UK Reaching Top 20 Critical to Moving Kentucky Forward

Premier Research University Would Mean Jobs, Millions of Dollars for Kentucky

By Lee T. Todd, Jr.

President Lee Todd

Lee T. Todd Jr. is the 11th president of the University of Kentucky.

UK's Top 20 business plan can be reviewed on line at

In 1997, the people of Kentucky formed a Compact with their flagship university. They called on the University of Kentucky to become a Top 20 public research university by 2020. In return for making the investments necessary to achieving this goal, the people of Kentucky would receive the benefits that come from it: an institution defined by academic excellence, world-class research, and vigorous engagement in communities across Kentucky.

The Compact was born from frustration with the low education levels, low wages, and poor health that have plagued too many Kentuckians for too much of their lives. It represents an understanding that a Top 20 research university is an essential part of any serious effort to make every Kentucky community stronger and the life of every Kentuckian better. And it reflects our collective confidence that together we can do great things.

UK is putting in place a Business Plan that will make clear the benefits of building a Top 20 university and what it will take to achieve this goal. It will show the path we must traverse together, asking us to decide whether we are willing to do what we must to achieve what we want. The responsibility will fall on all of our shoulders - UK's faculty, staff, and students; our alumni and other supporters; the members of the General Assembly and the Governor; and the people of Kentucky.

The bottom line is simple: states with Top 20 universities are places where citizens are more educated, healthier, and more financially secure. Average household incomes are higher in states with Top 20 universities. The median income in these states is over $10,000 higher than we have in Kentucky. Fewer people live in poverty and fewer public dollars are spent on health care in these states. Seventeen percent of Kentuckians live in poverty - over one-third of them are children. In states with Top 20 universities, the rate is 12 percent. If Kentucky's rate were 12 percent instead of 17 percent, some 200,000 fewer Kentuckians would be living in poverty. We also could reduce substantially the number of our citizens on Medicaid, saving the Commonwealth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Most important to Kentucky's long-term economic success is the fact that only 19 percent of our fellow Kentuckians have a bachelors degree or higher. The national average is 27 percent and it is 28 percent in states with Top 20 universities. Especially in a knowledge economy, a state that allows its workforce to lag behind in educational attainment is a state that willingly accepts economic failure.

Three-quarters of economic growth in the United States today is the result of technological advance and nearly all that advance is the result of university-based research. Businesses will continue to locate in states with strong research universities with substantial intellectual and laboratory assets and the capacity to produce on a sizeable scale workers prepared to constantly shape and adapt to the rapid evolution of technology and information translation.

The key to success is creating and sustaining the intellectual capital vital to the recruitment of existing businesses and the creation of new ones. UK will be the inevitable centerpiece of any serious effort in Kentucky to create the critical mass of human capital and the synergy of knowledge and infrastructure increasingly attractive to 21st Century business and industry.

UK will build a faculty and support staff that is attractive to more students, valued by businesses and communities for their expertise, and willing to dare to discover new products and new processes, build companies, and create jobs. Kentucky's progress in this new century will be the result of the vision, expertise, and initiative of her flagship faculty.

As a result of this investment in human capital, UK will be able to continue building a student body that is more diverse in character, larger in size, and even more anxious to seek constant advance across all fields of human knowledge, especially in those essential to economic success: science, technology, engineering, and math. UK will inspire, recruit, and retain thousands of Kentuckians willing to take on the challenges and opportunities of the knowledge economy with the aim of making their home state a leader in new business creation and a magnet for cutting edge industries. UK also will be a magnet for students from across the United States and the globe anxious to share in building a state economy that successfully competes in the 21st Century. We will also give them an appreciation of the arts; an interest in literature, culture, and history; and a passion for making their communities better.

UK has more than a legislative mandate to educate more students. That's good for our educational system and our economy. The fact is that UK has a moral obligation to the citizens of Kentucky to grow as a university - not just enroll more students and hire more faculty for the economic gains that result from such strategies. But UK also must harness the energy and talent of its expanding campus in the effort to attack the broad spectrum of persistent social and health problems that Kentucky has historically confronted. UK's teaching, research, and service missions must always tack to the guiding principle that knowledge must be advanced so that Kentuckians benefit, their health improves, and their quality of life prospers.

Our journey to Top 20 did not start with the formation of this Business Plan. Since 1997, our enrollment, graduation rates, endowment, research funding, and annual giving have all soared. Such success is a testament to our faculty and staff, who have done a remarkable job of strengthening this institution.

Any good plan, according to Steven Covey, must begin with the end in mind. We know what our goal is and how it will benefit the Commonwealth of Kentucky for generations to come. But making it happen requires a thoughtful, deliberate and methodical approach. Our Top 20 Business Plan - the first of its kind among public universities in the U.S. - lays out in specific detail how UK will reach its goal. We will need the continued help of our leaders in state government and citizens across the state. Over the next 14 years, UK will:

  • Increase enrollment by 7,000 students - to 34,000;
  • Increase what is already the state's highest graduation rate by 12 percentage points - to 72 percent;
  • Increase the number of faculty by 625 - to more than 2,500;
  • Increase research expenditures by $470 million - to $768 million; and
  • Increase engagement in Kentucky's schools, farms, businesses, and communities.

The members of the Kentucky General Assembly and the Governor understand the importance UK holds for Kentucky's future. Less than a year ago, even as they worked through a difficult budget, they invested over $18 million new dollars in UK. That was an important statement of Kentucky's commitment to the Top 20 Compact. We ask only that the state continue to make that kind of moderate and consistent investment in Kentucky's flagship university over the next 14 years.

UK can and must become nationally recognized for the excellence of our teaching and our research. But we also must become nationally recognized because our work makes every Kentucky community stronger and the life of every Kentuckian better. To do that, we must decide today to reach for lofty aspirations, undeterred by our financial circumstance and unwilling to accept failure. We must decide today that we are capable of establishing visionary goals and then fighting the good fight as we seek success.