Angling for the Top 20

8 years into campaign to enter the elite, U. of Kentucky assesses its progress and how far it has yet to go.
December 6, 2005

In 1997, political leaders in Kentucky embraced a campaign to turn the state's flagship campus, the University of Kentucky, into one of the top 20 public research universities in the country by 2020. Legislators and the governor at the time, Paul Patton, argued that the state could not transform its economy and better educate its citizens without significantly strengthening the research and education enterprise at its leading university. Skeptics scoffed, noting that dozens of universities covet spots in the top 20, when, as the name suggests, it only has room for 20.

On Monday, officials at the University of Kentucky unveiled a "Top 20 Business Plan," in which they sought both to measure the progress the university has made toward that goal so far and lay out exactly what would be necessary, financially, to ultimately achieve it. The analysis suggests that the university faces a steep climb -- but that's no reason not to make the effort, says Kentucky's president, Lee T. Todd Jr.

"We're quite aware of the competition -- I like to say in my speeches that I haven't gotten a single letter from a president of a top 20 university saying they want to drop out," Todd says. "But the state of Kentucky needs something like this to happen in a desperate way, and I'm confident that the state will be far better off if we're shooting for this goal than if we're not."

The sorry statistics that prompted Kentucky politicians to adopt a sweeping reorganization of the state's higher education system nearly a decade ago have changed little. Today, 19 percent of Kentuckians have at least a bachelor's degree; the national average is 27 percent. The poverty rate is 3.4 percent higher than the national average. The state ranks 47th in workforce education, 42nd in high-tech jobs and 47th in the number of scientists and engineers. (The figures look even worse, the new report shows, compared to the states that have public research universities in the top 20 -- California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.)

The legislative "compact" that aimed to set the University of Kentucky on its ascent was contentious, because it engaged in a form of addition by subtraction: The university could not become a top-ranked comprehensive research university, lawmakers and the governor reasoned, if it also continued to be responsible for operating the state's community and technical colleges. So in exchange for severing the community and technical colleges from the university (and creating a new system for them), the General Assembly committed to making available funds to move the flagship into the nation's top tier.

Unfortunately, says Todd, only half of that "quid pro quo" has been achieved so far. "The 'quid' happened -- the community colleges are gone," the president says, adding that there has been relatively little in the way of "quo," as tight state finances have limited new state spending and forced some budget cuts on the university in recent years. University officials have fallen short, too, Todd says, by failing to document exactly what is needed to get where it wants to go.

Before becoming Kentucky's president in 2001 (and after nearly a decade on Kentucky's faculty), Todd spent the bulk of his career starting and running companies with private investment funds, and says that that time influenced his approach. "When I was in startup mode, trying to raise money from venture capitalists, if I didn't have a plan, I knew I shouldn't bother going in the door," he says. "Everybody's trying to become a top 20 university, but we don't tend to see it spelled out very clearly what that means and how they want to get there. That's what we've tried to do."

To assess where Kentucky needs to go, university leaders sought to figure out how far it has come so far. To do that, they created a nine-point index (based on previous work done by the Association of American Universities, the University of Florida's Lombardi Program on Measuring University Performance, and others) designed to rank 88 public research institutions, which includes such things as student faculty ratio and graduation rates, doctorates granted, faculty awards and citations, and receipt of research funds. 

By that measure, Kentucky has risen to 35th from 40th in the eight years since legislators passed the Postsecondary Education Improvement Act. The five institutions it surpassed during that time, according to the university's composite index, were the University of Illinois at Chicago, Iowa State University, and the Universities of Missouri at Columbia, Delaware and Cincinnati, in places 36 through 40. Next up on the ladder, in places 31 through 34, are the University of Utah, Virginia Tech, the University of California at Santa Barbara and Indiana University.

Whether that's meaningful movement depends on one's view. Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis and assistant to the president at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, likens the situation to running a marathon. "When you're training for a marathon, your improvement when you first start out is in minutes, but the further along you go, it's in seconds, as you reach a point of more marginal gain," says Reindl. "In this case, the first 5 slots, the first 10 slots, might be pretty easy to knock off, but the next 5 or 10 could be extremely difficult."

Todd uses a different analogy, which, not surprisingly, offers a rosier assessent. Citing Jim Collins's Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap, and Others Don't, he talks about how difficult it is to get a flywheel (which produces and stores angular momentum) moving at the start, but how once it's moving, the pace tends to pick up. "We had to get this concept going in the state at a time when we've had budget cuts of $73 million," Todd says. "The fact that we've moved up five slots in that period of time says that we've got the flywheel moving, and with the right investment, we can keep it moving."

The "right" investment is no small amount. The university is essentially proposing its own quid pro quo: Over the next 15 years, it plans to increase enrollment by 7,000, to 34,000; boost its undergraduate graduation rate by 12 percentage points, to 72 percent; add 625 faculty members, to a total of 2,500; and more than double its research expenditures, by $470 million to a total of $768 million. 

The plan commits the university itself to raising about 40 percent of the $1.1 billion in total funds needed to reach those goals, through a mix of fund raising, cost savings and increased funds from federal and other kinds of research. But the Kentucky plan calls for significant increases in money from the state's general fund and from tuition, counting on average annual increases of 5.8 percent in state appropriations and tuition that would rise by 9 percent a year through 2012 and then 4 percent a year between then and 2020.

The current public policy climate, in which state funds are tight and politicians and the public are highly critical of big tuition increases, creates questions about the realism of Kentucky's plan, says Reindl of the state college association, as well as the difficulty of sustaining the momentum if the university is indeed able to move up the ranks.

"It's audacious anmd appealing to have big goal like hitting the top 20 by 2020, and I don't think anybody would question that striving to move up is a good thing," he says. "The fundamental question for legislators and the governor is, what are the tradeoffs? How does that square with where the state sees itself going? There may be other parts of the state's higher education objectives that pursuing a top 20 research university could really crowd out."

Thomas Layzell, president of Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education, the statewide college coordinating board, notes that the University of Kentucky's push for the top 20 is but one part of the state's larger higher education plan. The council's budget request to the General Assembly this year more or less matches what's called for in the university's new business plan, and the panel is similarly seeking increases for other institutions and other priorities.

He acknowledges, though, that "every dollar that somebody gets is another dollar that somebody else doesn't, and that legislators may find it difficult to meet the University of Kentucky's needs and all those of the other institutions in the state, too. "It'll be a very delicate balancing act, to say the least," Layzell says.

But Layzell agrees with Todd's view that politicians and taxpayers can't decide how much they're spend on improving the state's flagship university unless they know exactly how much it will cost and what their money will buy -- which Kentucky officials have now given them.

"We are going to ask Kentuckians to invest in their flagship university as they never have before," Todd said in a memo to trustees about the business plan. "I don't blame those across campus and across Kentucky who are skeptical. Skepticism is a product of experience. And the recent period of lean budgets makes it hard to have confidence in our chances. But if we do not put a specific statement of cost in front of the Governor and the members of the General Assembly, we cannot blame them for giving us the resources we need."


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