The University of Kentucky is an institution perpetually on the brink. Or so it seems to long-time UK watchers.
It is either on the brink of a breakthrough into the upper reaches of public universities. Or it's on the brink of a backward slide because of unreliable state support.
Or, like now, it's teetering on the brink of both, as staff writers Linda B. Blackford and Cheryl Truman have chronicled in their reporting on challenges awaiting the person who, early next month, will be named UK's 12th president.
As trustees choose a successor to Lee T. Todd Jr., what's striking are both the possibilities and the tenuous nature of recent accomplishments.
Especially tenuous are the gains in faculty recruitment made possible by the Patton era Bucks for Brains program and an infusion of state money by the 2006 legislature.
Something else is striking. There is a sense almost of resignation about eroding state support.
Twenty years ago, 40 percent of UK's operating funds came from Kentucky taxpayers through legislative appropriations. By 2001 state support had dipped to 25.6 percent. It's now just 12.5 percent.
In 2007-08, UK's income from tuition and fees began exceeding appropriations by the legislature.
Like its counterparts nationally, UK is looking for opportunities to generate revenue for itself. One outgrowth of this is a proliferation of online classes and distance-learning degrees.
Under the circumstances, UK's administration must channel resources into the areas that have the most potential to produce income. That mainly means research and academic areas where enrollment is growing.
This trend toward entrepreneurial academe is so widespread it has a label: the corporatization of higher education.
The corporate mentality suffused this presidential search at times. Most memorably, a consultant told trustees they would have to pay upwards of $700,000 to compete for a president. Given the economic hardships faced by so many Kentuckians, you might think such tone deafness would be possible only in a corporate boardroom. But no, it's become the norm in places that once were the province of education and public service.
That's not meant as criticism of those leading this presidential search, which from all appearances has been diligent. Unlike the last two times UK picked a president, there's no obvious favorite or frontrunner, and that's refreshing.
A lot is riding on the trustees' wisdom. No hire, except perhaps the one voters make in the governor's race this year, will have a greater impact on Kentucky's future.
The next president will inherit a full plate, including $500 million in capital construction needs and $50 million in scholarships that need endowing. It's a trick to juggle the dual goals of raising academic standards for students and educating an under-educated state, all the while keeping a wildly popular sports program within proper bounds.
And there's that goal, enshrined in state law, of making UK a Top 20 public research university. (UK may never get there, but just measuring progress toward the goal is worthwhile.)
Meanwhile, changes at UK and across higher education raise big questions about our values as a society and dwindling public support for higher education.
It makes sense for a business to focus resources on what's most popular or profitable. But universities have always been where the intellectually curious or artistically inspired wander off into the realm of the unexplored and unknown. What happens at the frontiers of knowledge if scientists and scholars must pursue profits rather than their passions?
Where would civilization be if Plato and his sidekicks had been told to turn that grove near Athens into a profit center?
Along with all the other qualities required in the leader of a $2.47 billion annual operation with responsibility for 28,000 students and 12,225 full-time employees, UK's next president should also be someone who can make a compelling case for strong public support of higher education.