Tom Eblen: Lee Todd's leadership strengthened UK

Todd shepherded school through big challenges

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 9, 2010 

Lee T. Todd Jr. has always said his goal was not simply to improve the University of Kentucky, but to use the university to improve life for all Kentuckians.

As a teary-eyed Todd, 64, announced Wednesday he would step down next June after completing a decade as UK's president, he made it clear his goals haven't changed. He just plans to keep trying to achieve them in different ways.

"I have a pulpit I can use in this state and nationally to talk about some things that we need to do," he said.

Those things, Todd said, include exploring alternative ways to fund education as taxpayer support remains flat; improving math and science skills that will help young Kentuckians be competitive for the good jobs of the future; and harnessing UK's brainpower to solve some of the state's most persistent problems — what Todd has always called the "Kentucky uglies."

While much remains to be done, Todd's tenure will be remembered as one of solid accomplishment.

"I think Lee has done an outstanding job under very, very difficult circumstances," said Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. "His focus on entrepreneurship led to a more active and vigorous entrepreneurial climate at the university."

Todd was a former UK engineering professor who had achieved wealth as a technology entrepreneur when he became the university's 11th president in 2001. He immediately set out to make UK more open, from improving relationships with city and state leaders to symbolically cutting down the hedges that surrounded the president's mansion. Many described him as a "breath of fresh air."

Todd's business plan for achieving Top 20 status among the nation's public research universities received an initial $23 million from the General Assembly in 2007-08. But the plan became increasingly hard to pursue as economic troubles caused state funding to dry up.

Despite flat state funding of a little more than $300 million, Todd increased the university's annual operating budget from $1.2 billion to $2.4 billion. UK completed a $1 billion capital campaign, attracted more than $150 million in additional research funds and found $112 million in cost savings.

Undergraduate enrollment rose 11.2 percent; student retention rose to 81 percent and the graduation rate reached a record 61.4 percent. The faculty and student body grew more diverse in recent years.

Many top faculty members and administrators were recruited. Many new buildings were built, including a state-of-the-art hospital now under construction.

Although he came from the world of science and technology, Todd and his wife, Patsy, were very supportive of the arts, said Everett McCorvey, director of UK's acclaimed Opera Theatre program and a faculty trustee. The Todds took a personal interest in students, often inviting them into their home.

Todd's ambitions for UK were often frustrated by a lack of money. Salaries stagnated and programs were cut, angering faculty members who saw what top administrators and coaches were earning. Tuition rates doubled, angering students and their parents.

Todd faced a no-win situation when he was caught between anti-coal environmentalists and coal barons with millions to donate to the university. Author Wendell Berry pulled his personal papers from the UK archives in protest over the basketball dorm's being named Wildcat Coal Lodge.

Todd increased support for women's and minor sports that have always been in the shadow of basketball and football.

But professors complained he never seemed able to tame UK's powerful sports programs. Todd stuck with former football Coach Rich Brooks, which proved to be a good bet. But the hiring of former basketball Coach Billy Gillispie was a disaster. UK now has two able coaches in Joker Phillips and John Calipari, if only their programs can stay out of trouble.

Despite controversies and animosities, frustrations and lack of progress in some areas, UK finds itself stronger and more adaptable to change after nearly a decade of Todd's leadership.

"I feel like the place has blossomed dramatically in the 10 years he has been president," said Alan Hawse, an alumnus and vice president of information technology at California-based Cypress Semiconductor. "He has focused the university on making Kentucky a better place."

Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at teblen@herald-leader.com. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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