University of Kentucky President on Higher Ed's Role in Sustaining a Dynamic Economy

Sep 27, 2017

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

University of Kentucky’s president said the university has two areas of focus that are essential to a thriving economy: well-prepared graduates and becoming a research and development engine. President Eli Capilouto addressed members of the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

Referencing Thomas Friedman’s book, Thank You For Being Late, about the rapid acceleration of technology and disruptions (like ride-sharing companies replacing traditional taxicabs), Capilouto said it’s not good enough nowadays to train someone for a job, but rather prepare them for a future job.

"They've got to be able to reinvent, re-imagine, re-create a job. And that's what we're trying to do. And we must do that through a differentiated approach for our students,” he said.

On the merits of higher education, Capilouto said coming out of the ‘Great Recession,’ 11.6 million jobs have been created and 11.5 million included those with a college degree (likely referring to the Georgetown University report “America’s Divided Recovery”). While there is the occasional success story without a degree, Capilouto said, “In the aggregate, more people going to college, more people finishing their associate degrees, getting their technical certificates - that is good for the United States and good for the commonwealth."

Businesses are looking for the differentiated workforce higher ed cultivates, Capilouto said. Noting the state emphasis on STEM+H education (Governor Matt Bevin has called for Kentucky to be a hub of engineering and advanced manufacturing), Capilouto said UK has increased graduates in this field by 44% over the last five years.  He said UK is looking to reach "new heights" in an era of performance funding as the model "aligns with the strategic plan of the university." He said he is looking to increase the graduation rate to 70% or higher.

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

He said federal research efforts at UK are essential to the future, pointing to work at the existing cancer center and Alzheimer's research. He said a new $270 million research center developed in partnership with the state will focus on health disparities.

"Infrastructure and talent are the key to success in almost any enterprise,” he said, noting a $2.3 billion investment in building projects since 2011. The university also recently broke ground on a College of Medicine in Bowling Green.

He said the infrastructure coincides with developing a ‘cutting-edge curricula’ to sustain a dynamic economy.

While touting the merits of technical skills and UK’s investments in science, medicine and research, he said there’s still a demand for liberal arts education and other aspects of higher education.

"You all know the difference-makers in the workforce are those soft skills, those intra- and inter- personal skills: How do you deal with a setback? How do you work as a team? Can you critically think? Can you communicate? How do you work with people different than you? ...We must have that kind of talented workforce to confront our challenges."

No fields are immune to rapid changes, he said, and described students majoring in areas like engineering are also developing unique skill-sets through programs like dance and debate team. "There's still high demand for many of these areas. And even if someone majors in a particular area, for instance, health, they like to round off their education with humanities,” he said.

“Regardless of the particular discipline, if they can give you that skill set, I think you’re going to be prepared for jobs that we cannot even imagine today,” he said.