Sunday, June 30, 2002

UK president reflects on scandals - and hope

Todd says the tumult has increased his resolve to move his alma mater forward

By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Lee Todd has a tough time believing it's been a year since he took the reins as the University of Kentucky's 11th president.

        “Some days, it definitely feels a lot longer,” Dr. Todd said with a chuckle. “Other days, it feels like I just walked through the door.

        “But it's been a real pleasure so far. Maybe one day, I'll even pick up a rock and not find something under it. We've certainly had some surprises.”

        A tumultuous first year marked by employee health care and salary concerns, budget woes, athletic scandals and student tragedy has done nothing to quell Dr. Todd's enthusiasm for the job and for the school that trained him nearly 35 years ago.

        Dr. Todd said the chaotic times have fortified his resolve that he can help drive the university to become one of the nation's best.

        “I think we can do it, but it's not going to be easy,” said Dr. Todd, 56, who took over the position last July after the retirement of Charles Wethington.

        “We have to lure the top students from our own state and keep them on campus. We have to hire the best faculty to inspire those students. And we have to continue to increase the number of research dollars we bring in for projects that can make a difference in people's lives,” Dr. Todd said.

        In his first year, the first-time university administrator has made more than 200 speeches on campus and across the commonwealth. He's impaneled commissions on diversity and women's issues, lobbied the General Assembly for funding and made plans to landscape student areas on campus.

        Selected events and highlights from the first year of University of Kentucky President Todd's tenure:

        • Revamped much of the university-sponsored health care plan to increase the university-paid share of an employee's family coverage to 54 percent from 32 percent despite a $6 million reduction in the school's budget.

        • Led an administrative reorganization of the university, reducing the number of officials reporting directly to the president from eight chancellors and vice presidents to a provost and three vice presidents.

        • Impaneled committees on diversity, women's issues and the university's future.

        • Appointed a committee to study the athletics department, which led to the retirement of the athletics director.

        • Instituted several scholarship programs designed to lure top students to the university, including a legacy scholarship for children of Kentucky graduates who live out of state and scholarships for students involved in the state Governor's Scholars and Governor's School for the Arts programs.

        • Approved and funded several student-directed initiatives, including the creation of hot dog stands in student areas of campus, landscaping of areas around student residence halls and common areas and opened an Internet cafe in the school's student center.

        “I feel like I've accomplished a lot, but I think the thing I'm most pleased with is just changing the environment — trying to create a more positive attitude among students, faculty and staff,” he said.

        He said the creation of a staff Senate gave those employees a voice and representation. He said he's tried to foster an atmosphere that will make students remember their time on campus fondly.

        “There's a feeling here that this university is united and moving forward, and so much of that stems from President Todd's leadership,” said Jo Etta Wickliffe, a member of the university's board of trustees and the chairwoman of the search committee that selected him for the job. “That's something we haven't had here in a long time.”

        There also have been low points. During finals week, two young men crashed through a third-floor dormitory window while wrestling and fell to their deaths.

        Dr. Todd and his wife, Patsy, were on the scene within 15 minutes, doing what they could to comfort the crowd of horrified onlookers.

        “It was just instinct,” he said. “I don't know how you could not respond like that to something so tragic.”

        He also took office with an athletics department reeling from an NCAA investigation in its football program and questionable management practices.

        Dr. Todd dug in, assembling a panel to review the practices of the department, forcing the retirement of the athletics director and changing several of the department's practices.

        “I certainly did not come into this with the expectation that I'd have to make such significant changes in athletics,” he said.

        “While that situation has taken a lot of time and effort, it gives me what I think is a wonderful opportunity to make changes that will ensure we move forward in the proper way at the University of Kentucky.”

        A problem-solver as a businessman, Dr. Todd brought that approach to the job of university president.

        When employees were faced with a huge increase in the cost of university-sponsored health care package, Dr. Todd put together a task force to determine ways to reduce that burden while keeping benefits the same.

        Despite more than $6 million in budget cuts, Dr. Todd and the task force found a way to increase the university-paid share of an employee's family health coverage to 54 percent from 32 percent.

        For Dr. Todd, the proper way — one based on hard work and cooperation — is the only way.

        Born in Earlington, a Hopkins County coal-mining town of fewer than 2,000, he graduated from UK with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1968 and received his master's and doctorate in the same discipline from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

        After securing several research patents at MIT, Dr. Todd returned to Kentucky in 1974 to teach electrical engineering at UK and stayed for nine years.

        He would have remained longer, but the school was reluctant to let him pursue opportunities in private business while he was teaching.

        “Had I not had that experience and been on the staff for so long, I would never have applied for this job,” he says matter-of-factly.

        “It's really important to have that relationship with the faculty and know you've served your time in the trenches. That's the only way you earn people's respect.”

        Dr. Todd founded two technology companies — Projectron Inc. in 1981 and DataBeam Corp. in 1993 — which he later sold. He was a senior vice president with IBM's Lotus division when he put his business career aside to return to his alma mater.

        “I do have a passion for this university and for this state,” he said. “I know what it meant to me to come to the University of Kentucky and the impact that had on my life. I want others to experience that the way that I did.”

        Dr. Todd's next high-profile action will be the naming of a new athletic director.

        “I'm looking for a strong business manager, but it also has to be somebody of very high integrity,” he said, adding that he still hopes to fill the position by the end of July.

        “I want to know where every ticket goes and I want to know where every dollar goes.

        “I need to be able to count on this person as a part of my overall management team. But having said that, I also need someone who really knows collegiate athletics because I'm not from that area.”

        While acknowledging the high interest in athletics, Dr. Todd said the university chiefly must serve as a vehicle to improve the lives of the state's residents.

        “If our goal is simply to reach the top 20 in research dollars, we're not doing our job,” he said. “The real question is, "Are we fulfilling our higher purpose? Are we making a difference in the lives of Kentuckians?'”
       “Of course we want to be doing more research — research into problems that are plaguing Kentucky — but we also need to be throwing our effort and energy into the fine arts, the business school and the law school. If we're trying to change the state of Kentucky, those are the people that are going to make a difference.”


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- UK president reflects on scandals - and hope