Todd achieved much; where now for UK?

Economic realities force new goals

September 12, 2010 

UK president Lee Todd during a legislative issues meeting at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., Monday, January 28, 2002.


As the University of Kentucky begins its nine-month transition to new leadership, looking back is the easy part of the equation.

In his nine years leading UK, retiring President Lee T. Todd Jr. presided over a period of considerable progress and accomplishments — which might have been even better had it not been for a series of crippling cuts in state funding.

Todd deserves credit for developing a business plan with measurable goals for achieving Top 20 status as a public research university, even if this dream has been endangered by the funding cuts; for improving the quality of the faculty and administrative staff; for increasing enrollment, retention and diversity on the campus; for doubling the school's operating budget, despite the lack of visionary and monetary help from the General Assembly; for the construction of a new hospital and pharmacy school; for ramping up research spending — the list could go on and on.

Give Todd credit, too, for some intangibles — for calling attention to the health and poverty issues he dubbed the "Kentucky uglies"; for his constant commitment to improving the educational lot of Kentucky's youth, which he promises to continue championing in retirement; even for serving as a role model for those youth by providing an example of a native son who rose to the top in both the business and education worlds.

For all the positives, Todd's tenure also included a couple of disappointments.

He never seemed to really connect with much of the UK faculty, some of whom felt the traditional teaching role of a university was neglected on his watch.

Joe Peek, the new faculty trustee on the UK board, says faculty members describe the central academic portion of the university campus as the "Valley of Death."

And although Todd said all the right things about the 900-pound gorilla overshadowing academics at UK when he took the job, athletics remained a distraction throughout his tenure and continues to wield far too much influence. Witness Todd's acquiescence on the ill-conceived Wildcat Coal Lodge.

While a review of the Todd years at UK simply requires a listing of the pluses and minuses, a look into the UK's future reveals more questions than answers.

Start with the transition.

Todd now is a lame duck. The UK board currently is led by an interim chair, which is akin to being a lame duck. And lame ducks don't get the same kind of petting healthy ducks get.

So, who will step forward and be a forceful voice for UK during a 2011 General Assembly session that likely will include more difficult budget decisions? Fayette County's legislative delegation has rarely been up to the task.

Beyond the transition, the first question awaiting a new president is: To be Top 20 or not to be Top 20?

This dream was the product of more normal economic times. As Todd noted in announcing his retirement, "normal" won't be back anytime soon — if ever.

Top 20 status was always a means to an end, not the end itself. What good is Top 20 status if it doesn't provide a significant educational and economic lift for the state?

So, absent the financing for its business plan, it seems reasonable for UK to consider alternate methods of achieving these ends.

Keeping a UK education affordable for Kentucky students has to be a part of the discussion. From an economic perspective, realizing the unfulfilled promise of Coldstream Research Park figures in the debate as well.

One era is ending at UK; another soon will begin. But the educational and economic missions of this flagship university transcend eras, and will ever do so.

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