Each spring, on the first Saturday in May—dubbed “Derby Day” since the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875—America boards the Kentucky bandwagon. It fawns over the opulent hats, which bloom on the tops of heads like gardens of feathers, flowers, and felt. It coos at the front-porch cocktails: mint juleps, Long Island iced teas, and bourbon slushes. And, of course, it cheers for the thoroughbred contenders with names like Gallant Fox, Majestic Prince, and Flying Ebony.
Indeed, for one day out of 365, Kentucky is the center of the social universe. But for the other 364, it’s an afterthought, mostly forgotten if not for its equine assets and barrel-aged bourbon.
The tragedy of this heedlessness is what the nation would see if it ventured outside of Churchill Downs: beyond Kentucky’s beautiful bluegrass is a state with significant generational challenges, says William Thro, general counsel at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky.
“There are three regions of Kentucky—Louisville, Cincinnati, and Lexington—that are doing relatively well economically and, increasingly, in terms of quality of life,” explains Thro, a Kentucky native who was raised in a small town near Fort Knox, Kentucky, southwest of Louisville. “If you go to Eastern Kentucky, however—to the coal fields south and east of Lexington—along with great beauty, you’ll see severe poverty and challenges associated with access to quality health care and jobs.”
In fact, 16 of the nation’s 100 poorest counties are located in Kentucky, which is more than any state, except Texas. “People in these areas have incomes that are half what they are in the rest of the state,” Thro continues. They also have severe health-care problems: the number of people needing cardiology treatment, the number of people suffering from obesity or diabetes, and the number of people who smoke and potentially could develop lung cancer are well above the national average.
Educational inequities, likewise, are stark. The high school completion rate in Eastern Kentucky has improved in the last generation under a set of far-reaching reforms, but attainment levels remain well below the national average, says Thro.
He attributes Kentucky’s decline to its antiquated economy. “If you go back 30 years, agriculture tended to center around tobacco, which, of course, is no longer fashionable.” Some farmers have been able to grow other crops, but many haven’t.
Another outdated major industry is coal. As the nation moves to cleaner energy sources, coal has gone out of style in a big way, and it shows in the state: As recently as 1985, there were 1,858 coal mines in Kentucky employing 36,814 people. In 2013, there were just 279 coal mines employing 11,885 people. “Jobs that once were providing a middle-class or upper-middle-class existence no longer exist or are threatened,” Thro says.
It might seem reasonable that a public university in this socioeconomic climate would ignore or detach itself from its surroundings, especially in the interest of out-of-state recruitment of faculty and students. Instead, the University of Kentucky is one of the state’s greatest tools to change the cultural norms that have caused these conditions.
“If there’s any place that could benefit from a world-class research institution that’s striving to improve the lives of its citizens and the quality of life in its state, it’s probably the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
When it was established as a land-grant university in 1865, the University of Kentucky entered into a covenant with the state that promised to provide Kentuckians with education, research, and services, which would ensure a bright future for the commonwealth. University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto calls this covenant the “Kentucky Promise.” When Capilouto took office in 2011, he pledged to renew and strengthen that promise as the institution neared its 150th anniversary.
“One hundred and fifty years ago, the University of Kentucky made a promise to the people of Kentucky to improve their lives and to improve the state as a whole,” says Thro, who joined the university in October 2012 to help Capilouto fulfill the Kentucky Promise. “Eli wanted to redouble our efforts to keep the Kentucky Promise and be the institution that the people of Kentucky deserve. Kentucky, in many ways, is a disadvantaged state, and if there’s any place that could benefit from a world-class research institution that’s striving to improve the lives of its citizens and the quality of life in its state, it’s probably the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
One of the chief challenges confronting the state—one the University of Kentucky can play a lead role in confronting—is what Thro calls a Bluegrass State “brain drain.”
“Too often the best and brightest that Kentucky produces—the people who could make our economy grow by starting businesses and making discoveries—do not stay in Kentucky,” he explains. “They go out of state for college, and they never come back.”
Until he returned to Kentucky to join the university, that was the narrative of Thro’s career. Upon graduating from high school, he went to Hanover College in Indiana, followed by law school at the University of Virginia, and graduate school at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Apart from a year he spent in Louisville in a judicial courtship, he lived his entire adult life out of state—first in Colorado, where he was assistant attorney general and a litigator for the Colorado Department of Education and Colorado State University; then in Virginia, where he had a similar position in the attorney general’s office; worked as in-house counsel for Christopher Newport University; and served as solicitor general, chief appellate advocate for the state government.
“When I was a senior in high school, the University of Kentucky really wasn’t on my radar,” Thro says. “They did nothing to recruit me or attract me, so I went out of state—and I stayed out of state for 30 years.”
The University of Kentucky can help Kentucky turn itself around, Thro suggests, by stopping the mass exodus of young talent from the state. “For [Capilouto] and his team, keeping the Kentucky Promise means transforming the university in a number of important ways,” he explains. “One is enhancing the quality of our undergraduate educational experience; we’ve got to have a world-class undergraduate program because if you stay here for four years for college, there’s a good possibility that you’re going to stay here permanently.”
Talent retention is one part of the Kentucky Promise. Another is research. “We need a vibrant research program,” Thro says. “This research needs to encompass all aspects of the human experience, but, in particular, it needs to improve the quality of health care for all Kentuckians—especially those people in Eastern Kentucky, who will benefit greatly from breakthroughs in cancer treatment and in major drug development.”
Many universities already have outstanding undergraduate and research programs. The University of Kentucky has had pockets of significant strength in both areas, but to be one of the top residential public research campuses in the country, Thro says a comprehensive commitment to excellence must be established in both undergraduate education and research. He cites the University of Wisconsin, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Virginia as examples of high-quality research institutions that the University of Kentucky aspires to emulate. These institutions embody comprehensive institutional excellence and showcase what a world-class university can mean for a state.
“In the 1920s, Wisconsin was mostly a rural state with a bunch of dairy farms,” Thro says. “But the University of Wisconsin—arguably one of the great research universities in the world—made some decisions in the 1920s and early 1930s that caused it to become the major research institution that it is today. We have to catch up in that regard, and there is, at the University of Kentucky, an
unyielding commitment to doing so.”
Among the actions already taken under Capilouto’s renewed commitment to the promise is construction of new housing. In 2012, the university started a six-year plan to revamp and revitalize its on-campus housing. Since 2013, the university, in partnership with Memphis-based college housing developer and manager EdR, has constructed new residence halls with nearly 4,600 occupancies. Under the terms of the agreement, EdR will have a 75-year lease on the new housing and will collect rent from students, a portion of which it will pay to the university after meeting certain profit thresholds.
Along with more than 680 occupancies added in 2005, the university now has more than 5,200 modern student occupancies. By August 2016, it will add more than 1,000 new occupancies, meaning the university will house a total of more than 6,400 students. That will place the University of Kentucky at more than two-thirds of the goal Capilouto laid out three years ago, which was to complete 9,000 new student occupancies. “According to all the research, if you want students to be successful, the students need to have a sense of community,” Thro says. “It’s hard to develop that sense of community if they’re coming to campus, going to class, then going home to an off-campus apartment where they never encounter another student.”
The university has outsourced its on-campus dining services, resulting in better food and lower food costs. “All of this has caused many more of our students to want to live on campus,” Thro says. “We have a waiting list with our new residence halls, which also contain high-tech classroom and community spaces. We expect those kinds of living and learning spaces to lead to greater student retention and higher graduation rates.”
Another important initiative has been to increase scholarships for National Merit Scholars. “By giving substantial scholarship assistance to National Merit Scholars and students who are close to National Merit status, a lot of Kentucky’s best and brightest are staying home,” Thro observes. “Under President Capilouto the number of National Merit Scholars attending the University of Kentucky has essentially doubled to well over 100 in each entering class.”
Yet another early achievement toward fulfilling the Kentucky Promise is state funding for a $265 million medical research center. Scheduled for completion in 2017, the six-story facility will conduct research on cancer, heart and pulmonary disease, stroke, and other chronic illnesses affecting Kentuckians en masse. “We persuaded the state legislature in a non-budget year to fund the creation of a new research center that will focus on medical and pharmaceutical research in order to improve the lives of all Kentuckians,” says Thro.
He adds that another important development is the expansion of the university’s health-care system, UK HealthCare, which is forming partnerships with health-care providers across Kentucky to expand its reach to underserved communities. “Our goal is to make sure Kentuckians get the best health care possible, as close to home as possible.”
Although the Kentucky Promise is Capilouto’s vision, Thro has been instrumental in its execution.
“Figuring out how to do what the university wants to do within the confines of the law can sometimes require some really innovative, outside-the-box thinking,” Thro says. “That’s where I have really been able to bring my skills and experience to bear.”
Those skills are especially useful in the current fiscal environment, which demands an elevated level of legal counsel and problem solving, according to Thro, who says the University of Kentucky gets just $280 million, or 8 percent, of its $3.4 billion budget from state appropriations. The university needs to look for alternative revenue sources, including philanthropy, tuition increases, and public-private partnerships, which require legal negotiation, strategy, and maneuvering. “Long-term, we have to accept the reality that our state appropriations are unlikely to grow quickly, if at all,” he says. “That’s a huge challenge for the general counsel of any flagship university, but particularly in Kentucky.”
Still, Thro is as optimistic about Kentucky’s future as he’s ever been. “I think we can move the needle in the short term, and I think we can move the needle in the long term,” he says. “If you can educate a generation of really bright people and get most of them to stay in Kentucky, you’re going to have a highly educated workforce that will form the backbone of your economy 15 years down the line when they are in their mid-30s—and that’s going to lead to more economic growth.”
He’s also optimistic about the environment of health care in the state. “To the extent that you can improve the health care of people in Kentucky, you’re going to give them a better quality of life, longer life expectancy, and more time in the workforce, which is a good thing in terms of their need to draw on the resources of the government and also their ability to contribute as much as possible to society,” says Thro.
He adds that the university’s future, in many ways, will dictate the state’s future. “One of our professors, Frank X. Walker, who was the Poet Laureate of Kentucky, wrote a poem for our sesquicentennial about the university and its contributions to the state. There is a line in it that I think is particularly poignant: ‘There is no vaccination against ignorance, but there is us. There is this university.’ We really believe that and take it to heart: that this institution can make a difference for the people of Kentucky.”