The University of Kentucky's historic preservation program is undergoing the type of face lift its graduates might conduct on old buildings.
Michael Speaks, dean of UK's College of Design, has met with faculty and students over the last two weeks to let them in on the process that will forge a new identity for the program, which started more than 10 years ago and is one of 23 nationally accredited graduate programs in the country.
The guts of the program — its core curriculum that covers conservation, renovation, rebuilding and rehabilitation of historic structures, including buildings, bridges and dams — will remain in place, Speaks said.
"Not only is it not going away — on the contrary. The reason for having these discussions is to make the program more viable," he said.
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That came as relief to most of the 20 students who met with Speaks a week ago, said Jennifer Ryall, who is finishing her master's degree while working as a survey consultant at UK. Many students and alumni of the program had posted their concerns about the program's future, based largely on rumors of pending changes, on a Facebook page, "Save University of Kentucky's Historic Preservation Master's Program," which has more than 150 members.
Speaks insisted such efforts aren't necessary.
"As we go through this rethink process, nothing will affect the quality of classes or the number of classes," Speaks said in an interview.
This self-review comes as the program must fill its only two full-time faculty positions. The rest of the professors who teach preservation courses come from other departments.
The top position in the department will open up in July, and the Helen Edwards Abell endowed professorship position has remained vacant for several years. That position likely won't be filled until late 2010, Speaks said.
Before hiring for those positions, Speaks said the college should determine the focus — or identity, as he calls it — that will set UK's historic preservation program apart.
It might be a focus on a particular way to research historic structures or certain preservation techniques or even methods to pay for reusing old developments, such as the use of tax increment financing.
In doing so, Speaks said, he hopes the students, faculty and recent graduates of the program can become more engaged in Lexington and Kentucky issues.
As an example, Speaks cited the proposed CentrePointe building on Lexington's Main Street, which so far has resulted in the razing of the old buildings for a fenced-in field.
"I was especially disheartened by our lack of ability to be engaged," he said.
In the future, he said, he would like to see faculty and students get involved in such a debate on multiple levels — not just arguing against tearing down buildings for the sake of keeping them. Speaks said that perhaps they could weigh in on whether a project is appropriate for TIF, which is where a project is partly paid for with new tax money generated by the development.
"It would have been great had the preservation students been able to interact in that debate," said Dan Rowland, an associate professor of Russian history at UK who was one of the founders of the historic preservation program.
Rowland, who attended Speaks' Nov. 17 meeting with faculty about the program, said nearly everyone associated with UK's historic preservation program agrees "it should be rethought."
"I think that people in historic preservation have somewhat of a bad rap about being against any kind of change," Rowland said. But, he said, preservationists could see the changes as updating the program — as they would a building — not knocking it down.
One unresolved issue is whether the program will suspend the admission of students for next year during its transition. But Speaks said he's not inclined to do so.
Speaks said he was surprised when he learned a Facebook page popped up that included speculation that the program was in jeopardy.
Ryall, one of the students who helped set up the page, said much of the consternation stemmed from alumni who care passionately about the program but who were hearing only snippets and rumors about changes.
"And there was no one to confirm or deny that these rumors were true," Ryall said.
Speaks' meeting with students has helped to bridge the information gap, she said, adding that she hopes Speaks reaches out in a similar way to the alumni.
In the meantime, the program isn't the only one in the college undergoing an identity check. The School of Interior Design is in the midst of a similar process, Speaks said. And the School of Architecture brought in 10 new professors in the last year.
"We've had a very exciting rebuilding year in the architecture school," he said. "We want to do the same thing in historic preservation and interior design."