Campus News

Remarkable Progress in 1 Strategic Plan; Preparing for the Next in a Time Like No Other

photo of students in class and one raising her hand to ask a question
Mark Cornelison | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 19, 2020) The University of Kentucky is educating and graduating more students than ever before on a campus more diverse than at any time in its history.

More patients are being treated and more research into what challenges the state the most is being conducted than ever on a campus deeply committed to service to the state.

Those are the hallmarks of a five-year strategic plan, which will be completed this year, UK President Eli Capilouto and senior leaders told members of the Board of Trustees recently.

But one plan’s completion means necessary planning for another one — a strategic plan that must be discussed, created and implemented in the middle of a global health pandemic that is stretching the institution’s capacity and significantly disrupting virtually every facet of the university.

“It is time again to focus on the future. Yet, we must recognize that we plan in a context, and in a time and setting, like no other we have faced in the past,” Capilouto told board members Friday during their October meeting. “Our people are tired and stretched. They are the ones, along with our students, who will ensure our success in getting to the end of the semester and who must, at the same time, plan for what a spring looks like in the midst of still so much uncertainty. Against that backdrop, we will — and we must — ask them to plan ahead. But we must find new ways to think together about our future … mindful that we have to plan and prepare for a future in which there are more unknowns than knowns.”

Historic highlights from the current strategic plan — 2015-2020 — include:

  • In the last five years, UK has increased by nearly 15% the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded.
  • UK is responsible for 62% of the total statewide growth in bachelor’s degrees awarded over the past five years.
  • UK is responsible for all of the total statewide growth in bachelor’s degrees awarded over the past five years for Black or African American students when compared to the other Kentucky schools combined.
  • UK is responsible for all of the total statewide growth in bachelor’s degrees awarded over the past five years for low-income students when compared to the other Kentucky schools combined.
  • The second fall retention rate has grown by almost 5 absolute percentage points over the past five years, based on preliminary data and the institution has lowered levels of unmet financial need among students.
  • UK now conducts about $430 million annually in research and so much of it — like the $87 million HEAL grant — is focused on the issues that confront the state: opioid use, cancer, heart disease and other maladies.
  • Annual outpatient visits at UK HealthCare have grown at a compounded rate in less than a decade by more than 100%.
  • UK has constructed some $2.7 billion worth of projects in the last decade alone.

As for the next strategic plan, Capilouto told board members that the UK community must engage in a conversation, mindful of the importance of shared governance and committed to seeking input on every corner of the campus. At the same time, the coronavirus has created questions about the future and how the university can show its value to students, families and the state that must be addressed in new ways and with new approaches.

Kirsten Turner, UK’s vice president for student success, said the demographics of the state and the nation — among students who attend or may attend college — is dramatically shifting. At the same time, students and families want to understand the return on their investment, how an institution like UK prepares them for a career and how the university will ensure student safety — physical, emotional and their well-being.

“Everything we do is framed by President Capilouto’s charge for us to prepare our students for lives of meaning and purpose,” Turner said. “We look at these metrics every single day. Every one of those numbers represents a student, a family and our commitment to help them succeed.”

And far too many students — particularly students of color and from underrepresented populations — still face challenges around retention and graduation, even as the university has made gains in recent years, said George Wright, UK’s interim vice president for institutional diversity.

Wright said future strategic planning efforts must, as a result, include a “laser sharp” focus on opportunity gaps, ensuring access to UK for everyone and further diversifying faculty and institutional leadership.

Provost David W. Blackwell said the successful universities in the future will find the right blend between more online and flexible offerings and the continued commitment to a comprehensive residential campus experience. The university, Blackwell said, also must emphasize and facilitate lifelong learning — which will be essential for student success long term — while developing programs that serve the workforce needs of the Commonwealth

“We have to demonstrate value to retain our advantage,” he said.

Lisa Cassis, UK’s vice president for research, touted the university’s nearly 70% growth in research grants since 2014 as unprecedented for the University of Kentucky, outpacing many of its peers. She attributed much of that success to collaboration among faculty in different disciplines and investment in infrastructure such as the Healthy Kentucky Research Building.

Continuing to make those strides and remain competitive will require continued investments as well as researchers who think in innovative and different ways about their work, while remaining focused on the challenges that most confront the state — cancer and heart disease, opioid disorders, obesity, diabetes and energy needs, among others.

And at the heart of the University of Kentucky, as always, will be its land-grant mission, which also must evolve to meet the challenges of the moment, said Nancy Cox, UK’s new vice president for land-grant engagement.

Cox said UK should be known as the university that “does the most for its home state.” She cited the evolution of the extension service, which serves all 120 Kentucky counties.

Cox said the goal for extension is to be “hard-wired” and “high-touch,” meaning a high-tech and strong presence in every county with deep and sustained work in areas as diverse as agriculture, health care, economic development and community building.

“We are well-positioned to be the university that does the most for its home state,” Cox said. “The land-grant model has never been more relevant or essential.”

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.