President Series: Caring for students remains No. 1 goal at the University of Kentucky

With a mission to serve a diverse, expanding community on campus and individuals in need throughout the Bluegrass State, UK is thriving and 'inspring ingenuity.'

“We’re welcoming over 6,000 students in our freshman class. It wasn’t so long ago when we welcomed 4,000. To see this many more students make the University of Kentucky their first choice, to see the anxiousness and hopefulness, makes for a very exciting time.” President Eli Capilouto

Eli Capilouto

By many measures, these are the best of times for the expanding flagship campus that dominates 918 acres inside Kentucky Route 4. While many institutions across the nation are experiencing the pains of inflation, retention and completion, the University of Kentucky is both surging and serving. Its freshman enrollment in 2022 is a record, but a few other data points are just as important: like the boost of 300 new first-generation students to 25% overall. Or closing in on a 70% six-year graduation rate with 7,600 degrees conferred. Or being able to fund $3 billion in new and improved facilities during the past decade.

But one of the proudest stats, Capilouto points out, is that even with the university pulling in enrollees from 120 different countries and every state in the U.S., 65% of its students are still from the Bluegrass State.

“A priority for the University of Kentucky is keeping our doors open widest for Kentuckians,” said Capilouto, who was born in Alabama and held key positions there for a long time but whose allegiance has shifted to blue and white. “If we can shrink the amount of financial need for our students, we appreciably increase the likelihood of student success. Twenty-five percent of our students come from families whose median household income is around $25,000. We have a high percentage of first-generation students. We will have ill-served Kentucky if we don’t think with greater certainty that success is a real possibility for those students.”

It is a high-wire act for any institution, especially those that rely so heavily on state funding, but it is one that Kentucky has managed well. UK not only has boosted outcomes among students but also now ranks in the Top 5 of all in-state Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. for employees to work by Forbes. UK HealthCare also ranks in the top 40 nationally on Forbes’ list of best large employers. It is all part of a strategic plan called UK Purpose, installed a little more than a year ago to “put students first, take care of people and inspire ingenuity.”

To learn more about how this university, known for helping students and its fierce athletics programs (No. 9 overall in the Director’s Cup, which measures all teams, not just football and basketball), University Business sat down for an engaging conversation with the president:

One of the university’s missions, noted in your strategic plan, is to take care of people. Can you talk about what that entails and how you’re doing that at UK?

The first foundational principle is putting students first in everything we do and taking care of our people … so we can better take care of Kentucky–the students who are on campus, the individuals in 120 counties that turn to our extension offices for support and the 40,000 patients that come to UK HealthCare to be treated. To do all those things, we need to have a healthy, inspired workforce. Over the last 10 years, we’ve put together a compensation plan that increased salaries, expanded health care benefits and kept a lid on premium costs. We’ve also increased beginning pay. We were really the first in our region to establish $15 an hour and have continued to move that up. We’ve also moved up wages of those just above that. We also recognize that in these unprecedented times of COVID and economic stress that we have to do more for those we serve. For students, we have established a phone number that will have wellness specialists who can immediately connect them to a service they need (financial wellness, emotional wellness or counseling).

With students as high priority, how is the University of Kentucky responding to those who want assurances of relevant career paths and for employers who need talented workers in the next few years?

Part of our strategic planning is to focus more intently on workforce challenges for Kentucky. We need more health care personnel. We’ve received a grant to immediately increase class sizes in these fields. The state has been generous in its support (over $300 million this academic year) such that we can use our monies to build health education buildings and have health professions housed within them. We have made it possible for hospitals, some in rural areas, to better recruit. Research has shown if you recruit and train people from rural or underserved areas, the likelihood of their remaining there after graduation improves. So, we opened the Bowling Green campus and had that first graduation this year. We opened the Northern Kentucky campus (part of UK Engage). We offer an education where students can work at the intersection of the disciplines. That’s going to be important. Most of the challenges we face in our country involve multiple disciplines working together. This education they receive here is the first step in lifelong education that they’re going to have to undertake to get a job, create jobs and maintain work that provides meaning and purpose in life.

New innovation occurs frequently on your campus, whether it be research, health care or just in new construction. What is happening now and in the future at UK that you’re most excited about?

One of our foundational principles is inspiring ingenuity. We don’t necessarily have to incentivize this. People come up with an idea and run with it. A few years ago, I attended a national meeting and heard about esports. I realized these aren’t just games. The people who engage in this are folks who may be working on development of the metaverse. I talked to [other campus leaders] about it. The next thing I know, we have an esports lounge facility gaming area that is quite popular, and we have some exceptional students who use that as an experience to prepare them for a great job. I see innovations everywhere, in terms of teaching and the way we treat patients. Telehealth has expanded at a rapid pace. So, I’m very encouraged about the vibe at the university to create and innovate.

We’ve had a very interesting past couple of years, in terms of health and COVID, and now monkeypox circulating. How well are you prepared for the rest of the 2022-23 academic year in protecting your community?

The forced experiences we had to endure have taught us much. I have never been so proud of an institution as I was the University of Kentucky during these challenging times. We had to innovate. We had to create quickly mechanisms to respond to this pandemic: How are we going to open campus? Are we going to close campus and still provide education, research services and care? How are we going to best protect campus to reopen? We took responsibility for providing vaccines to every K-12 employee both in public and private school districts, all first responders, others who are critical to our economy, and did all that when we had a shortage of vaccines, no scheduling software, and no dedicated facility. So, we improvised. In a short time, we provided 250,000 vaccinations. We know how to pivot. We know how to respond. We are paying close attention to monkeypox. If that raises a significant problem, we’ll be able to act.

As president, you’ve eloquently delivered positive and timely messages to students, especially during crisis moments. Is that messaging one of the best tools a president has?

It’s a tool with a privilege that has to be respected. You have to do well. People may listen the first time. But you’ve got to have something to say if you want them to listen time and again. I feel quite fortunate that I live on campus, so you can sort of keep your hand on the pulse of things. But my cabinet and others that work on these matters never get far from this campus. It’s a well-read team of communications expertise. With their help, I think we’re able to communicate effectively. It is a team sport here.

What are you hoping to see happen over the next five years from the university?

I do hope that we develop continuous learners who are able to teach themselves, because it’s a rapidly changing economy. Being comfortable amongst the differences, and being able to develop fruitful, productive relationships across different individuals, is going to be a strength, given the tensions surrounding social and culture issues. Developing a deeper understanding of yourself and others who may have a different story, different faith, different color of skin, creed, identity. We know that when we have diverse perspectives around the table, we tend to be more innovative, more successful in creating solutions. We can’t lose sight of our responsibility to Kentucky.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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