Tom Eblen: UK chief's hiring like arranged marriage

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto
University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto

One professor likened it to the awkward first meeting of a couple in an arranged marriage: Everyone was rushing to figure out whether their new partner was a good match, even though the deal already had been done.

Not only had the deal been done, but the flowers were on their way and the organist was warming up.

On Sunday afternoon, after a secret search, University of Kentucky trustees unveiled Eli Capilouto, the provost of the University of Alabama- Birmingham, as their unanimous choice to be UK's next president.

Before the trustees confirmed his hiring less than 48 hours later, Capilouto had a whirlwind series of meetings with UK administrators, legislative leaders and the mayor; a reception with alumni; dinner with the governor; and one-hour public forums with faculty, staff and students.

It seemed like a strange way for Kentucky to choose a public official with almost as much influence as the governor and a salary several times larger.

I spoke briefly with Capilouto on Monday and attended the three public forums. My impression was similar to those of many others I talked with: He seemed like a good, smart man with solid credentials and a willingness to listen.

Capilouto didn't make any missteps. He wisely didn't try to be a know-it-all. But I heard little from his answers (and non-answers) to a variety of questions that gave me much insight into what kind of UK president he will make.

Like others, I would have liked more time for a thorough vetting. Maybe Capilouto has become a better listener since 2007, when a UAB faculty survey found he was "autocratic rather than democratic and opinionated rather than receptive to new ideas," according to the Birmingham News. I wonder why several UAB professors contacted by Herald-Leader reporters didn't want to comment on him. That might be significant — or not — but it would have been a good area for further examination.

Capilouto certainly impressed UK search committee members, several of whom attended the forums Monday. "He's the complete package," said Hollie Swanson, president of UK's Faculty Senate and a search committee member.

He impressed many at the forums by avoiding the lectern and walking the floor below the stage with a lavalier microphone, interacting comfortably with questioners. Students especially seemed to like him, and a couple dozen stayed after their forum to meet him.

Capilouto's story of flying to Kentucky on his own last week to walk UK's campus incognito for six hours charmed many people. His measured tone and Alabama drawl were engaging, if not especially inspiring. "I promise you I think faster than I talk," he told students.

Capilouto seemed to have a good sense of humor and a self-deprecating manner, which should wear well with some of the big-ego lawmakers from whom he must cajole resources for the university.

But Capilouto's vague responses to questions about his views on major UK issues left many people at the forums wanting more. Nobody expected him to be up to speed on every issue and have all the answers, but he seemed reluctant to tackle many of them, or to convey a vision with any specifics.

Questioners expressed concern that UK's core academic mission is being shortchanged in comparison with athletics and medicine. They worried aloud that the humanities are becoming a stepchild to science, math and business-oriented programs. They warned of antiquated laboratories and a brain drain caused by stagnant salaries.

They also questioned the university's cozy relationship with the coal industry, town-gown relationships and the campus' impact on surrounding neighborhoods. They wanted to know where the new president plans to find money to achieve the lofty UK goals he said he admires.

"There's no doubt he understands the medical side," said Carey Cavanaugh, director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. The test, Cavanaugh said, will be how Capilouto handles issues and areas where he doesn't have experience.

"I think this is just the beginning of the journey," Cavanaugh said.

It would have been good to have more people asking those questions of Capilouto and other finalists for a longer period before this marriage was consummated. Even so, the questions must be answered.

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