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Campus Community,

As of this afternoon, I’ve met with more than 240 people in more than a dozen meetings across our campus. I’ve listened to many perspectives about our structure and how we make decisions as a community.

No matter the point of view, it is clear to me that we all share a fierce devotion to this place and our mission to advance this state. Among the many questions I’ve been asked this week, two stick out: Why, when we are working hard to make progress, are we spending so much time assessing what we call shared governance at the University of Kentucky? And why are we doing it now?

Some faculty have voiced the concerns inherent in these questions. They care about this place. They work hard for our students. They are committed to their scholarship. And they believe deeply, as I do, that academic freedom and the primacy of the faculty for developing a curriculum is foundational.

The short answer is that we need to accelerate our progress in being aligned with our state’s biggest needs and priorities, including an examination of the rules and regulations that guide our work. In 2021, when we adopted our Strategic Plan, the UK-PURPOSE, we made clear that we “must do more to instill a sense of trust in each other in everything we do.” Our key objective in what we identify as Ensuring Greater Trust, Transparency and Accountability is, “To ensure a more responsive institution that can timely adapt when necessary or during challenges, assess language and application of university guidance and policies to better structure and define roles with respect to the bedrock principle of shared governance among faculty, students, staff and administrators.” In October 2023, our Board of Trustees directed us to accelerate this important work.

The more challenging response is that universities across the country are facing tough questions about whether they bring value. Our missions are the subject of scrutiny and skepticism as evidenced by legislation across the country. Many institutions are seeing their budgets cut, programs eliminated and flexibility constrained.

We must be willing to think anew, giving assurance and raising expectations — not doubt — to those beyond our campus who can take greater roles in how we operate. Clearly demonstrating our value to Kentucky is essential to our ability to be successful in the future. As such, it is critical that the rules and procedures we employ while making decisions position this community for long-term success.

I’ve listened to — and deeply respect — the fear some of our faculty members have expressed regarding their role in decision making processes. Our faculty have primacy over our curriculum and an essential role in ensuring rigor and quality in how we create new programs. Our faculty also, through systematic and fully understood and defined peer review processes, hold responsibility for performance review. And in rare instances, when we do not live up to our standards, it is first the responsibility of faculty to hold one another accountable. 

These will not change. Our board and I are committed to that and any recommendations for changes we offer will make that clear.

This is a time to strengthen shared governance by including more voices and affirming their responsibility. It’s an opportunity to clarify and streamline the hundreds of pages of rules that — as I heard in feedback sessions — so many find confusing and difficult to operationalize.

I hear you, all of you; I take your comments seriously. And I appreciate your willingness to engage with these questions as it allows me to incorporate and elevate your voice in this process. Below are common themes I’ve identified because of the feedback both in conversations and through the online form.

More voices: Many students and staff don’t see themselves represented in our current shared governance structure. Staff aren’t on the University Senate. And students hold only a small number of votes, although they are the largest constituency on campus. Some faculty also do not see their voice represented in the University Senate, whether they are from a smaller college or are offering a differing viewpoint.

More clarity: I know there is comfort for some in detailed rules that outline with granularity how decisions are made. And yes, extensive guidebooks can indicate a great care, and even love, for this institution. But for many, we are losing sight of the forest for the trees. There’s no sense of the big picture and how the rules support the mission and our people. The detailed rules attempt to control for every possible situation rather than helping guide a complex, responsive organization. And they can take our eye off the ball and result in precious time away from what should be bigger issues such as the institution’s strategic direction, our budget and the work our faculty and others do in support of students. Such issues call for serious time and deliberation.

More local control: Faculty, as I’ve stated and I know you support, should have primacy over the curriculum. And there’s wisdom, as many faculty have pointed out to me, in having rigorous and detailed deliberative processes for approval of programs and degrees.  Duplication of programs can be avoided; collaboration can be fostered. Even so, the subject matter experts within a college or unit feel as if their expertise can be lost through these processes. Sometimes decisions should be entrusted to those closest to those impacted.

More understanding: I want to acknowledge that for many on our campus, this conversation, and these decisions, spark doubts. They generate concerns. They prompt fears. That’s not what I want. And that’s not what our Board nor I intend. We will not be successful in advancing this state if our people don’t feel valued and if they don’t have the tools and support that they need to do the work that only they can do.

That means I must do even more to listen intently and collaborate openly. This can be accomplished while meeting the goal of acceleration. Change is hard. But sometimes it is necessary. This is one of those times.

We all want the same thing — to work in a place where we are valued, and our voices are heard. We are part of a community that is vital to advancing our state. The question we are wrestling with now is how we, collaboratively, enact changes that will make it possible for this community to honor that mission far into the future. I’m committed to listening and responding as we make any necessary refinements for progress that will guide our path forward.

Eli Capilouto