President Eli Capilouto BLOG: Unfinished Business

photo of graduates mortarboards from December 2016 commencement
photo of Eugene Poole Jr. and Eli Capilouto

For more than two centuries, the United States Capitol Building has stood as a symbol of American democracy.

Rising 288 feet, at the pinnacle of the recently renovated Capitol Dome sits the 19-foot “Statue of Freedom,” designed by American sculptor Thomas Crawford during the 1855 expansion of the building. Crawford was commissioned by a Kentuckian — then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis — to design the bronze statue. 

The original design featured a woman in classical dress holding a sword and shield, and wearing a “liberty cap.” It was a knit cap provided to freed slaves in the ancient Roman empire, and was adopted as a symbol of freedom during the American and French revolutions.

Though many features of the earliest design remain, the statue that stands atop the dome today does not wear the liberty cap.

Secretary Davis — a militant slaveholder — objected to the cap saying, “its history renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and should not be enslaved.” In his objection, Secretary Davis disregarded Phillip Reid, the African-American slave who helped cast the bronzed "Freedom." Reid didn’t matter as much to Davis because of the color of his skin.

Construction of the Capitol dome was underway when the Civil War broke out. Over a five-year period, more than 700,000 Americans would lose their lives. President Lincoln, another Kentuckian, demanded that work continue because a completed dome would motivate the troops to keep fighting for a united nation. An unfinished dome, to Lincoln, conceded to unfinished work on preserving a democracy. He found it unacceptable to a nation that must serve as a democratic beacon to the world.

Today, the laborious and painstaking work over the past eight years to restore the dome is complete. It took an extraordinary talent to manage this project. The person selected to oversee the renovation, Eugene Poole Jr., remembers fondly his time at UK. His work on the dome defies Jefferson Davis' refusal to recognize a people longing to be free.

While at UK, Eugene, an African American, took interest in minority associations, he sang in the choir. He remembers gratefully those faculty who inspired him to work long hours to master competencies to succeed in the workplace and life. And when he started work he carried with him a noble ethos — never refusing a task, never leaving work unfinished, always asking, “what can I do to help at work and in community?”  

It is these values of education, inquiry, and selflessness that guide our work at the University of Kentucky.

Over the last year, the students, faculty, and staff of this institution have boldly confronted challenges, risen to meet new opportunities, and embraced the goals we set in our Strategic Plan as a University for Kentucky.

We made a bold move to address student financial aid by directing more institutionally supported aid toward needs-based awards. We made this shift — setting us apart from many of our industry peers — because our research indicates too many of our students who can succeed academically are leaving early with a high level of unmet need.

As part of our priority to improve student success, we opened new classroom space and aligned our resources to serve the four pillars of student success: academic success, financial stability, belonging and engagement, and wellness.  

We further supported and fostered a more welcoming and inclusive UK community, because when our people feel like they belong on campus, and our campus belongs to them, they succeed at higher rates and contribute new ideas to our community. We are working diligently to recruit and retain underrepresented minority faculty. We welcomed the first multicultural sorority to campus, and awarded the first annual scholarship to support LGBTQ* student success.

UK’s research enterprise continues to grow as a nationally recognized leader in biomedical, energy, and drug development. Our researchers and creative scholars continue to earn new levels of external grants and contracts, including the prestigious renewal of the Clinical and Translational Sciences Award — $19.8 million to advance research and translation of lifesaving discovery.

A delegation of 38 faculty, researchers, and clinicians traveled to Washington, D.C. in December to advocate for the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act and share their important work and its impact on Kentucky.

The 21st Century Cures Act will provide federal funds to support biomedical research and speed the discovery of new treatments for the medical scourges that plague our people, especially those we serve in Eastern Kentucky.

This infusion of support is critically important to our work when you consider that for the first time in more than two decades, national life expectancy declined this year. Not since the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic has life expectancy declined. It is the result of combined, chronic maladies that befall the people we serve: heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, suicide and addiction. And our faculty, staff and students share a deep desire to address these questions of our day.

We have made progress in the context of a campus defined by a rich plethora of programmatic offerings, research endeavors, stirring creative scholarship, and sophisticated lifesaving health care. But there remain challenges on our horizon, unfinished work we must address, together, as a campus family.

The questions of our day — our unfinished work — will require us to develop a broader understanding of the various identities, experiences, and backgrounds that define us as we share in an economy we shape through our policies and principles.

A university — by its design and the opportunities we have to teach, to share, to explore, to challenge, to question, and to comfort — is the place where we can, must, and will make progress on the complex questions of our day. Our Strategic Plan supports and informs this work, and, as this report makes clear, we are advancing the bright future of the University of Kentucky.

Each day, we are, together, grappling with how we continue to fulfill this vision. We are working with a sense of common purpose, in a distinctive place. We are walking the path as a University for Kentucky, for today's generation and those who will follow.