The University of Kentucky's board of trustees spent two hours of its retreat Sunday morning touring campus buildings, and pretty soon afterward, a discussion of big ideas sharpened to one big and very expensive issue.
"What I learned is that we need three to four times the amount of money (for new construction) as I thought," said C.M. "Bill" Gatton. He later clarified that amount to about $3 billion.
Trustees were clearly dismayed by the state of buildings, 80 of which were designated "fair to poor" in a recent facility report. Because facilities tie into so many factors — student recruiting and retention, up-to-date instruction and adequate research space — the topic stood out clearly during wide-ranging discussions on UK's identity and way forward.
Because the amount of money needed is far beyond UK's or the state's resources, Gatton and several others were enthusiastic about private-public construction partnerships that have been created at schools around the country.
For example, UK doesn't even have enough dorms to house all freshman and sophomores, and much of what it does have is outdated. A private company could build dorms and then lease them back to UK. University officials said they already had explored what state permissions would have to be obtained for that to happen.
Bob Wiseman, UK's vice president for facilities management, said the main question for the board was, "How much do you want to keep investing in old facilities?"
UK spends $6 million to $7 million a year on major capital repairs such as new roofs, Wiseman said, but as old buildings get older, that will be $10 million a year soon.
"We're trapped in doing maintenance where it's not economical," faculty trustee Joe Peek said.
Facilities will be an important piece of President Eli Capilouto's work, but they are also part of a four-piece set of priorities that the board adopted.
The first piece was undergraduate education, which includes strengthening the quality of students with aggressive marketing, better scholarships and outreach to all levels of education, from elementary education to community colleges. That means improving the student experience with better dorms and classrooms, more technology, more communities to which students can belong and an expanded honors program.
The second piece is to take more creative approaches to financial resources, including improved development, more-efficient operations, and effective work within the political system.
The third piece is "innovation for 21st-century learning," with ideas including improving research, leveraging UK's extension offices, and defining and increasing UK's economic impact.
The last piece was "human capital," which encompassed improving faculty and staff pay, better professional development, and shared governance with the administration.
Billy Joe Miles, a longtime trustee from Owensboro, said he was disappointed to repeat the conversation that trustees had had in previous administrations. He said UK had clearly not convinced the politicians or the public that UK could be the state's most important economic driver.
But another experienced trustee, Pam May of Pikeville, said boards need to re-evaluate an institution's goals and action plans frequently.
"We came here to get refocused," she said. "We know we have to maintain a high quality of education, and facilities are part of that. I think we had a key message, President Capilouto, that we don't want to talk about these goals for years. But I think the board is re-energized."