It's unclear whether Joe Peek, the new faculty trustee on the University of Kentucky board, is a funny smart guy or a smart funny guy.
Either way, for a university where board meetings can be remarkably sedate, Peek promises to be like a can of kerosene held next to a lit match.
The humor of the UK Gatton Chair in International Banking and Finance, an expert on financial institutions and bank regulation, betrays an academic heft that can be daunting.
But would a research associate at the Center on Japanese Economy and Business at Columbia University and a former fellow of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s Center for Financial Research send out an e-mail message like this after his May election?
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"Now that you have foolishly elected me as your faculty trustee, I have lost all respect for you, thereby fully qualifying me to be a UK trustee. Therefore, it is time for me to tone down the campaign rhetoric, take on a more statesperson-like role, and stop making cheap jokes at the expense of the UK administration. ... Yeah, right."
At the same time, he wants to speak seriously for faculty members, he said. "I believe the faculty have spoken that they want change at UK, and that they want a voice to reflect their views, ideas and opinions to the Board of Trustees."
Ernie Yanarella, the faculty trustee defeated by Peek for the three-year term that began July 1, described Peek as "a bit more vocal, a bit more aggressive" than himself. Peek replaces Yanarella as one of two faculty trustees. The other is UK Opera Director Everett McCorvey, who was not up for re-election.
Yanarella said he tried to be a consensus-builder while on the board, realizing that not only do faculty, staff and student representatives have to share ideas, but they also have to gather votes from the 17 appointed members of the 20-member board.
"I have tried to be a vigilant defender of faculty rights," Yanarella said.
Peek, 61, has a different style. He likes to break barriers and does not mince words. For example, he thinks UK's Top 20 plan is an impossibility; the university's communication structure is densely opaque; and many faculty members, weary of feeling that the university is not moving forward, have simply given up trying to communicate with the administration.
And so Peek set about doing that, in a most colorful manner.
He pointed out that former UK basketball coach Billy Gillispie was held accountable by UK administrators for being a failure, so why shouldn't the state's flagship university be held to a higher standard when it comes to its lack of vision? "As a citizen of Kentucky, why are you not pissed off that they don't feel the same way about the academic vision?" Peek asked.
The former economics professor at Boston College, whose first board meeting is Sept. 14, isn't kidding about making UK's academics more respected. He said faculty members refer to the academic core of the campus — the area between the athletics department and the booming medical facilities — as the "Valley of Death."
Improving that area is not just his responsibility, he tells fellow faculty members. He advises them to obtain their school's budget for the last five years and learn how money is allocated. Advancing academic initiatives costs money, and knowing how money is spent gives power to ask that funds be reallocated.
He wants UK to expand its honors program and attract more quality graduate students, an area in which he says UK is "not remotely competitive with our benchmark schools."
He wants Board of Trustees agenda items to be circulated more widely before meetings to allow faculty members to have input. He wants the university to recruit better faculty members and to hold on to quality faculty members who jump at better opportunities elsewhere.
Peek said that he's not leading a campaign against UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. "I believe Todd is a good man. I believe he cares about this university and he's working at it. ... I think we want the same thing for UK, for it to get better."
But Peek thinks Todd's "Top 20" campaign, the hallmark of his administration, is misguided, particularly when the university is sitting at No. 129 on the U.S. News and World Report rankings list.
Todd would not comment last week on Peek's take on UK's ranking. When Peek was elected, Todd congratulated him and said he looked forward to working with Peek.
Peek sums up his philosophy as being similar to that of a Turkish proverb he recently glimpsed on a bumper sticker: "No matter how far you've gone on a wrong road, turn back."
The Top 20 goal, he said was "unattainable even if we have a realistic budget. ... Building a university takes a long time.
"Someone at the top has to say, we're going to be better than this or die trying," Peek said.