Big question surfaces at University of Kentucky Board of Trustees' annual retreat

roles as flagship, land grant school discussed at retreat

lblackford@herald-leader.comOctober 2, 2011 

The University of Kentucky Board of Trustees' annual retreat is supposed to be about discussing big, weighty issues, but this year the board picked a real doozie: Is there an inherent conflict between UK's status as a land grant university when it is also the flagship school for the commonwealth?

This big question has consequences for many more issues with which the board is grappling. For example, one way to improve many of UK's statistics, such as its six-year graduation rate of 58 percent, would be to raise standards for incoming students. But would that then limit access for some Kentucky students?

"I wonder if a lack of focus is causing us to lose ground on both fronts," said trustee Keith Gannon, who raised the initial question.

In other states, the two institutions are different. For example, Michigan's flagship is the University of Michigan, one of the best public schools in the country, while the land grant school is Michigan State, with the big engineering and agriculture schools.

"I think this is the kind of question a president depends on a board to weigh in on," said UK President Eli Capilouto, now at three months on the job. "I'm grateful it's a question that's happening here."

The conversation that emerged yesterday at Donamire Farm was the result of a university review committee report that identified major needs at UK, including faculty and staff pay and facility upgrades. One issue that clearly stood out for trustees was the need to improve undergraduate education.

Almost 20 percent of all UK students drop out after one year; another third drop out before their third year. The reasons are complex, but preparation is clearly a factor. Students who come in with better credentials are more likely to finish school. One way to make UK more competitive is to recruit more students from out of state. Currently, in-state students make up 75 percent of the student body.

Decades ago, UK accepted anyone from Kentucky who had a high school degree; the university has gotten more selective over the years, but its statistics still lag behind those of comparable schools.

Michael Karpf, the CEO of UK's medical arm, said he doesn't think there has to be a conflict, given UK's enormous presence across the state, from its agriculture extension service to the love so many Kentuckians have for the school (and its basketball team). But trustees said that defining UK as an institution into the 21st century will be an important job.

"We really need some sort of well-defined strategy to fulfill our land grant mission," said Gannon, while improving the flagship status as well.

Trustees will continue the discussion on how to do that when their retreat continues on campus Sunday.

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