UK's wise moves: President reducing cuts, focusing on retention

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto did the right thing Monday in stepping back from deep budget cuts he'd projected earlier for the coming fiscal year.

Even more importantly, he did the right thing in listening, and responding, to staff and faculty members who'd complained bitterly about the potential impact of cuts on the school's fundamental mission. "I invited this robust discussion," Capilouto said at a campus forum Monday. "It was not a hollow gesture."

Responding to a $20-million reduction in state funding during the current biennium, UK laid off 140 of its 1,400 employees last summer, announced that another 164 positions would be left empty, and made cuts in both administrative and academic funding in the current fiscal year. When this fall Capilouto announced further cuts, of 4.2 percent for academic and 6 percent in administrative budgets for the next year, opposition erupted.

Monday Capilouto said that with $12 million in additional revenue from increased enrollment and the decision to reallocate another $5 million, those cuts will be reduced to 5 percent for administrative and 2.1 percent in academic budgets.

In that same presentation Capilouto said, correctly, that UK must improve its retention and graduation rates. Only 59 percent of freshmen who enter UK graduate within six years.

There are many reasons why more students should stay in school and graduate on time, but the economic one is especially important. It is simply more efficient, it costs the individual and the institution less to get that degree. At a time when universities are struggling to stretch their budgets and families are even more stressed paying for education, emphasizing retention is an especially smart thing to do.

Budget fights, as the president certainly knows, are exhausting and distracting and have the potential of breeding mistrust. No one works at their best in that environment.

That's why it's especially important that Capilouto heeded the concerns of those who work for him. He spoke of developing strategies to keep kids in school. But at the end of the day, putting those into action will require the cooperation and engagement of individual faculty and staff members. They are where the rubber meets the road for students who are struggling with academic, economic or other concerns.

Cutting budgets will never be popular, and Capilouto will never keep everyone happy. But his hopes of success will be much greater if he continues to listen and respond to their concerns in these difficult times.