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UK celebrating med school anniversary

The 50th birthday party that University of Kentucky officials are planning for its College of Medicine in 2010 will be a yearlong series of events with a high six-figure price tag.

But leaders of the college say they aren't celebrating just for the sake of cake, revelry or hoopla.

The college's dean, Dr. Jay Perman, envisions the milestone as an opportunity to boost the college's state and national profiles and as the hook for an aggressive fund-raising drive to help offset the mounting cost of students' medical education.

Consider it a celebration with a purpose, Perman said.

"I've been looking toward this for the entire time I've been here," said Perman, who took the college's helm in 2004. "To me, one of the most important jobs is burnishing the image of the medical school because it provides all these great returns — all these talented faculty, the grant dollars, the students."

The anniversary celebration has been in the works for the past two years. And the college already has spent nearly $110,000 with two public relations firms to develop a "Celebrating 50 Years" logo and a theme of "Reaching Beyond" and to research people's perceptions about the school.

The money to cover that planning and a series of events, including an April symposium featuring national figures and a major reception in October, comes from endowment funds that have been specifically tagged for college "advancement," Perman said. At most, the events will cost $1 million.

Perman acknowledged, however, that when the economy tanked in fall 2008, he began scaling back plans for the year's worth of events that would have cost well over $1 million.

"We have cut back significantly," he said. "And we will cut back more if we don't think that over the course of the next three or four months that things are turning around."

Long gone is Perman's hope of producing "coffee-table quality" books about the college's history.

Plans for a fancy blue-tie gala with dinner served on china for movers and shakers has morphed to a less formal reception open to the community to be held Oct. 15 at Keeneland's sales pavilion.

"You have to have plastic because the horses are walking," said Julane Hamon, Perman's chief of staff who has been working on the celebration preparation. "So it's a great way for us to not have china."

UK also might charge up to $50 a person to offset the cost, Perman said. Before the recession hit, officials had budgeted up to $250,000 for that event, according to a contract with Meridian Communications, a public relations firm.

UK also has hired a second public relations firm, Preston Osborne, to help with the planning and recently increased its contract with the firm from a maximum of $185,000 to $335,000 because it is taking over some of the work from Meridian, which had a staffing change, Perman said.

Medical colleges have a history of throwing elaborate or expensive birthday parties as ways to increase their profile.

For instance, the New York Medical College kicked off its 150th anniversary celebration for 2010 with a black-tie gala at the Glen Island Harbour Club in October.

And the University of Maryland's bicentennial in 2007 included a public lecture series with luminaries such as singer Patti LaBelle and Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken as well as a black-tie celebration hosted by comedian Dennis Miller.

UK's events will feature a philanthropic bent, providing the framework for a major scholarship drive.

"I'd like us, frankly, to get to the point where every single one of our 450 medical students, in total, at one time, can be given at least $5,000 in financial assistance a year," Perman said. "It would make a huge difference in terms of their payback over 10 years."

During the 2009 graduation ceremony, Perman made a presentation about the sharp rise in cost of a medical degree and students' debt. Repaying the median debt of $150,000 can cost $2,400 a month over 10 years.

Even on a primary care physician's starting salary of $125,000, "with a real mortgage and $2,400 in interest, you can't do it," Perman said. "That's why these young people, in a time when it's desperate to get more physicians to rural areas, they go into specialities," he said.

The college is seeking donors who would be willing to essentially sponsor each student for $5,000 a year, Perman said. At least $2 million in recurring commitments would be needed each year, he said.

Also on tap for the birthday celebration will be "Mini-Medical School" events in which donors and lawmakers will be invited to see for themselves what medical students go through. In October, the school hosted its first such seminar for 20 public officials, including many lawmakers who will have to vote in the spring on funding for public universities such as UK.

"One of the things I learned was when you go to medical school you work your tail off for a long time," said state Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington. Farmer performed rotator cuff surgery on a cadaver's shoulder section during mini-med school.

Farmer, a fiscal conservative, said he doesn't have a problem with the college spending the money on the anniversary events, especially since donors gave endowment funds to promote the college.

"He's taking some of that money and using it as an investment tool to make it a more prominent college and be able to attract more people to come here and stay here," Farmer said. "This is an investment in the long-term health and welfare of the state."

Perman said that's precisely why they're pressing forward with the celebration.

"We have looked toward this 50th anniversary, which has to be done by definition this coming year," Perman said. "I wish the economy were different. But 50 is 50."