Tom Eblen: An exit interview with the University of Kentucky's Lee Todd

Lee T. Todd Jr. attended his last commencement exercises as president of the University of Kentucky last month.
Lee T. Todd Jr. attended his last commencement exercises as president of the University of Kentucky last month.

Lee T. Todd Jr. steps down next week after a decade as president of the University of Kentucky — a decade of big ambitions, tough challenges, notable accomplishments, a few controversies and much left unfinished.

The Hopkins County native had been a UK engineering professor, then he spent 17 years as a technology entrepreneur. After selling a couple of companies he had started, Todd returned in July 2001 to become UK's 11th president.

Todd was told by the General Assembly to make UK a Top 20 public research university. But when the economy hit the skids, legislators' willingness to finance that mandate waned. That led to dramatic tuition increases and economizing in parts of the university that couldn't generate their own money.

I sat down with Todd for an exit interview recently and asked him to reflect on his tenure.

"I think we have changed the attitude of the place," Todd said when I asked what he was most proud of. "When I came and you talked about the Top 20 plan, it was an eye-rolling, not us, never-happen-here attitude. Writing that plan was one step that exceeded my expectations."

That ambitious plan — yet to be fully funded — attracted some talented faculty, staff and students. "We've grown quite a bit in size, but the quality has not diminished," he said.

Todd pointed to the growth and statewide focus of the medical campus under Dr. Michael Karpf, whom he hired from the University of California at Los Angeles. "Our payroll went up $350 million since 2003 on the medical side, and that doesn't include the construction workers," he said, noting that the hospital's huge expansion is paying its own way.

UK's research funding has grown from $211 million to $367 million, Todd said, and more of that research is focused on improving life in Kentucky. Nearly 50 "Commonwealth Collaboratives" programs are working on a diverse set of projects, from smoking cessation to helping Lake Cumberland houseboat factories retool to build affordable housing.

Todd said he brought renewed focus to the university's statewide economic development mission, including expanding the roles of county extension agents and helping faculty and students start new companies. "We're a much more functional university as far as the state is concerned," he said.

Although primarily a science and math guy, Todd said he also is impressed with the progress of arts programs such as UK Opera Theatre and the music school. "The quality of our performances — Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center — is just spectacular for a school this size," he said.

Academics vs. athletics

Todd said he also is proud of UK Athletics, which has become competitive across the board and avoided major NCAA rules violations on his watch. "Our athletic program is one of the few that's self-supporting," he said. "It really gives money back. They pay for everything they get now."

Early in his presidency, Todd hired Mitch Barnhart as athletics director after forcing out his predecessor, Larry Ivy, who had been given a raise and a one-year contract extension by former President Charles Wethington on Wethington's way out the door.

Many people were surprised when, after announcing his retirement, Todd extended Barnhart's contract to 2019 and gave him a $125,000 annual raise. Should that have been a decision for President-elect Eli Capilouto to make?

"In my mind it shouldn't be, because we have had nine years of outstanding progress since he's been here, integrity since he's been here, competitiveness since he's been here," Todd said of Barnhart.

"I should have done it earlier than I did," he said. "I did it too close to the end. We could have communicated it better to people that I was going to do it. But I think I did a service for the next president, and the more he gets to know Mitch, the more he will believe that. I don't have any problem with having done that."

Barnhart's big raise fueled faculty criticism that Todd has focused too much on athletics and the medical school to the detriment of core academics. His response?

"I think there's a subset of the faculty that will always say that," Todd said. "Athletics is a reality of major universities. As long as it's clean, and you hope it's competitive and you hope it doesn't drain money from the university, I think it does good things for us. I wish the country as a whole wasn't as crazy as it is about athletics. It's out of whack. But it's a reality that you have to deal with in this position."

Then he said: "I think those who think we haven't paid attention to academics are not paying attention themselves. They need to look deeper to see what's happening with our engineering enrollment, our ACT improvements, our undergraduate education."

Creative financing

As state support has failed to keep up with UK's needs, Todd said, the university has tried to be more creative in finding money elsewhere, including hospital revenues, research grants, alumni giving and unpopular, double-digit tuition increases.

"I would love to have had more money to put into academics," he said. "The challenge you have is that the hospital can drive its own revenue, athletics can drive its own revenue. The only way you drive revenue in the middle of campus is tuition/general fund dollars. I have taken a pretty good set of bullets for raising tuition. If we hadn't done that, we really would have had difficulty."

Todd and the Board of Trustees received a lot of criticism for accepting $8 million from coal operators to build a new dormitory for the basketball team in return for naming it Wildcat Coal Lodge. Author Wendell Berry pulled his papers from UK, and others complained that the university is too beholden to an industry that denies climate change and resists calls to become more environmentally responsible.

If he had it to do over, would Todd handle Wildcat Coal Lodge differently?

"I tried to handle it differently," he said. "We had some other suggested names. You have donors who ... want to name it what they want to name it. They are good donors for us across the whole university and they are capable of giving more. We discussed other names, but when it came down to it, it was a decision to take the donation.

"I would be glad to build a Wildcat Green Lodge," he added, if donors would give UK the money to pay for it.

Does Todd retire with any regrets?

"I have regretted some of the salary issues," he said. "We had planned to catch up on salaries for our folks and we have not been able to do that. But we haven't had any furloughs, and we haven't had any major layoffs. I'm very, very proud of the progress we've made in tough times."

Todd's next steps, legacy

Next month, Todd will begin a one-year leave of absence to travel and spend time with his family. Then he will return to UK as an engineering professor and mentor for technology entrepreneurs.

Todd said he hopes to spend time working to improve K-12 math and science education, both by traveling the state to talk with teachers and students and by continuing to serve on the advisory boards of several organizations, including the National Science Foundation.

He also plans to continue raising money for UK and working on his primary passion — bringing together education and business to find innovative ways to make Kentucky a better place to live.

"I believe very strongly that if we can keep our graduates here in a productive way, when they start their companies, they'll want to go back to where they came from," he said. "With telecommunications the way it is, they can do that nowadays."

How would Todd like his presidency to be remembered? "We have gone through some transformation, but there's more to be done," he said.

Then he mentioned a plaque on a statue of James K. Patterson, UK's first president, outside of UK's Main Building. The plaque says: "He saved the seed for the next generation."

Todd said if his tenure were summed up on a plaque today, it might say: A lot of stuff he helped start will be productive in the future.

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