Politics & Government

University of Kentucky President Lee Todd stepping down, his Top-20 dream in question

Lee T. Todd Jr., who announced his retirement as UK president Wednesday, took over the job in 2001 as UK's football team was about to be placed on probation. As Todd started a review of the athletics department, he said, "If you can't win fairly and win legally, then I don't want to win."
Lee T. Todd Jr., who announced his retirement as UK president Wednesday, took over the job in 2001 as UK's football team was about to be placed on probation. As Todd started a review of the athletics department, he said, "If you can't win fairly and win legally, then I don't want to win."

Lee T. Todd Jr., who focused his University of Kentucky presidency on the drive to make UK a Top 20 research university, announced Wednesday that he would step down in June after spending a decade at the university's helm.

A professor turned entrepreneur, Todd set out in 2001 to propel the university to national prominence while beating back the "Kentucky uglies" of chronic poverty and health woes.

His ambitious plans were widely hailed but remain largely undone, thanks in large part to an extended economic downturn that brought dwindling state funding just as Todd called for a massive infusion of cash.

Todd, 64, also struggled to balance academics with athletics, spending more time than he anticipated dealing with an NCAA investigation of the football team and hiring multiple head coaches for football and basketball teams.

"I think sports really put a lot of pressure on him," said Billy Joe Miles, the interim chair of the UK Board of Trustees. "People in Kentucky, without having a major sports team, UK is almost in everyone's closet. It's a big part of their wardrobe. There's tremendous pressure that takes away from the academic(s)."

In 2005, Todd unveiled a "business plan" to reach Top 20 status by 2020. The plan called for an increase of $260 million in annual state funding over 15 years, enrollment growth of 6,200 undergraduates, 625 more faculty and a near-tripling of research grants.

Instead, state money flowing into the school has remained largely flat — $303 million in 2001 compared with $306 million today. Meanwhile, tuition hikes, federal research grants and a booming medical business have boosted UK's operating budget from $1.2 billion to $2.4 billion during Todd's tenure.

"In normal times, I think they (state lawmakers) would have continued to fund it," Todd said Thursday of his Top 20 plan. "... We're not going to see normal again."

UK is now 38th among the nation's 90 public research universities on a group of measures the university uses to measure its Top 20 progress. It ranked 35th in 2007.

Former UK faculty trustee Ernie Yanarella said Todd's departure was a final nail in the coffin of the Top 20 vision.

"That dream of the Top 20 status is no more," Yanarella said. "I find it hard to believe that his successor will come in, look at the state of the university budget and the state of the Kentucky economy and think in any way other than this remains a very needy university in a generally poor state. To try to scale the upward curve to become a top 20 public university by 2020, or 2022 or 2025 is a hopeless vision."

Yanarella said he thought Todd had become discouraged because of UK's continuing budget struggles, while faculty members and staffers had become increasingly unhappy over lack of raises. He said that unhappiness had grown in recent months to the point that he had started hearing faculty members suggest that it was "time for the president to step down."

Todd said Wednesday he and his wife, Patsy, hope to informally work for UK in the future to bolster areas such as science and math education and student recruitment. Todd also holds a professorship in the department of engineering.

Todd said he also hoped to spend time studying how states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin revolutionized their education systems, leading to economic revitalization for both states — and campaigning for similar reforms in Kentucky.

Because of his tenure as UK president, Todd said, "I have a pulpit I can use."

Gov. Steve Beshear said he was sad to learn of Todd's decision to step aside.

"This fellow has done a magnificent job of leading our flagship university," Beshear said. "He has transformed that university over a 10-year period. He has set some goals and a vision for that university that will be there for a long time to come."

Men's basketball coach John Calipari said he was surprised by Todd's announcement: "I thought he'd be here another 40 years. I was kind of taken aback."

Miles said he encouraged Todd to renew his contract. He said Todd "rated in the high 90s" on his job performance, which a trustees executive committee was to discuss Thursday.

"We're still on that journey to become a Top 20 (university), but with the tremendous pressure and the money that's available, it's just a tough battle," Miles said. "He just feels like he's trying to achieve this goal and he just doesn't have the resources and the money to do what needs to be done."

Former governor Paul Patton, now president of Pikeville College and chairman of the Council on Postsecondary Education, said Todd's retirement may mean the Top 20 goal takes longer to implement, but it remains viable.

Todd also acknowledged the pressure of producing winning sports teams that also stayed within NCAA guidelines.

"My first year was spent on athletics," he said during his press conference Wednesday, an experience he described as "not fun."

When he became president, Todd inherited an NCAA investigation of the UK football program that resulted in probation, a one-year bowl ban, a loss of 19 scholarships, and a reduction in overall scholarships from 85 to 80.

At the time, Todd started a review of the athletics department and said bluntly, "If you can't win fairly and win legally, then I don't want to win."

Todd, who was hired by a unanimous vote of UK trustees in 2001, said he was gratified to have had the opportunity to be UK president: "I never planned to have this job," he said.

Before becoming UK's president, Todd was the founder of two high-technology companies. The native of Earlington in Hopkins County had previously graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served as a UK engineering professor.

Todd's selection was an anomaly among colleges and universities; fewer than 10 percent venture outside academia to hire presidents.

His Top 20 business plan received its most recent blow when U.S. News & World Report ranked UK 129th among national universities.

Todd said that for the university to move up substantially in the influential rankings, it would have to cut off Kentucky students with low ACT scores. Those students also often come from families with low incomes, he said.

Todd bristled at the idea, saying it's the university's mission to serve students even if their high school education has not adequately prepared them to score highly on standardized tests.

"We could move up rapidly by lopping off 2,000 kids" who don't test well, he said. "We are not going to be a selective university like that."

However, UK has become less affordable. Tuition for in-state undergraduates more than doubled during Todd's tenure, increasing from $3,446 in 2000-01 to $8,123 in 2009-10.

Todd also responded to concerns about campus diversity during his tenure by hiring the university's first vice president of institutional diversity and oversaw an increase in African-American enrollment from 1,328 in 2001 to 1,773 in 2009. The number of Africa-American faculty grew from 57 when he took office to 89 in 2009.

Business leaders in Lexington also hailed Todd's efforts to harness UK's knowledge in a way that boosted the region's economy.

Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry said Todd "immediately understood the importance of collaboration with the city and the private sector on economic development initiatives," particularly in the downtown area.

Among those Todd recruited to UK is Dr. Michael Karpf, the University of Kentucky executive vice president for health affairs, who came to UK from the University of California-Los Angeles, a hospital consistently ranked as "Best in the West" by U.S. News & World Report.

Karpf is overseeing constructing of a 512-bed, $762 million hospital that towers over the UK campus.

"He challenged Kentucky and university to a bigger vision," Karpf said Wednesday. "That vision must stand."

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