Report outlines urgent needs at the University of Kentucky

Undergraduate education, facilities top list

lblackford@herald-leader.comSeptember 30, 2011 

President Eli Capilouto is marking three months at the University of Kentucky with a report that underlines the university's most urgent needs.

Capilouto said that as he has traveled the state and gotten to know the UK campus, he has seen a deep appreciation for the education, research and service that UK provides.

"But there also is a sense of realism that we live in a dramatically different world than we did only a decade ago," he said in a campuswide email sent Thursday. "The recessionary forces continuing to buffet against our global and state economy have changed the economic realities in which we must work as well.

"We cannot, as I've told several colleagues, change the direction of the wind, but we must adjust our sails to continue our progress."

A review committee, chaired by university Senate Council chairwoman Hollie Swanson, noted gains and growth in the quality of students and faculty, the medical center and the amount of research, but it said there are crucial areas that need immediate attention.

The committee made several recommendations, including:

■ Improve undergraduate education.

UK's retention and graduation rates remain low compared with those of other research universities. The committee looked at schools that succeeded in improving these rates and found that it would help to expand the honors program, increase both merit and need-based scholarships, and improve the residential housing experience.

■ Improve facilities.

UK has facility needs that top $1 billion, including antiquated residential dorms. The committee said the president needs to review the construction priority list, expand and improve housing, expand and innovate classroom space with new technologies, and expand research and laboratory space.

■ Improve faculty and staff salaries.

UK's faculty salaries now rank near the bottom in comparison with their peers, and the committee recommends that the president review those salaries and bring them more in line.

■ Improve research and graduate education, particularly research and programs that serve Kentucky.

The report also says Capilouto needs to clarify overall priorities and align the university's resources accordingly.

However, those resources, which are increasingly scarce, lie at the crux of the issue. State funding has flat-lined over recent years, and UK officials will have to continue to look for alternative funding for many of the university's needs.

"We're realistic about the economy and how that impacts state support going forward," spokesman Jay Blanton said.

The review committee's members came from across the university, including faculty, staff and key administrators. The committee was staffed by the Huron Consulting Group, which was paid $285,000 for its work.

Committee chairwoman Swanson said Huron pulled together a lot of national data in a short time. The data looked at other universities that aren't UK's official benchmark peers but have a lot in common with UK.

Swanson said she believes the two biggest pushes have to be improving undergraduate education and facilities.

According to the report, UK still has a six-year graduation rate of less than 60 percent, which is low compared to schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or Ohio State. While the average ACT score of incoming freshmen has improved, it still ranks below many of UK's peers.

"The undergraduate piece just stood out," Swanson said. "It sort of makes sense. Under President Todd we were really focused on building up research. Now we need to focus on our undergraduate mission. It's like a re-balancing."

Frank Ettensohn, director of UK's Honors Program, was glad to hear the committee recognized that the program needs broadening. Every year, he gets about 750 applications for about 250 spots.

There is a plan to expand the program, which offers a multi-disciplinary curriculum in small-group settings. But the main problem is money.

"There are so many students who would like to get into the program but are unable to," he said. "If we don't get more money, we can't bring this to more students."

Mike Mullen, the associate provost for undergraduate education, said improving the undergraduate experience is tightly linked with better facilities.

"We would like to have 100 percent of our freshmen on campus, we have about 92 or 93 percent because we don't have enough beds," Mullen said. "We would also welcome 21st-century classrooms."

Capilouto will be discussing the report in detail — and how to pay for it — with the board of trustees at its annual retreat, which will be Saturday and Sunday.

To read the full report, go to www.uky.edu/president/review_report.pdf.

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