Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Getting the University of kentucky to Aim Higher

LEXINGTON, Ky. — A thick loose-leaf book jammed with charts and graphs details Lee T. Todd Jr.’s ambitious plans for the University of Kentucky.

But in a recent speech to a chamber of commerce, Dr. Todd, the university’s president, summed them up in three brisk words: “Research drives jobs.”

His own life story encapsulates the idea.

Dr. Todd grew up in a small coal-mining and farming town in western Kentucky, graduated from the university and earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at M.I.T. He returned to his Kentucky alma mater to teach before leaving to spend 18 years creating two successful high-tech companies here, in a state better known for thoroughbreds and bourbon than for digital innovations.

The connection between research and job creation also suggests the scope of Dr. Todd’s ambitions. He wants to raise the academic performance and national standing of the university because he thinks that is the best way to improve the state’s economy and reduce the scourge of what he calls “the Kentucky uglies” — high rates of diabetes, lung cancer, illiteracy and poverty.

“What the state needs is a more educated work force,” Dr. Todd told members of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce during an address at a luncheon recently in nearby Georgetown.

“We’re going to have to have more graduates in our economy if we want it to grow.”

Plenty of presidents at state universities across the country have come up with plans for growth and improvement. But few have created a strategy as rigorous, statistically driven or transparent as Dr. Todd’s, and few bring to the task his sense of mission.

“This is really the key: We grow up in Kentucky being told we’re not very good, we can’t compete,” he said at the lunch. “And that’s not true.”

“My point is that Kentucky needs to have big ideas,” he added.

Few ideas are bigger than the one that Dr. Todd, 61, began promoting when he became president in 2001: getting Kentucky into the top 20 among public research universities by 2020.

It took 18 months to develop a plan, with the aid of consultants, to enhance the academic reputation of a university best known for its basketball teams, which have won seven national championships.

The first step for Dr. Todd and his team was to devise their own system for rating state universities. It involves measuring indicators like graduation rates; the academic quality of entering students; the number of Ph.D.’s being produced; the scholarly citations and awards amassed by the faculty members; and the dollar value of federal research grants awarded to the faculty members. Then, they designated benchmarks by which the university’s progress could be measured over the years.

The data showed that the University of Kentucky had a long way to go. Only 60 percent of its students graduate within six years. It has fewer professors and fewer well-paid faculty members than the more prestigious flagship universities whose company it would like to join. By its own system, the university ranks 35 out of 88 public research universities.

The plan had no shortage of doubters, including many professors and trustees. Professors were put off by the title of the president’s plan — the Top 20 Business Plan — and its data-based methodology.

“It smacked of corporate management,” said Ernest J. Yanarella, a political science professor who has taught at the university for 37 years.

But Dr. Yanarella, like many others, ultimately supported the plan because, he said, it was rooted in substantive educational concerns.

“What Lee was emphasizing was the critical importance of this university to the economic well-being of the people of Kentucky,” said Dr. Yanarella, one of two faculty members on the university’s board.

There are already signs of momentum. The university, which had 45 endowed professorships a decade ago, now has 235. It won $300 million in federal research grants this year, compared with $100 million in 1997...

This from the New York Times.

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