years, she published a couple poems, an article, and one year her work won a Halloween writing contest through a local newspaper. She also became active in the Boy Scouts with her son, camping every month of the year, no matter how cold the winter nights turned in Iowa.

In July 2015, with Daniel nearing the end of his high school career, the family decided to jump into a new adventure. They left Iowa for Terra Haute, where Licari was named provost and vice president of academic affairs at Indiana State University.

‘It’s a pretty small world’

Six years after he arrived in Indiana, Licari learned Austin Peay State University was looking for a new president. When opportunity knocks, he told himself, be ready and open the door. That’s what he did.

“I talked earlier about the power a university has to do good, and Austin Peay State University really drives home this power because of the students we serve,” he said. “We make such a huge impact, a huge difference.”

For 94 years, Austin Peay State University has helped change the trajectories of families across the country. Thousands have earned their degrees and moved on to live successful, enriched lives. Soon after being named president, Licari saw how big of an impact Austin Peay State University has had over the last nine decades.

“We started meeting so many people who said, ‘Oh my parents went there,’ or, ‘Oh, my neighbor went there,’” Kirsten said.

“It’s a pretty small world,” Licari added. “One of the women who had an office literally around the corner from mine at Indiana State, she showed up one day with a vintage Austin Peay basketball jersey. She said, ‘My parents went there.’”

 


 

The COVID-19 Cornavirus pandemic resulted in a strange interview process, with Licari not meeting many people in person. Now, he and Kirsten are living on campus – Daniel is finishing his senior year at Indiana State – and they’re immersing themselves in the Governor culture.

“We can’t wait to get the campus back to normal and really feel the energy,” Licari said.

But on that March afternoon, as they continued to unpack their belongings at the Archwood Mansion, they were preoccupied with another challenge.

“We’re trying to think what’s the first big thing we cook?” Kirsten said. “Lasagna? Chicken wild rice soup?”

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