A University's Purpose

Former University of Kentucky President Frank L. McVey believed the scope of a university was critically important to the health, well-being, and prosperity of those it served. He believed in our mission as a land-grant university – founded to serve our state and to transform Kentucky into an even better place. In this issue of Kentucky Alumni, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the start of his presidency. At the same time, we are reminded that we still face many of the same challenges that President McVey and the university confronted, and, as in the past, we must once again seek creative and collaborative ways to contribute to our shared progress and future.


The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 calls the University of Kentucky to provide education in the practical arts; but, embedded in that education is the profoundly important idea that our students are also engaged in the liberal arts and critical inquiry which provides them with the skills necessary to shape their character and understand the world through a more just and culturally-competent lens. To that end, the education we provide balances the skills necessary to compete and the compassion to be responsible contributors to progress.


If you consider how our economy has changed in little more than half a century, the need for that balance between habits of the head and the heart becomes abundantely clear. Consider that in 1950, harvesting and cultivating tomatoes for ketchup production was a labor-intensive process requiring as many as 45,000 workers. But when University of California, Davis researchers pioneered a different type of tomato that could be plucked from the vine with a single passing of a mechanized harvester, only 5,000 workers were needed to pick and sort 12 million tons of tomatoes.


The new process was efficient. It helped hold down the price of food for all people, but there was a human cost to this innovation. A new – but smaller – workforce had to adapt to new technologies and a new way of doing business.


Around the same time, trucking-magnate Malcolm McLean wanted to expedite the time it took to transfer goods from a cargo ship. He created shipping containers that could be lifted from the deck of a ship and placed directly on a semi, instead of slowly transferring goods from container to truck.

The process was streamlined, and goods were delivered more quickly. But there was a human cost to this disruptive innovation, too. An entire industry was upended and changed forever.


Today, that process of creative disruption and adaptation happens with greater speed and urgency. Last year, General Motors and Lyft announced a plan to test a fleet of driver-less cars on public roads. It’s part of GM’s $1.5 billion investment in autonomous vehicle services. What does this new technology mean to us?


On average, Americans spend 52 minutes per day in traffic – an astonishing four billion hours of time going to and from work or engaged in less than efficient activity. This is time away from family and lost productivity that can potentially be recaptured, and we can prevent tens of thousands of lives lost in car accidents each year if we can harness the full power of this next innovation.


But at the same time, the estimated number of taxi drivers in the U.S. exceeds 230,000, and there are more than 3.5 million truck drivers. While autonomous vehicles can make our roads safer and lessen the demand on our time and transportation infrastructure, this same technology is a looming threat to those who make a living by driving.


The automated printing press put bookmakers out of business, but mass production brought knowledge and culture to millions. The Industrial Revolution pushed agrarian workers from the fields to the factories. Manufacturing, journalism, education, legal practice, food services, and other industries constantly evolve – often for the better. These are the results of the practical arts.


The liberal arts, though, remind our students to acknowledge the human effect of these disruptions and act with compassion to make sure the least among us shares in the benefits of progress. It is the blending of these two distinct but inextricably linked academic purposes that underscore the importance of a college education.


President McVey said, “As the years go on, the state university will become more and more important to the people of the Commonwealth, because the people will need the interpretations of social movements, the knowledge and understanding of scientific investigation and discoveries, and the benefit of trained personnel to carry out the purposes of the state.”


Whether on our campus or beyond its borders, we live, work, and create in an interconnected world, rich with culture that emboldens a global economy and diversifies the international marketplace of ideas and products.  


Life’s richest lessons stem from the intersection of talent and compassion – of the practical and liberal arts. It is at that intersection that our faculty, staff, and students learn, create, and thrive.