EKU’s ‘campus beautiful’ expanded, updated

Changes at Eastern Kentucky University include a Jon Carloftis-designed garden in front of the New Martin Hall dorm to open this school year.
Changes at Eastern Kentucky University include a Jon Carloftis-designed garden in front of the New Martin Hall dorm to open this school year. Eastern Kentucky University

When my family and I arrived at Eastern Kentucky University in 2013, we heard much about the “Campus Beautiful” and its long and storied past.

Like those before us, we were struck by many of the architectural and design elements of Eastern and instantly fell in love with our new home in Richmond. Just as they had done with Berea College and Morehead State University, the Olmstead Brothers were given commissions to complete the master plan for Eastern and even included their own mini-version of a Central Park — the Ravine — in the middle of our campus.

But like many public institutions facing acute budget challenges and limited resources, our deferred maintenance issues and aging infrastructure presented serious recruiting issues while creating ever-increasing difficulties for our faculty and staff to teach and work effectively.

Thanks to a very supportive Board of Regents and others who recognized a unique window of opportunity for our campus, we developed a plan and adopted a very aggressive timeline. We knew something must be done — and done quickly and efficiently using means other than state appropriations.

Speaking of the latter, we were very fortunate to secure support from the General Assembly for Phase II of our state-of-the-art Science Center, arguably the finest in the commonwealth. This facility opens next month with 340,000 square feet of space, enough for every one of our science disciplines. My predecessor, Doug Whitlock, had been successful in lobbying for Phase I funding for this project, which was essential to completing this $132 million science complex.

However, funding for other improvements had to come from other sources. It all began with support from our students in the form of a special-use fee to renovate the Powell Student Center and build a new recreation center.

Our students also supported the construction of a second pedestrian pedway, which will traverse the Eastern Bypass and provide safe passage between our north and south campuses and assist patrons of the EKU Center for the Arts.

In 2015, a request for proposals was issued for P3 housing (public/private partnership), and we were delighted when the firm chosen to complete two new residence halls also included EKU’s first-ever parking deck and a Jon Carloftis-designed garden as value-added projects.

We also renegotiated our food vendor contract with Aramark, resulting in their investment of more than $37 million in capital improvements, including a new dining hall and other significant upgrades.

The opportunity to partner with the city of Richmond, federal agencies and Kentucky River Foothills enabled us to provide land upon which the Eastern Scholar House is now being constructed. There, single parents who carry a full 12-hour credit load per semester will have subsidized housing and child care until they complete their degrees.

Additionally, bonds were issued in 2014 that enabled us to improve our football, baseball and softball facilities.

All told, nearly $300 million of capital construction is underway or nearly completed at Eastern Kentucky University.

In my 20-plus years of working in public higher education, I have come to recognize that students choose institutions for a whole host of factors, namely academic programs, degree offerings, cost, institutional reputation, supportive faculty and staff, family or legacy ties, and prospects for employment.

But today’s students also pay attention to living accommodations, safety concerns, the “look and feel” of a campus, and myriad other factors. Their tuition dollars are portable and if EKU does not offer what they want, they will go elsewhere.

With the introduction of performance-based funding added to the already uber-competitive environment for recruiting students — and the fact that all public institutions are going after the same cohort of commonwealth students — the need to revitalize our campus became even more pressing.

Thanks to the efforts of many, what we have been able to accomplish in a mere three years has transformed our campus and will significantly improve the experience for all who come to Eastern: students, faculty, staff, alumni and guests.

Michael Benson is president of Eastern Kentucky University. He can be reached at michael. benson@eku.edu.