UK trustees put market ahead of mission with whopping pay raise for president

Eli Capilouto, University of Kentucky president
Eli Capilouto, University of Kentucky president

Public university leaders must embrace lofty goals about educating future generations while dealing in the nasty reality of money.

It’s a real challenge, one that University of Kentucky Board of Trustees chairman Britt Brockman faced when justifying a whopping 48-percent increase in UK President Eli Capilouto’s base compensation — to $790,000 annually — compared to a 2-percent raise for faculty and staff and another tuition hike for students.

He acknowledged that the timing was, “optically less than desirable.” But the board had no choice, apparently. “We have positioned ourselves in the market, and that’s what the market is telling us to do,” he told reporter Linda Blackford.

That market is the Southeastern Conference, and schools in it that might try to lure Capilouto, who will be 67 next month, away. A report prepared for the trustees found him underpaid in that group, although nationally his pay is well above the average at other public research universities.

The board didn’t seem as worried about losing faculty to other SEC schools. With his new raise, Capilouto ranks fourth among the presidents in the conference, in the 75th percentile, while UK faculty are a couple of pegs down, at 6th, languishing in the 57th percentile.

In this world of corporatized public universities with dwindling taxpayer support, the market seems to love most the leader who can leverage money from commercial partners, donors and students.

This message comes through despite the careful language of the consultant the board paid to evaluate Capilouto’s performance.

“President Capilouto is viewed as a very good fundraiser;” “Enrollment growth is regarded as very positive for the university, especially in terms of revenue growth;” “the residence halls and dining partnerships and the funding for the new research building are widely regarded as major accomplishments.”

Capilouto is described as genuinely caring about students, a focused and effective administrator, a person who is better in small groups than large.

But there were some familiar concerns that have arisen in previous evaluations: “Suggestions about more debate and engagement with a larger group were plentiful;” “As might be expected, some concerns were expressed about the lack of diversity in the senior team;” “many of those interviewed do not see a holistic vision. ... Many believe that the president has chosen to share the vision in stages.”

While there is a lot of pride about all the new construction on campus, “Many remarked that building new facilities is one thing but engaging the university community to ensure that they are used effectively is another.”

The process involved surveying and interviewing all 20 board members, the 11 people who directly report to Capilouto and six administrative staff as well as academic leaders including deans, faculty and staff leaders (six each), a handful of graduate and undergraduate students and members of the community, including donors.

The board, the consultant found, “is interested in finding the appropriate balance between the formalities of accomplishing board business and opportunities for deeper discussion.” Perhaps that is code for wishing they could talk more outside the hearing of eager journalists?

And, board members seemed to feel just a little left out of the tight inner circle, too: “They want dialogue about the strategic agenda and want to be engaged at the appropriate strategic level,” the consultant noted.

It’s an almost wistful note.

Even when the taxpayers had a larger stake in public university budgets, boards in Kentucky were notorious as cheerleaders for presidents rather than independent bodies watching out for the students and the commonwealth.

Now, with markets defining the landscape in higher education, they are relegated to voting a huge raise to the president while asking for a seat at his table.

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