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A year ago, UK lacked confidence in its future.
The Presidential Search Committee was ready to release the name of one finalist for president, whom the Board of Trustees would approve. No one but the members of the committee knew the identities of the finalists.
They didn’t know if the next president would be someone already involved with UK, a prominent Kentuckian or an official from outside the commonwealth altogether. They didn’t know if he or she would be business-oriented like predecessor Lee Todd or focus largely on UK’s Top 20 goal.
It was a period of transition, one that left people in the dark about who would be UK’s 12th president and where he or she would lead the university.
After a seven-month long search to replace former President Lee Todd, the UK Board of Trustees unanimously selected Eli Capilouto on May 1, 2011, to become the face of the university.
Almost one year ago, Capilouto was introduced to campus as president. At one of the first meet-and-greet forums, he joked with students that he thinks much faster than he talks.
And once he assesses a situation, he not only thinks fast, but he acts quickly, too.
“The speed and professionalism of this process has been incredible,” said Board of Trustees Chairman Britt Brockman about current campus construction on a new residence hall, which was approved in February. “And it hasn’t cut corners for expediency’s sake. They literally looked under every rock.”
Looking under every rock is what Capilouto set out to do in his first 100 days as president. He met with hundreds of groups, asking questions and listening to answers.
“He was trying to understand the institution, get a sense of the challenges,” UK spokesman Jay Blanton said.
Blanton, who works closely with Capilouto doing media relations, said the amount of time Capilouto invested the summer before he officially started was instrumental for him.
“It was remarkable the things he did before he formally arrived,” Blanton said.
From a closed presidential search process to a year focused on openness and transparency, Capilouto quickly established what type of president he would be.
He previously served as the provost at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. At UAB, Capilouto helped the hospital-oriented university make undergraduate education just as strong.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with the president we have chosen,” Brockman said.
A new direction
The closed presidential search was met with controversy on campus. Some thought keeping candidates’ identities confidential wasn’t fair to members of the UK community.
There were frustrations among the faculty since the process of choosing a president began last year, said Dr. Hollie Swanson, the Faculty Senate chair.
“They felt like he was chosen for them,” Swanson said. “They really didn’t have the input that they wanted. And so he’s had to work against that coming in.”
However, Brockman believes a closed presidential search was a good process.
“Had we not had the process, I believe we may not have ended up with a president as qualified as Eli Capilouto,” he said.
Capilouto began his presidency in the wake of the 10-year tenure of Lee T. Todd Jr., a Kentuckian who initiated the goal of becoming a Top 20 research institution by 2020.
One question was whether Capilouto would continue this dream or take the university in a different direction.
During the October Board of Trustees retreat, it quickly became clear where the focus of the president’s efforts needed to be: undergraduate education.
“A president can do a lot of different things,” Blanton said. “It’s amazing to me how much he stays focused on that fundamental — of enhancing undergraduate education.”
The Board decided its goal was to improve the undergraduate experience, and that became the top priority.
“Students have always been first to me, and Kentucky students are first,” Capilouto said at the Board retreat.
With 81 percent of campus facilities rated fair to poor, Capilouto, along with the trustees, decided that in order to improve the undergraduate experience, something needed to be done about facilities.
The emphasis was to be placed on revitalizing and renovating campus, a large task Capilouto was charged with accomplishing.
“We, as a board, and President Capilouto felt the core campus has been neglected somewhat over the past several years,” Brockman said.
“UK building age and gross square footage is the worst in the state system,” a 2007 report from facilities planning and management company VFA said.
The report, presented to trustees at the retreat, also recommended that 12 buildings be demolished and 29 buildings be renovated or reassigned to other uses.
“With a fierce sense of urgency, we begin to think anew and rebuild this campus so we can overcome that which confronts us,” Capilouto said in his investiture speech in October.
Dr. Michael Karpf, executive vice president for health affairs, said Capilouto quickly realized the campus structure is inadequate.
“He’s a very experienced academic administrator,” Karpf said. Capilouto realized that if UK is going to continue to recruit the best students, “the student life has to be better,” Karpf said.
Micah Fielden, the outgoing Student Government president, said at the Board retreat that students felt neglected because campus facilities are outdated.
“Our university, right now, is being set up for success, and it’s going to be greater than anything we’ve ever done before,” Fielden said recently. “Everybody has been working together.”
One of those working on revitalizing campus is Angie Martin, UK’s vice president of financial operations and treasurer.
For months, she has been working on the campus construction plan. Early on, Capilouto asked Martin to organize a housing committee to offer recommendations on how to proceed as quickly as possible.
“He really listened to what the group said and pushed to stay on time,” she said.
The construction plan that should have taken a year and a half, Martin said, was finalized in just half a year. Within a month of the Board retreat, where goals were set for construction, Capilouto announced the framework for a multi-year campus building and renewal project.
The Board approved a ground lease agreement on Feb. 21 with Education Realty Trust, a private firm from Memphis, Tenn., that will consist of a 50-year contract. The private partnership with EdR is the largest of its kind.
Related link: Board of Trustees approves private housing agreement
“That’s very quick, not just for a university, but I think it’s quick for any institution,” Blanton said.
The groundbreaking of the New Central Residence Hall on Haggin Field April 17 marked the beginning of what will eventually be a campus overhaul.
The university plans to open residence halls that will include up to 9,000 modern beds.
“Today we break ground on more than one building,” Capilouto said at the ceremony. “We’re breaking ground on a brighter future for our students, faculty and staff.”
A thoughtful leader
As Alabama natives, President Capilouto and his wife, Dr. Mary Lynne Capilouto, had a lot of learning to do about the university and Kentucky.
“(They have) fallen in love with the place, caring deeply about where it is going and where its future is,” Blanton said.
The Capiloutos have quickly adjusted to Kentucky, Blanton said, and were able to understand how the university is tied to the commonwealth early on.
“It seems like they’ve been here a long time,” he said.
Through the year of learning about the university, Capilouto has shown he can be quiet. He is one to sit and observe, rather than be the center of attention.
“His whole approach is very thoughtful,” Fielden said. “He likes to know a situation before he makes a decision.”
As a leader, Capilouto has been described as focused, honest and passionate.
“He has a unique combination as a leader — as both being very creative and having a vision, as well as being very methodical,” Martin said.
Both Blanton and Karpf described Capilouto as honest, but kind. “He’s a direct and straightforward guy. He says what’s on his mind and does it in a nice way,” Karpf said.
Capilouto’s intelligence is also a characteristic that many appreciate.
“What I enjoy is his intellect,” Brockman said. “What I enjoy is his ability to listen. He has an incredible way of getting the facts before he formulates an opinion.”
Karpf said Capilouto is not a political person and isn’t affected by others’ opinions.
“He is a man of strong convictions and he will do what he thinks is the right thing,” Karpf said.
As construction for a new residence hall is under way, the state legislature recently cut UK’s general fund budget by 6.4 percent, which is nearly $20 million. It is one of the largest single cuts in UK’s history.
“Challenging budgets and hard decisions, however, cannot be an excuse to shrink from our responsibilities,” Capilouto said in an email sent to campus. “We must remain true to our founding mission and think anew about how to accomplish our goals.”
The state also denied UK funds for agency bonds, meaning UK wasn’t given the authority to use university-generated money to improve campus facilities.
“He’s basically now in a situation where he’s got to figure out how to do more with less,” Brockman said.
Recently, Capilouto announced that the Board of Trustees will evaluate a proposal that would increase tuition by 6 percent.
As he moves forward with construction, though, Karpf thinks Capilouto will continue to be creative with finding alternative funding sources.
“I think he’ll surprise people and come up with other projects,” Karpf said.
Swanson said the money is going to be the biggest struggle.
“I’m optimistic. I know we have challenges. I have confidence we’re on a good path,” Swanson said.
When Capilouto said he would not take his bonus, Swanson said she appreciated his integrity.
“You need to see that kind of leadership at the top. It’s that shared sacrifice that has resonated,” she said.
As Capilouto’s first year concludes, a countless number of challenges await him and the university in the future.
“His quiet confidence and his engagement of people is good for this university in a time of financial challenge,” Karpf said. “He actually is the right guy at the right time for UK.”