Op-Ed

Bumps in road won’t change U of L’s mission, progress

James Ramsey
James Ramsey

As we greet 2016, the University of Louisville is on solid financial, academic and governance ground, even as we encounter turbulence that major universities face from time to time.

Handling the bumps in the road — be they internal or external — is a top priority for any university administration. But equally important is planning for future bumps and positioning our institution to withstand whatever challenges we face in the future. We will not let the bumps define the positive journey we are on as an institution.

Since 2002, our goal has been to place the university under a fiscal dome of protection, able to withstand volatility in our global economy and state budget. We undertook this path because we strongly believed that we would eventually encounter threats to what was previously our top revenue source — our appropriation from Kentucky state government. What used to be our top revenue source is now only our fifth largest.

Under no circumstances did we want these looming financial challenges to stunt our unprecedented upward academic trajectory. As it turns out I was right, threats to our state’s fiscal position certainly did materialize.

Over the years, we have been able to reduce the university’s reliance on taxpayer funding by diversifying our revenue streams. U of L has become a leader in creating a new model for ensuring continued progress at urban public institutions.

Our mission includes providing access to an affordable higher education for all of Louisville’s diverse communities and people across the entire commonwealth. Protecting that mission from external financial pressures is on my mind every day.

We have diversified our revenue streams through the innovative use of the University of Louisville Foundation, which has undertaken several profitable economic development and fund-raising endeavors that have helped stabilize our overall revenue picture. These projects have had the ancillary benefit of creating jobs and economic development opportunities for many, and we have done it while operating the foundation at an unbelievably low rate of administrative overhead (1.98 percent). The foundation operates at a fraction of what you see at other non-profits.

That is significant because of the headwinds the state faces in the upcoming budget. As a former state budget director, I know that looming Medicaid, pension and debt service obligations will put pressure on our lawmakers and new governor to balance the budget.

U of L will fight for our share of the state’s higher education appropriation, but we are realistic in our expectations given these difficult challenges. I am happy to work with anyone in Frankfort to help find solutions that deal with our state’s financial problems while enhancing our delivery of higher education.

No matter what comes from the state budget, I am thankful for the students, faculty and staff at U of L who have helped implement our collective vision of protecting the institution’s positive academic progression.

The average freshman ACT score was 23.2 in 2002; today its is 25.5. Our six-year graduation rate was 33 percent in 2002; today it is 53.6 percent. We awarded 1,849 bachelor’s degrees in 2002; in 2015, we awarded 2,832. And we awarded 172 Ph.D.s this year, up from just 90 in 2002.

The bottom line is our student population is smarter and more diverse than ever, producing greater results than we could have ever imagined. Our alumni are more robust and involved in the state than ever before, and they are leaders around the world in their chosen fields.

In any large institution, you encounter challenges that must be appropriately dealt with as they come; what you cannot do is let those challenges distract from the overall mission to become a “premier, nationally recognized metropolitan research university.”

My administration will continue to put U of L under a dome of protection from the world’s financial calamities so that we may continue to create an environment for academic success.

The University of Louisville, on my watch, will continuously strive to improve the quality of life for the citizens of greater Louisville and all of Kentucky.

James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville since 2002, also served as the state budget director and as a senior professor of economics and public policy at the university.

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