Heroes Among Us: Reflecting on a Historic Semester

Photo of outdoor class

President Capilouto delivered the following remarks to the Board of Trustees on Tuesday, Dec. 15.

Good afternoon. It is good to be with you for our last meeting of the semester – a semester I think we all would agree has been unlike any other in our history.

It has been said that there is no right or perfect time, there is only our time. 

That has never been more undeniable than at this moment. 

And in this time – imperfect, but ours nonetheless – I hope you are as proud as I am of what we have accomplished together.

There are heroes among us.

I wish I could name them all and spotlight everything they have done.

I can’t.

But I can, I hope, appropriately and adequately reflect on their stories with you.

Collectively, they paint a picture of a community unlike any other. It is your community – one in which I know you also take great pride.

Our students overcame challenges — and made sacrifices — that most generations of students don’t face. 

They wore masks and distanced from each other. They limited gatherings, changed the way they learned, and in fact, changed almost every aspect of daily life on a campus, so they could be here. 

Many of them balanced their studies with work... a difficult balance made even more challenging in the context of a pandemic. 

They face what feels like an uncertain and anxious future. 

Most days and nights during this semester, I walked this campus for miles at a time … in and out of classrooms and buildings … dining facilities and residence halls … the library and quiet study places …

Our students – every day – demonstrated the sense of grace and grit and that we know defines who we are at the University of Kentucky.

We asked them continually to meet a moment of challenge.

They did – with resolve and resilience, kindness and empathy.

Researchers closed their labs and then plotted how to reopen them. 

We continued life-saving work in cancer and opioid use disorders and brought experts together from across the campus to work on vaccines, testing protocols and other interventions – the things that only happen at a place like this…. a place with  the breadth and depth of disciplines and the dedication to turn the quest for knowledge into the pursuit of discovery.

Our faculty pivoted on a dime last March and moved thousands of courses online in a matter of two weeks. 

That was a massive task. It should not be  overlooked or underappreciated. 

Many of our faculty  worked throughout the summer, thinking through how we could return to campus this fall and working on courses and formats that would meet students where they are – in-person, online and in combinations that would continue learning.

Teaching is a profession. It is also a passion. 

There is a Chinese proverb that tells us “if you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.

That is, at its heart, what we do – we educate people for a lifetime of change and challenge, of meaning and purpose.

And it starts with a teacher who cares. Our faculty care – deeply. Profoundly.

And they had to demonstrate that care and concern in different ways, clearing hurdles and obstacles over a short period of time and without a  roadmap from the past that prescribed  how to do it.  

Our staff – quietly, efficiently and with dedication – moved nearly 10,000 pieces of furniture out of campus facilities to allow space for physical distancing...installed almost 30,000 signs inside and outside to encourage healthy behaviors...

They worked with a vendor to administer nearly 50,000 COVID-19 tests to students and employees  this fall and continued testing throughout the semester … 

They created new teams that, a year ago, we didn’t know we would need. 

Our more than 50-member UK Health Corps conducted contact tracing and screening and provided academic and wellness support to our community. These individuals underwent a contact tracing course at Johns Hopkins University and shadowed public health officials in UK HealthCare and at the local health department. To date, Health Corps has managed more than 6,200 high exposure contacts– providing these members of our community with essential support during this daunting time.

We recognized that additional support was necessary across our campus– as a way of managing this virus, and to live and breathe our most important promise to those we serve: that we care.  

Thus far, we have invested more than $40 million to create campus and support systems to help ensure a healthy and safe environment. 

Our Emergency Operations Center — like all EOCs — is designed to handle incident response — a crisis or issue over the course of hours or, perhaps, days. 

But our EOC and dedicated UK community members who staff it have worked to respond to this incident — and others — continuously since late February. 

They helped facilitate hundreds of decisions, large and small, to ensure our campus could continue to efficiently and effectively operate. In one evening, working around the clock, they helped coordinate — along with our team in the international center — the return of about 100 students from abroad to this country in a matter of 24 hours. 

And then, there are our health care heroes – doctors, nurses, techs and their support staff – who selflessly provided care to those most in need, working long shifts in layers of masks, gloves, face shields and other PPE.

We treat the most seriously ill patients in the Commonwealth. With military precision, we have changed plans and protocols overnight to ensure that we can address the needs of our region and the state in the face of a pandemic that disproportionately impacts communities of color and those who are economically disadvantaged.

These are my heroes. I know that they are your heroes, too.

Already, we are planning for next semester. There is relief on the horizon. Our health care team is preparing this week to begin distribution of a COVID vaccine. Others on our campus are thinking through how that vaccine will be distributed in the months ahead as it becomes more readily available.

We also are preparing for the return of students in late January. 

We will conduct thousands of mandatory entry tests again and will significantly increase the ongoing testing we provide for students, faculty and staff throughout the semester.

Our goal is to continue to ensure the health, safety and well-being of our entire community, while continuing to make progress toward the normal operations of our campus that we all desire.

This is a collective commitment – one that faculty and staff share – to making the experience next semester better than the fall. Our world will still be in the throes of a pandemic crisis for months to come. 

That makes what happens on this campus – in ways that must ensure health and safety – so essential. Our ability to do that this semester will be critical to laying the foundation for our success, and that of our students, over the next several years. 

We will update you on our progress as those plans begin to take shape.

As part of that process – of reflecting and planning – I have had the pleasure in recent weeks to speak with each of you individually. 

We haven’t done it in the way any of us would prefer – in person – but the conversations have been enjoyable for me and illuminating.

They underscored for me your deep devotion to this institution and your commitment to our students and our mission.

I had the privilege of speaking to all of you, which gives me the opportunity to reflect on the common themes and collective aspirations you have for this place.

I want to offer some thoughts on what I heard, as we end this year and begin another.

I could call it a Top 10 list. But I think, in distilling and synthesizing what I have heard, I would characterize it as 10 things that matter.

One…The ability to anticipate change – and prepare for it – matters: A pandemic that hops across countries and continents, striking young and old, killing some and barely infecting others, underscores how quickly things change and how devastatingly fast our course can be altered. 

We have to be able to adjust and pivot in ways that do not stray from our values: creating the opportunity for Kentuckians to learn; devoting ourselves to equality of opportunity and a sense of fairness for everyone; and establishing trust and transparency in what we do and how we communicate it.

The question we must answer is: How do we stand ready for change while remaining true to those values that have guided us for more than 155 years?

Second…equality of opportunity matters. The coronavirus pandemic, inarguably, exacerbates existing divisions and disparities. It is an accelerant. A company like Apple took a little more than 40 years to reach $1 trillion in value, as one commentator pointed out recently. It took less than six months to reach $2 trillion. 

Yet, those already on the precipice of despair – people with health challenges, many communities of color and those who were already economically disadvantaged – have been disproportionately impacted by COVID. Those less healthy, economically disenfranchised or people of color have been infected at higher rates and are more likely to be sick or, tragically, to be taken from us.

The virus DOES discriminate. 

It has widened opportunity gaps and divisions and that impact our students and so many we serve. 

We have a responsibility to help close those gaps.

As a land-grant institution – created to increase access to education – we have a moral imperative in a time of crisis to not only help, heal and serve... We have a particular responsibility to open doors of access to students – particularly Kentuckians – who will grow and thrive here. They will then lead and change communities, which in turn will transform a state.

Our faculty and staff will be our partners in this commitment. We have world-class faculty, the best in our state and among the best in the world. When an outstanding faculty member engages with a student – particularly in a classroom – there is magic in that. 

We need to provide that experience, as best we can, this coming semester. 

Our faculty want that, too. But they don’t do it alone. I’m asking our staff – particularly those who directly support students in areas such as advising, tutoring and counseling – to have an even greater presence, in person, on our campus this semester. 

And all those who report to me – from legal counsel and public relations to finance and research – need to set an example with their increased presence, too.

That is our promise. 

It is the compact we have with the state whose name we bear.

At this moment, in this time, we must renew our commitment to that covenant with Kentucky.

Third... teaching matters. Deeply. The students who need the most, benefit the most by being in the classroom in the presence of outstanding faculty. 

In the midst of a pandemic, we have to alter – in some ways – how that teaching takes place (the modes and formats), but we have to do it in a way that ensures we are meeting our students where they are to maximize their opportunities for success. 

Effective teaching takes advantage of the best of high-tech and high touch approaches to help students. As a university, we must recognize that, and we must find ways to further recognize and reward teaching that enables and emboldens students.

Fourth... students matter. Over the last year, we have discovered even more deeply the tools we have, and the innovation we can tap, to reach and teach students.

We have new tools and so many ways to reach out. But tech means little without touch. In a matter of weeks last spring, we called 30,000 students, to check in and see what they needed during this time of uncertainty. 

That is only one way we demonstrated a value core to who are: putting students at the center of everything that we do.

We must continually find new ways to ensure that we honor that value and that commitment.

As we called students, we used technology to help us catalogue and document concerns and needs. We could see trends, which guided our approach to targeting individual needs and developing collective solutions. Similarly, in the classroom now, we have an array of tools and talents with which to reach and teach students. We can continue to build upon this progress -- giving them the best of both high-tech and high-touch.

As our students return to campus at the end of next month, we have to find ways — even in the midst of a pandemic and continuing challenges -- to commit to their success.

That’s true in the classroom. It’s true in the ways we support students — academic advising, counseling and tutoring. It’s true in the example we set as administrators, present as much as possible on campus, always asking those fundamental questions:

Did we care? Did we care as a community? Did we show our compassion for, and our commitment to, students in all that we did?

Fifth... the basics matter. Yes, technology is increasingly important. It impacts and shapes virtually everything we do. But, at our core, we must still provide students with a toolkit of skills that equip them to navigate a complex world. 

They must be able to write and communicate. They must be able to work individually and in teams. They must have critical thinking skills that help them anticipate, understand and solve problems. 

The ways we interact with the world have changed. Many of the skills and capacities we need to be successful in that process have not.

Sixth... science matters. Science – not as an end unto itself – but as a rigorous process, painstakingly adhered to over time – that has the potential to yield life-changing and life-saving discovery.

The two scientists – a married couple who  worked with Pfizer on the COVID-19 vaccine now coming to market – worked for years … not on a cure for an infectious disease. Their focus was cancer. Long, arduous research in which the simple but profound aim was asking questions to see where they led. 

That’s the genius of research and discovery: Years later, work around immunotherapy in tumors lays the foundation for a vaccine that heralds healing and hope for millions – relief from an infectious disease that has pummeled a planet.

This is the kind of discovery our researchers pursue each day. Their impact– their exploration of the most pressing questions of our day, from cancer to racial disparity, and from energy to opioids – uplifts communities across our Commonwealth and beyond.

Seventh...our history and commitment to service matters. Time and again, we have been a beacon of hope for our state. We don’t always have the answers or the defined path, but we are willing to take informed risks that offer hope and the potential and promise of an answer. 

In the face of deaths of despair ravaging communities across this state, we developed a team and articulated a bold goal – decreasing deaths from opioid use disorder by 40 percent in three years. 

We have proclaimed that we will no longer accept leading the country in all the wrong health categories. We have taken on the task of cutting cancer rates in half in our Commonwealth.

These are audacious goals without easy or sure paths.

But we don’t let problems or peril stand in the way of our promise or our  progress.

That’s how we honor – and do our part to strengthen – a legacy 155 years in the making. 

And at this place, and in this time, we must choose to take on the seemingly insoluble.  We must lead around questions of racial and social justice … eradicate barriers of cost and financial burdens that compromise the ability of students to learn … cultivate a sense of community and acceptance for everyone on our campus and wherever our students take the lessons learned here into a world in need of answers.

More than 155 years ago, we were founded to serve. That mission has never been more important or more necessary  than now. 

Eighth... partnership matters. We don’t have all the answers. But we bring to the table – and to communities – a capacity for education, research, service and care. 

When leveraged with the power of partnership, in communities and counties, cities and towns, throughout this Commonwealth, it can be powerful. 

One of you told me there is an expectation in many quarters of the state that this university is a cure for all that ails us. That comment illuminates our role as Kentucky’s university. 

But it’s only part of the equation. The service we render – and the problems we solve – happens best in partnership with and for communities.

Ninth... our soul matters. Yes, we bring to our state our intellectual capacity and commitment – to teach, to heal, to help. But we also infuse in everything we do our sense of compassion and empathy – our soul – which drives us to make tomorrow better and more just than today. 

We honor that commitment in ways unlike anyone else … words that move minds … music that stirs hearts … a passion for justice that compels us to ask challenging questions without easy answers.

We gather people from around the globe – faculty, students and staff – with different perspectives and beliefs, identities and backgrounds. What we have in common is our sense of humanity and our commitment to community.

Tenth, and finally, you matter. I heard from so many of you how you deeply miss the ability to gather, both formally and informally, to learn more about this place you serve, but also to exchange ideas and learn from each other. 

In this way, you are still students at heart. 

It’s an example we want to set for all of our students, those here now and those who will follow. Together, we share our lives and perspectives – not solely around questions of university operations and policy, but about life. 

You take your responsibilities – to serve this place and to advance its mission – seriously. You reflect so much what our students and families, faculty and staff, have been telling us, too: we miss each other, and we need the power and refuge of connection and community.

I miss that, too.

But our commitment – to each other and to our campus – must be to continue building back that connection in the coming months. There is hope on the horizon. Together, we must be a light that leads our community to it. 

We do that by remaining true to who we are and to what this place so powerfully is … a community that cares.