More students. More scholars. More structures. UK launches biggest fundraiser ever.

The University of Kentucky
The University of Kentucky

University of Kentucky officials kicked off a capital campaign Friday night to raise $2.1 billion, its largest goal ever to expand scholarships, conduct research, build up the endowment and bolster athletics.

In announcing “Kentucky Can: The 21st Century Campaign,” President Eli Capilouto said he thinks the school’s momentum will attract donors big and small to further propel the state’s flagship university.

“I think we have a good story to tell,” he said. “It’s one that I hope builds confidence and trust. What is most precious to us, our greatest treasure and hope is our students, and we start there. To me, it’s an opportunity to invest in infrastructure and talent ... and with the magic of compounding interest, to seed something for the future.”

Most major fund raising campaigns aren’t made public until at least half the money is raised. This latest UK effort is counting all the money raised since 2013, which totals about $1 billion. That including some of the biggest pledges in UK history, such as $23 million for the Lewis Honors College, $20 million toward the new $200 million Gatton Student Center, and $10 million for the Don and Cathy Jacobs Science Building. The last major capital campaign finished raising $1 billion in 2007.

The “Kentucky Can” campaign will be chaired by former Ashland CEO Paul Chellgren and Ball Homes co-founder Mira Ball, both of whom served on the UK Board of Trustees. Ball was the first and only woman to serve as board chair when she was elected in 2007.

The new campaign will focus on three major areas:

More money for UK’s scholarship programs. In particular, UK wants to double recipients of the UK LEADS program, which helps financially strapped students pay for costs that might keep them from graduating. Richey said he hopes to raise $300 million in endowed scholarships for both undergraduate and graduate students. Currently, UK uses about $120 million in operating funds for scholarships.

Ball said the emphasis on expanding student access makes the campaign unique. “I graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1956 when tuition was $65 a semester,” she said. “We need to ensure tuition doesn’t prohibit a single bright mind from getting an education.”

Tuition now costs about $12,070 a year, and the total cost of attendance, including room, board and books, is estimated at about $30,000.

More money for research. The money will help continue research of Kentucky’s most pressing problems, such as the opioid abuse epidemic and high rates of lung cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Officials also hope to get $95 million to finish a new research building on Virginia Avenue that will focus on health disparities across the state. That building is awaiting a gift big enough for naming rights.

The federal government is releasing new funds to fight the opioid problem, in particular, Capilouto said, and “you have to have the talent and infrastructure to compete for these funds. I think the University of Kentucky can be an incredible contributor to defeating this scourge.”

More money for the endowment. Growing the endowment from $1.5 billion to $2.1 billion will help attract and retain top scholars —students and professors — and support new initiatives on campus, including the construction of new facilities.

The campaign also won’t neglect UK’s standout athletics brand. The campaign calls for endowing 350 scholarships for student athletes, fully modernizing Memorial Coliseum and ensuring “state of the art” facilities for 22 teams.

“When you support this campaign and UK Athletics, you are supporting us in our mission to be elite in everything we do: from competition to facilities to student-athlete experience,” Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said.

Over the next few months, kick-off events will be held in a number of cities in the region and across the country. Alumni can expect more than one letter in the mailbox imploring them to give. Mike Richey, UK’s vice president for philanthropy, said he’s hoping to increase alumni participation by 21 percent.

Gifts both big and small are welcome. Richey estimates the campaign has received 119,750 gifts from donors at all levels so far but will need at least 2,100 gifts of $50,000 or above to meet the goal.

“This campaign will build bridges for students to receive an affordable education; for faculty to teach and conduct research that inspires, heals, creates and impacts the quality of life for all Kentuckians,” Richey said. “This is our time to determine the future we want and to create it.”