President Eli Capilouto: Accelerating the momentum of the University of Kentucky

Photo by Mark Cornelison | UKphoto
Mark Cornelison | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 20, 2023) — The following is University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto's report to the UK Board of Trustees during the annual retreat held Oct. 19-20.

I want to echo and reinforce Chair Bob Vance’s remarks this morning. I am excited and eager to engage with you over the course of the day about accelerating the momentum of our university in pursuit of our goal to advance this Commonwealth in everything that we do.

Many of you have attended these retreats before; for some of you this is the first time. I hope those of you who have participated before will agree:

These retreats have offered the board a moment to step back, zoom out and dive more deeply into some of the bigger challenges and opportunities confronting our university.

Often the result has been the board setting a critical direction for us to follow … a path for us to take … to chart a specific policy direction or pursue ambitious goals … for the state we are called to serve.

In 2011, only a few months after my arrival, the board met for a time of retreat. Trustee Swanson, I know, will remember it well. She chaired a University Review Committee that worked quickly, but comprehensively, to assess UK’s current standing.

Along with other presenters, we dispassionately examined areas of strength and challenge in the critical parts of our mission:

  • Our commitment to undergraduate and graduate education.
  • Our ability to recruit and retain faculty and improve the infrastructure necessary to support their work.
  • Sources of funding to fuel our mission.
  • Our research and health enterprises.
  • How we compared with aspirational benchmarks in areas ranging from graduation rates to academic and research programs of distinction.

At the time, I challenged myself and our university to never succumb to the tyranny of “or” but to embrace the genius of “and.”

We are both a flagship and a land-grant institution.

That means we have an obligation to be a model for intellectual and scholarly development and discovery.

We are to prepare students for lives of meaning and purpose, while pursuing answers to the biggest questions and issues of our time.

We are also a land-grant institution. We were founded to provide an education for young Kentuckians — an education that would prepare them to strengthen the economy of communities across the Commonwealth and develop their minds so that they might lead Kentucky to be a better place. And we were called to serve … to respond to need where it exists … to close gaps of opportunity wherever they present themselves.

It was not then, and it is not today, a question of either/or.

It is an imperative to embrace the genius of both/and.

From that retreat, this board directed us to invest more in undergraduate education … to strengthen the student experience … to operate more efficiently and expand our ability to raise financial resources … to leverage our distinctiveness in areas such as research and extension to bring value to Kentucky … and to engage and empower our faculty and staff and partners in ensuring progress for our state.

Chair Brockman described these goals as a “mandate” as it was “time to think big about changing things.”

The last decade has been a testament to the power of that vision and the commitment of our people — record graduation rates and enrollment … the commitment to treat and heal more patients across Kentucky … a focus in research, and an increase in efforts, to address our most persistent problems … an elevation of our land-grant mission to begin to establish the ethos of extension across every area of our campus … and an acknowledgment that our community is strongest when it is inclusive and accepting of people from all walks of life and a multitude of perspectives and identities.

Several years later, in 2018, this board gathered again in retreat.

We heard from committed and compassionate experts from within our university and throughout our state about the surging “deaths of despair” resulting from the crisis in Kentucky and across the country from opioid misuse.

A dozen students joined us to display their research, working with faculty, researchers and clinicians on efforts to create novel treatment approaches … unearth drug discoveries … and delve into the myriad issues related to substance misuse.

Sharon Walsh told this board that “the opioid crisis is a multifaceted process impacting every aspect of society. It’s disrupting families … and communities, but through an approach targeted at expanding access to treatment … treating opioid use disorder as the disease that it is … we can begin to turn the tide on this epidemic and heal our Commonwealth and nation.”

In 2019, a team of researchers across several colleges and units, led by Dr. Walsh, received the largest grant in our history — nearly $90 million — to tackle the scourge of opioid death across our state.

It was more than three times larger than our previous record grant and it signified the power and potential of this university to focus its might on a problem when we honored the “genius of and” — working across units and disciplines and in partnership with communities to find solutions.

What will we do with our time together this week?

The readings we provided recently strongly suggest that higher education, our university and our Commonwealth are at a pivotal point of inflection.

Yes, we have challenges: concerns about finances and demographics, scrutiny regarding our value and priorities, questions about whether we are nimble and responsive enough to address the needs of our state.

But we also have an array of tantalizing possibilities and promise before us.

We have reached record levels of progress and growth in virtually every facet of our mission — education and research, service and care.

We are partnering more and more with industry and government, and we are being asked to do more and more by policymakers, who trust us to work collaboratively to address the state’s most important issues and concerns.

Our state is attracting billions of dollars in economic development, auguring the potential of thousands and thousands of good-paying jobs — jobs that will require a more honed and expanded set of technical competencies as well as a more humane capacity and expanded sense of empathy.

It is an evolving toolkit of hard and soft skills, which our faculty invest in our students, and which necessary for these young men and women who we need to lead lives of meaning and purpose.

How do we manage the challenges and maximize the possibilities?

That is our task today — to acknowledge our undeniable ascent over the last decade, but to look realistically at the steps we must take next to truly honor our mission to advance Kentucky.

Nearly 20 years ago, Dr. Michael Karpf articulated a vision — that no Kentuckian should have to travel far from home to receive the best of care for the most serious of illnesses.

We have made so much progress toward meeting that audacious goal, even as we know that there is still so much to do.

One of your fellow trustees recently asked a similarly ambitious question:

Why should any Kentuckian have to travel far from home to make a good living … to have a job that helps them raise a family … that positions them to help make communities stronger and healthier?

We are the state’s flagship, land-grant institution.

Once again, it is not a question of either/or.

It is a challenge to embrace the genius of and.

We can enroll and graduate more students.

We can treat and heal more patients.

We can conduct research that takes our scholars toward answers in whatever areas they want to pursue and still tackle our state’s biggest challenges.

We can both adapt quickly — and act responsively — to changing workplace needs and think deeply about the timeless skills and knowledge that our students need to be well-rounded and moral citizens.

And we can stay true to our mission to advance this state and be a community of inclusion, belonging and acceptance from people of different colors and ethnicities, backgrounds and perspective, genders and identities — all of whom want the same thing: to be valued and seen for the people they are … people of incalculable worth who have come together to make this community a special place.

Today, we will examine all those questions in different ways, but through the prism of a framing question: what does our state need us to do, and how does it need us to grow, to ensure that Kentucky is healthier, wealthier and wiser?

I hope you will agree that we have put together a program of speakers and opportunities for engagement that do what I always hope for our time together:

To inform, engage and inspire, such that at the end of our retreat you are committed and ready to challenge us again, at this point of inflection, to do what we can, with the collective capacity we possess, to advance our state.