Eblen: A job ad for the next UK president

Lee T. Todd Jr., with his wife, Patsy, behind him, was greeted by University of Kentucky board member Terry Mobley on Wednesday, when Todd announced his retirement as UK president.
Lee T. Todd Jr., with his wife, Patsy, behind him, was greeted by University of Kentucky board member Terry Mobley on Wednesday, when Todd announced his retirement as UK president.

Lee T. Todd Jr.'s decision to retire as president of the University of Kentucky in June has me thinking about what the advertisement seeking his successor should say.

Not what it will say, but what it should say.

Wanted: University of Kentucky president. As UK's 12th chief executive since 1869, you will be taking on perhaps the toughest job in Kentucky. It pays about a half-million dollars a year, but you could get more money for less work at another state's flagship university.

By the way, your salary will pale in comparison to the millions that go to your head basketball and football coaches. Don't expect any sympathy from the faculty and staff, who are generally underpaid and haven't received a raise lately. Or students and their parents, who have seen tuition double in recent years.

There is a lot right with UK. The university is more open, collaborative and entrepreneurial than it used to be. Enrollment, student performance, research and diversity are growing, and the university is producing some outstanding graduates, including doctors, engineers, architects, diplomats, business people and, believe it or not, world-class opera singers.

You will be succeeding Lee Todd, a passionate, energetic and visionary leader who has been president for a decade. He changed attitudes and focused UK on its most important missions: educating Kentuckians for good jobs and richer lives; and harnessing the university's brainpower to improve life in Kentucky.

Todd set lofty goals but failed to achieve many of them. That was largely because legislators stopped funding his plans once the economy fizzled. Todd made his share of mistakes, but he led with high ethical standards and positioned the university as well as he could for the future. In many ways, he will be a tough act to follow.

UK's state funding has been almost flat for a decade, so if you want more money to make the university great, you'll probably have to find it somewhere else. Kentuckians have rarely been willing to invest enough in education, even though it would do more than anything else to improve the state's long-term economy and quality of life. Long-term thinking has never been our strength.

Kentuckians like to talk about creating a top-ranked university, but we succeeded only once, briefly. When Transylvania University, now a private liberal arts college, was Kentucky's state university in 1818, trustees hired a young up-and-coming Bostonian, Horace Holley, with a charge to make it great. He did, and for a few years Transylvania was being mentioned in the same breath as Harvard and Yale.

Despite phenomenal success, Holley was run off in 1827 by Kentuckians who didn't appreciate the value of higher education, legislators who didn't want to spend money on it and a governor who just wanted to build roads.

We mention this episode because it has often echoed through two centuries of Kentucky history. Perhaps the toughest job you will face as UK's next president is convincing average Kentuckians and their political leaders that, as former Gov. Paul Patton succinctly put it, "education pays."

That won't be easy. Many Kentuckians are suspicious of new ideas and averse to change. They avoid risk for fear of failure or criticism. Ignorance and powerful vested interests often combine to keep the status quo.

Your biggest distraction in this job will likely be UK's basketball and football teams and their boosters. These programs are rich and powerful and prone to trouble. They bring in a lot of money, and some of it goes to academics. But not nearly enough.

Sports are fun and exciting diversions. But at UK, as at many universities, athletics has become the tail that wags the dog. Big Blue Nation demands winners at all cost. Todd thought he could tame the Wildcat. He couldn't.

If history is any guide — and your tenure is very long — you will face a sports scandal or several. You will constantly be at odds with rabid fans who think the university exists to support a sports franchise, rather than the other way around. Good luck with that.

This job requires masterful political skills, Oprah-like charisma, the stamina of a marathon runner and the patience of a kindergarten teacher. Still interested? You must be either crazy or genuinely committed to making Kentucky a better place.

If the latter is true, please apply. We need you.

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