Profile: New University of Kentucky president's voice shaped by Alabama childhood

Retiring UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., left, talked with new UK President Eli Capilouto at the UK HealthCare retreat at Keeneland on Monday. Capilouto also attended a recent SEC meeting in Florida, where he met with UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.
Retiring UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., left, talked with new UK President Eli Capilouto at the UK HealthCare retreat at Keeneland on Monday. Capilouto also attended a recent SEC meeting in Florida, where he met with UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.

In the early evening of Sunday, May 1, the figurative white smoke rose over the Hebron Marriott in Northern Kentucky with the announcement that the next president of the University of Kentucky would be Eli Capilouto, the provost of the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

For many, it was an unexpected and puzzling choice, particularly when compared to his colorful predecessors: Otis Singletary, whose outsized personality ruled UK for nearly two decades; Charles Wethington, the former community college chancellor who was promoted by one governor and fought with another; or even Lee Todd, small-town Kentucky boy turned Massachusetts Institute of Technology inventor and businessman who topped his career with a decade at UK.

Instead the search committee had introduced a quiet Alabamian, a dentist-turned-provost who may be most intriguing for his lack of Kentucky connections or national prominence, lack of publicly expressed opinions, lack of baggage, even lack of strong charisma.

Capilouto's subsequent visit to campus didn't do much to solve the mystery. While clearly adept at connecting with people one on one, he declined to be specific about his thoughts for UK.

"I don't want to say he doesn't have any vision," commented Alan Nadel, a UK professor of American literature, "but when people asked him he did not articulate one."

Still, behind closed doors, Capilouto won over the members of the search committee and the Board of Trustees. Hollie Swanson, the faculty Senate Chair and search committee member, thinks the dark horse choice may continue to puzzle and intrigue, but his particular skills will be the right fit for UK in the end.

"I want someone quiet with integrity rather than flash and charm because I trust that more than someone who's trying to sell me something," she said shortly after Capilouto's name was announced. "I'd rather have someone think something through than to say the first thing off the top of their head."

'A normal kid'

Certainly, the word "flash" has never been used in relation to Capilouto, either by his childhood friends in Montgomery or his many associates at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

"He was a normal kid and a normal guy," said Woody Bagwell, who met Capilouto in second grade.

Bagwell and others say it was not exactly obvious growing up in Montgomery, Ala. in the 1950s that a future college president was in their midst.

Usually, he was surrounded by a large clan of friends and family, playing tricks and nearly always ending up back at Capilouto's house, where his mother, Regina, would feed everyone exotic treats like stuffed grape leaves.

"It was the Kool-Aid house," said Bagwell. "We were always meeting over there to play basketball, and do other stuff, nothing really bad."

Capilouto described the security of his "base camp," a clan of extended family descended from two sets of grandparents who had immigrated from the Greek island of Rhodes to Montgomery at the turn of the century.

But behind the Mayberry door of his childhood were two other profound influences. The civil rights movement began in Montgomery with Rosa Parks and the bus boycott when Capilouto was five years old. It was a movement that Capilouto and his family, as Jews in the Deep South, could view with empathy.

Capilouto remembers watching Montgomery's black residents walk to work, the jeering crowds that surrounded the Freedom Riders and the television coverage of Alabama Gov. George Wallace vowing to block integration forever.

"Those things stuck with me because fundamentally you knew those things were wrong," he said. "I remember a fourth-grade Sunday school class (at his synagogue) where our teacher talked about the responsibility you had to speak out when people used what we call today hate language ... how important it was to let people know you didn't tolerate it. That was really hard as a kid, especially as a religious minority, but I hope it gave me a stronger voice later in life."

Capilouto's childhood was typical enough to include football, Alabama's secular religion. Capilouto, who had a somewhat heftier build in his teenage years than he does today, played offensive lineman, helping the Poets at Sidney Lanier High School win their first state championship.

"His leadership and intelligence went a long way because he wasn't the strongest or the meanest, but the smartest" said his former coach, George "Snoozy" Jones, who now lives near Capilouto in the Mountain Brook suburb outside of Birmingham.

Leading by 'quiet example'

Like most other kids at Lanier, Capilouto didn't think about going to college anywhere but the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa (with Auburn as a second choice). He applied the week before applications were due.

Capilouto joined the only fraternity where he was allowed, the Jewish fraternity of Zeta Beta Tau, and eventually became its president. He oversaw the fraternity's move to a new house and helped his frat brothers maintain the highest GPA of any fraternity on campus.

"Eli never forced anything on you, he led by quiet example," said fraternity brother Steve Goldner. Goldner said that Capilouto also attracted people with his low-key style and dry sense of humor.

"You find yourself leaning in when he tells a story," Goldner said.

By 1970, Capilouto had joined student government at a time when the storm over civil rights had segued into the chaos over the Vietnam War.

"Things got so much more serious, and I was involved in a lot of that," Capilouto said.

Student government representatives were trying to maintain calm. Sometimes Capilouto thought student activists went too far, such as when they stormed the student union and started handing out food. But when Alabama officials refused to let anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman appear, Capilouto was part of an eventually fruitless lawsuit to let him speak.

He graduated in 1971 and decided to follow his father into dentistry.

"At that point, after all those sort of group activities and early management activities, I felt I had a desire to help people, but I thought doing it one at a time was the way to do it," he said.

In Birmingham, he met another dentistry student, Mary Lynne Hartselle. They were married in 1978.

Capilouto began teaching dentistry at UAB, and then got interested in larger policy issues about health. He started taking public health classes at night, eventually earning a master's degree in epidemiology.

He saw an ad for a fellowship on health services administration at Harvard, and the couple decided to go. Mary Lynne enrolled in a master's program in oral epidemiology.

Capilouto enjoyed his first time outside of Alabama, the people they met in Cambridge and Boston, the way "it reminded me that everyone can learn and everyone can grow."

Several years later, with three more degrees and a new baby girl named Emily, the Capiloutos returned to Birmingham.

Administrative ambition

Capilouto more or less fell into the new phase of his career as an administrator. "I'd been a department chair for three weeks," he said. "That was the extent of my administrative experience."

In 1994, he was named interim dean of public health; two years later he was dean, while Mary Lynne became dean of UAB's dental school. At the same time, he was doing public health research on everything from breast cancer controls in rural communities to the efficacy of tobacco taxes.

By 2002, he was named interim provost and by 2005, the permanent job was his.

At this time UAB was trying to parlay its successful reputation for medicine into a strong undergraduate institution as well. Capilouto began working on a campus-wide reorganization, cutting some departments and adding others to create a new College of Arts and Sciences.

John Smith, UAB's division director of laboratory medicine, was on the faculty senate at the time, and started with real reservations about the new provost who didn't yet know how to delegate.

"When I looked at his CV (curriculum vitae, a record of academic accomplishments), I saw a minimal amount of administrative experience, but I did not see who he really was," Smith said. "He is highly sophisticated at being able to listen to separate groups and make a decision."

Smith said that in the reorganization, he'd been expecting an uproar over fewer departments and administrators.

"There was almost no ripple compared to what I was expecting," Smith said. "He had done his homework and worked through the issues from day one. With less redundancy in these schools, there's higher productivity everywhere."

Smith also mentioned the new undergraduate center, a quadrangle created from closing four busy streets, a project completed under Capilouto's direction.

"I went from being negative to one of his supporters as I watched what he was doing," Smith said. "The whole place has been tweaked up."

At the time, there was a major scandal at UAB when two whistle blowers accused UAB's medical center of massive fraud regarding federal grants, most of which had happened before Capilouto was provost. The university settled with the federal government, paying $3.4 million to the government, and $395,000 to the two whistle blowers who brought the case.

Although most of Capilouto's involvement apparently consisted of creating new controls for the medical center, the matter has followed him to Kentucky via the blogosphere. Capilouto declined to comment on that matter or on several other lawsuits regarding gender and ethnic discrimination, all of which were settled by the university.

One named him directly, alleging that he had demoted an associate provost after she complained about pay inequity.

Birmingham attorney John Saxon represented the plaintiffs in two of the sex discrimination cases.

"Part of the problem is Eli Capilouto's leadership style," said Saxon, who added that while he and Capilouto used to be friends, Capilouto won't speak to him anymore.

"He's an intelligent and talented man, but his leadership style is autocratic," Saxon said. "He takes names, keeps scores and gets even, and anyone who doesn't recognize that needs to get out of the way."

In addition to being provost, Capilouto served on numerous boards and organizations, including being a member of the school board for the highly regarded Mountain Brook schools.

"It's difficult for me to imagine Eli acting in any way that is dishonest or not in keeping with the highest ethical standards," said Charles Mason, the former superintendent. "I think he has an eminent sense of fairness about how he treats all people. I think he is extremely patient, which is a good thing for a university president to be."

Flying under the radar

Capilouto said he wasn't particularly looking for a new job, but had been intrigued by President Lee Todd's descriptions of UK at various national conferences.

UK's headhunters contacted him, and Capilouto agreed to be considered. His first interview went poorly, he thought.

"I called her (Mary Lynne), and said 'Darn it, I could have done so much better and I'm so disappointed in myself ... because I really liked those people."

They liked him back, and anxiously shepherded him through his first visit to campus, where the reactions to him were mixed, according to several surveys.

Capilouto has been back to Kentucky several times, visiting areas as far-flung as Louisville and Pikeville, trying to meet with as many people as possible.

The Capiloutos are preparing to move to a more public venue at Maxwell Place, the home of UK's president. But Capilouto says, he will miss mowing his own yard in Birmingham, in a neighborhood that Mary Lynne compares to a "Beaver Cleaver" community.

"It's the most control I have over anything I do," he joked.

His vision for the university is becoming more clear: a heavy focus on new facilities, retention and recruitment, and renewed focus on eliminating divisions between departments that operate largely independently of each other.

Capilouto said he wants to ease tensions between such blockbuster organizations as UK's booming health care operation and its perpetually powerful athletics establishment, which has led to undergraduate education cynically being called the "Valley of Death."

"I don't want to hear this Death Valley thing," he said. "I want us to be a grand university where we're all proud of all aspects of this university. What this faculty are accomplishing and doing and what students are doing when they return to their communities is profound here."

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