When Charles Wethington left the president's office at the University of Kentucky 11 years ago, a Herald-Leader editorial said his most enduring legacy would be the William T. Young Library. It was Wethington who put together the $62 million financial package that made the facility a reality.
It was also Wethington who launched a $400 million fund-raising campaign that quickly raised its sights to $600 million and later, under former President Lee T. Todd Jr., topped the $1 billion mark. Under Wethington, too, UK's endowment grew from less than $80 million to $400 million.
On the down side, the editorial noted his losing fight against the higher education reforms former Gov. Paul Patton successfully championed in his first term.
We call this past editorial to mind today to say mea culpa. (Or, as an editorial board, perhaps "wea culpa"?) Nothing Wethington did as UK president, positive or negative, will be his most enduring legacy. He made sure of that by spending the past 11 years collecting a salary of more than $200,000 a year for doing not much of anything.
UK's board of trustees on Tuesday approved (no doubt gratefully) the 76-year-old's retirement. UK has lost $50 million in recurring state funding since 2007. Wethington's overdue departure comes as UK is laying off about 140 people or 1 percent of its workforce while trimming an additional 160 vacant positions.
Wethington was paid $265,000 a year to be a "fund-raiser" for the first two years after leaving the presidency. But a year into that job, university officials could not put a dollar amount to how much Wethington was raising for the school. What could be documented were the expenses he incurred jetting around the country in chartered planes and picking up the tab for meals with friends.
Since 2003, Wethington has been paid $212,484 a year as an associate professor at what is now Bluegrass Community and Technical College. That's more than five times what the average associate professor at the school was making in 2003. At the time he made the transition from fund-raiser to associate professor, Wethington said he would be writing his memoirs and doing research. He has also served as an advisor to the BCTCS president.
This golden parachute deal was the price UK trustees who pushed for Wethington's ouster had to pay to keep him and his supporters on the UK board from putting up a "scorched earth" fight during the middle of a fund-raising campaign. At the time, it may have seemed worth it to get rid of a president who had become a hindrance to the university after fighting against the tide of reform and losing. And there's no doubt UK is the better for his departure from the president's office.
But it's doubtful few of the trustees on either side of the fight expected Wethington to hang around long enough to collect well over $2 million in salary. With the administrative costs associated with maintaining his office in the library he was so instrumental in building, the total cost to UK has to be well over $3 million. Think how many academic scholarships could have been awarded to needy young Kentuckians desperate for a college education with that amount of money.
This, then, will be the most enduring legacy of Charles Wethington. The spiteful greed he displayed by draining the school he once led of millions of dollars and leaving little or nothing to show for it. We can only wonder if he thinks the hit his reputation has taken as a result was worth it.