Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018
The following op-ed appeared in several regional newspapers throughout the week of January 22, 2018.
When I think about what’s at stake for Kentucky, in my mind’s eye, I see Jake Ingram.
Jake graduated from UK in 2015. He was an outstanding student who served as a leader and earned a mechanical engineering degree. Jake always dreamed of being an astronaut. His earliest memory is watching the space shuttle. But as he grew up, Jake realized it wasn’t his destiny to fly a spacecraft. He would build it.
Now, he is working for SpaceX in California, pushing the boundaries of discovery well beyond what we consider possible today. He’s figuring out how to get us to Mars.
Jake believes UK gave him the tools to succeed. But when you look at Jake’s Instagram feed, you discover that while his mind is soaring around the galaxy, his heart has not left Kentucky.
I know what Gov. Matt Bevin and policymakers are wrestling with every day: how do we ensure Kentuckians like Jake have the option to stay? How does Kentucky, whether in space or the assembly line, become the creator of ideas and the assembler of parts.
Those questions — and their answers — will require us to rethink how we provide education at the University of Kentucky and continue to contribute in a fundamental way to the success of our economy.
Bevin and lawmakers are in the unenviable position of confronting soaring pension and health care costs, growing from less than 20 percent of the state’s budget a decade ago to nearly one-third this year.
However, if we do not continue to invest in education, we not only risk the promise of the next Jake Ingram; we shortchange our ability to create the jobs that keep him in Kentucky.
In return for the state’s investment, UK is rethinking how we renew our commitment to Kentucky. I suggest three pillars of a renewed compact with the Commonwealth:
We must commit to continue being an essential partner in the state’s economic development. With the leadership of Bevin and Economic Development Secretary Terry Gill, the Commonwealth recruited EnerBlu, a high-tech energy company making a $400 million investment producing 1,000 jobs, to develop advanced manufacturing operations in Pikeville, and research and development in Lexington.
UK played a key role in EnerBlu’s recruitment, pointing to nearly 40 industrial partnerships in the last three years with our College of Engineering and other innovative work at our Center for Applied Energy Research, where we are prototyping new battery and energy solutions.
This partnership is one of many already in place. For Kentucky to advance in a 21st-century economy, we must seek more partnerships with government and the private sector in ways that recruit new, good-paying jobs to the Commonwealth.
We must continue to be a leader in finding solutions to health-care challenges. Life expectancy in America has now dropped for two straight years. Drug overdoses — particularly those from opioids — are among the primary drivers.
UK is on the frontline of attacking this epidemic. From new drugs that curb the addictive power of opioids to community and clinical interventions, we are investing millions of dollars to stem the tide of abuse.
This past year, UK had nearly $350 million in research and development expenditures. Think what we could if that number topped $500 million annually.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 1.7 million cancer deaths were averted between 1991 and 2012 because of research, treatment, detection and prevention.
Could we double that number?
We should educate more students, ensuring they are equipped to learn for life in jobs they will create. Today, we educate more than 30,000 students.
In the last six years alone, we have more than doubled scholarships, and we have started a nationally recognized program to address unmet financial need.
This year, we can expect to graduate about 6,700 students. What would it mean for Kentucky if the number were 10,000?
Enrollments have been declining nationally in recent years, but UK is bucking the trend.
Since 2011, we have increased the number of bachelor’s degrees by nearly 25 percent. UK has accounted for nearly 40 percent of Kentucky’s increase in degree production.
We have graduated nearly 36 percent more low-income students and more than 120 percent more underrepresented minorities.
And we’ve been significantly increasing the numbers of graduates in fields and careers that are growing and that fill important needs for our state.
Between 2011 and 2016, for example, UK increased the number of bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, math and health-related fields by nearly 56 percent.
The economic imperative for this growth — and the moral imperative to sustain it — is clear: the unemployment rate of a college graduate is half that of someone with only a high school degree and there is a $1 million difference in lifetime earnings.
The challenges confronting our state loom large. But it is, nevertheless, time to double down on dreaming big. We were founded more than 150 years ago to be the University for Kentucky. But we owe it to those we serve to rethink what that means in the 21st century.
We are asking the tough questions about how best to do that. It is time for us, together, to find the answers.