Save UK’s Mathews Garden, an oasis and a valuable classroom

Mathews Garden, on the University of Kentucky campus, was the family garden of former dean of agriculture Clarence Mathews. It was donated to the university in 1968 by his daughter, Ruth Mathews.
Mathews Garden, on the University of Kentucky campus, was the family garden of former dean of agriculture Clarence Mathews. It was donated to the university in 1968 by his daughter, Ruth Mathews. Herald-Leader file photo

As Kentucky’s flagship university, the University of Kentucky and its surrounding community can no longer neglect the increasing issues of ecological destruction. We must set a precedent and resolve the struggles between ecological preservation and urbanization.

Mathews Garden, a small .6 acre plot within campus, is one fight we cannot ignore.

In 2012, UK’s College of Law made a proposal to pave over Mathews Garden in order to expand its building. However, approval was not given due to backlash from individuals who believe the garden should be saved. Recently, the Board of Trustees approved the law school’s plan to hire an architecture firm to begin the project’s design phase.

The threat still looms, but the final decision has not yet been made.

Mathews Garden is one of the few places in Lexington which provides an oasis from this city of sirens, taxes and coffee breath. As I wander through the paths, the trees creak with the wind blowing through them, drowning out the incessant beeping of car horns just a few yards away.

My mind calms as I sit on a bench, watching others roam through: lost freshmen confused about where they are, an elderly man taking his poodle for a morning walk and a class observing the garden’s array of flora.

The garden provides learning opportunities to many students and organizations. According to James Krupa, a UK biology professor who manages the garden, “clubs from Louisville, Frankfort and Lexington visit the garden” every year in addition to the garden being “used by 17 UK courses” each semester.

With over 300 native Kentucky species within Mathews Garden, the removal of this site would diminish the ability to study the biological life in Kentucky.

Bob Wiseman, UK vice president for facilities management until he retired last year, was quoted in the Herald-Leader as saying the expansion into Mathews Garden would probably cost $60 million to $65 million. That would include the demolition of the Mathews House and Ligon House which sits in front of the garden and have been part of UK’s history for over 100 years. Wiseman said an alternative location for the expansion on Scott Street would cost $90 million. “If we’re talking about saving $30 million, those two houses will not stand in the way,” he said.

Economic matters are valid concerns. However, if UK’s purpose was to save and earn money it would be called a business, but UK is a school. Its mission statement says it is “dedicated to improving peoples’ lives through excellence in education.”

Yet uprooting Mathews Garden would not reflect this dedication. Mathews Garden is not just an overgrown plot of land left unused and unkempt. It is a living classroom that benefits students statewide.

While expanding the law building might improve the educational experience of some students within their own college, this garden provides opportunities to individuals across multiple fields.

Luckily, the fight to save Mathews Garden continues, with the final decision being left to UK President Eli Capilouto. He has an opportunity to show the UK community and the entire state the extent to which he cares about the educational experience of his students.

I urge him to uphold the reputation of this university by continuing to put the students’ educations first. While the law building might currently have limited space on campus, the diversity of life is limited — and shrinking — in the world, and we must do everything we can to preserve it.

Ryan Lark is studying biology, animal science and the environment at the University of Kentucky.