Irina Voro, the University of Kentucky's new faculty trustee, makes at least $3.3 million less than basketball coach John Calipari, teaches in a cramped studio that houses two pianos, and won not one but two elections to get her seat on the board.
She criticizes UK's spending — "Is this the University of Kentucky or Wall Street?" — and said in her platform statement that UK's administration treats the faculty like "bumpkins."
Now, she faces the challenge of being among the newest foursome on the University of Kentucky board of trustees, which also includes C.B. Akins of Lexington, William Britton of Louisville and student trustee Micah Fielden.
Although colleagues told her she was a long shot, she easily won two elections. The results of the first election were scuttled over a technicality.
"People told me, you have no name recognition," she said. "Don't be surprised if you don't win."
Undeterred, she decided that instead of commiserating with her colleagues, she would run an energetic campaign.
Her theme: accountability. Her tone: challenging how UK, the state's flagship university, finds money to give the president a raise when faculty struggled along for years without one.
She said former president Lee Todd got "a nine-year honeymoon." She rejected the constant refrain that cuts in state funding are to blame for a raft of UK's ills, from poorly maintained buildings to underpaid faculty and staff.
"She will be vocal," said fellow faculty trustee Joe Peek, elected in 2010 on a similar reform platform. "I think she'll be aggressive. I think she will have no hesitance to speak up."
Although Peek has joked about the "rubber stamp" that some UK trustees give to administration initiatives, he thinks that during the last year more trustees have been willing to speak up and openly dissent from the prepackaged agenda.
Trustee chairman Britt Brockman of Louisville said that he plans to meet with Voro during the next week to get acquainted.
"She sounds like she's very passionate about the university," Brockman said. "I think we have a great board full of passionate members, and she will fit right in."
He said Voro makes some good points in her platform about better communication within the UK community. "The transparency issue is critical," Brockman said.
Former President Lee Todd, a target of Voro's criticism, could not be reached for comment.
Coming to Kentucky
Voro is both an acclaimed pianist and teacher of piano. But initially, the idea of the piano — even the very sound of the instrument — was foreign to her.
One day, as a toddler on the street in her hometown in southern Russia, Voro heard the sound of a piano for the first time and was enchanted by it. She asked her mother for lessons. But money was tight and buying a piano would have taken weeks, perhaps months, of her parents' salaries.
However, her mother had a pair of ill-fitting boots.
Boots being a desirable consumer item, women came to Voro's house to consider purchasing the boots. One of them was a piano teacher who saw the preschooler "playing" piano on the metal headboard of her bed.
"You must get this child lessons," the woman said.
Voro had found her profession.
When Voro performs, she often interprets the music for classical concertgoers in innovative ways in which she tells her listeners her vision of the piece, perhaps accompanied by lighting, video and sound effects.
In 2004, she was the second University of Kentucky professor to be named Teacher of the Year by the Kentucky Music Teachers' Association.
One of her private students, Connie Wu, now at Yale, called Voro the most influential teacher in her life.
Wu, a graduate of Lexington's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, said Voro's teaching method "is not simply do this and do that, but always feel this and believe what you are playing, down to the smallest detail. ... She is never afraid to express herself, and this quality has carried over not only to my piano playing, but also to my personality."
One trustee, 2,000 strong
As a new trustee, Voro said she has one overwhelming resource: UK's 2,000-member faculty, which she called "the most knowledgeable institutional body in Kentucky."
Her interpretation of the administration of the recently departed Lee Todd is at odds with that of many of the trustees, who were generally pro-Todd and voted him a salary increase of $157,046 retroactive to the 2009-10 academic year. That made Todd's salary $511,046, an increase of nearly 52 percent.
Since Voro's election, Todd has retired and been replaced by Eli Capilouto.
Voro said she still has many of the same questions that she had during the Todd era and cited a Russian proverb: "A fish starts to be rotten at the top."
Voro, who said that a friend who is a former UK auditor couldn't decipher the UK budget that is furnished to each UK trustee, condemned what she called "the secret search for our new president." She asked pointedly in her platform document: "Why are we repeatedly denied raises while the president gets one?"
Voro said she looks forward to more open discussion at trustee meetings.
"The dialogue has to be reasonable, not to rush and take the time" to fully consider issues, she said. " ... Everybody who is doing a public service has to be accountable with what he or she does."
Reach Cheryl Truman at (859) 231-3202 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3202 or Twitter @CherylTruman.