Search For:

Share This

Attacking Kentucky’s Toughest Problems

In a speech just months after becoming the University
of Kentucky’s 11th president last year, an unscripted phrase slipped from the
mouth of Lee Todd Jr.

"Let’s go to work on some of Kentucky’s problems,"
he urged. "Let’s declare war on the Kentucky Uglies."

Kentucky Uglies.

The words weren’t penned by a speechwriter or even
by Todd himself. But they have come to represent an important part of what this
native Kentuckian hopes to achieve for the state through his role as head of its
flagship university.

The idea behind the Kentucky Uglies had no doubt been
rolling around in his mind for years.

Todd grew up hearing that Kentucky ranked 49th in spending
for education and other important rankings. As he came of age, he began to look
at the state’s economy and saw that his home state wasn’t on the leading edge
of any endeavor and that there wasn’t a lot of variety in career opportunities.
Lung disease, diabetes, and obesity were rampant. It seemed everyone knew about
the problems but no one was solving them. So Todd did what bright and ambitious
young Kentuckians did. He left the state.

With a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering
from UK, Todd set out for the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
where he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering.
At MIT Todd also received six patents in high-resolution display technology. And
he had yet another idea-one that would later launch a business and create hundreds
of jobs. Meanwhile, Todd decided to do something radical: he moved back to Kentucky.

In 1974 Todd joined the UK faculty as a professor in
electrical engineering. For the next nine years, he thrived as a professor and
researcher. He published numerous research articles, served on an array of university
committees, and won several teaching awards. Then he took another radical step.
Todd left the status and security of a tenured university position to start two
companies-Projectron Inc. and DataBeam.

Projectron Inc. manufactures cathode ray tubes used
in 90 percent of commercial flight simulators as well as numerous military simulators.
In 1990, he sold the company to Hughes Aircraft, convincing Hughes to move its
other cathode ray tube operations from California and New York to Kentucky.

DataBeam Corporation is now the world’s leading provider
of real-time collaboration and real-time distance-learning computer software and
development platforms. DataBeam hired hundreds of UK engineering and computer
science graduates. In June of 1998, the company and its glimmering high-rise office
building were acquired by IBM. Todd became senior vice president of Lotus Development
Company, a subsidiary of IBM.

"When I started my two companies, the students
who came to work for DataBeam and Projectron could have gone to work anywhere,"
says Todd. "They chose to come to work for a company that their parents and
grandparents had never heard of and at that time had just enough money to just
keep going day to day. But they came to work there because of the higher purpose
and that was to show that we can do high tech in Kentucky."

Todd says he carried that desire for a higher purpose
to his job at UK. "I wanted to start a company to show that, yes, we can
do high tech in Kentucky, and we were able to accomplish that. So I was looking
for a higher purpose piece for the university."

For Todd, finding that higher purpose meant going even
beyond the governor’s ambitious goal for UK to become a top 20 research institution,
a goal established by the state legislature and embraced by UK’s leaders.

"I wasn’t comfortable with the thought that the
way we would achieve top 20 status would be purely on research dollars,"
he says.

Enter the Kentucky Uglies.

"In my mind, the Uglies are the things that have
held us back for years but that we didn’t want to talk about," he says, "things
like being the leader in lung cancer, obesity, diabetes, and spina bifida…The
Uglies are areas where we are either at the bottom or near the bottom. Our higher
purpose is to do research that helps resolve some of those Uglies-that allows
us to bring in research funding to study the problems that are beating Kentuckians
and to count that money toward our top 20 research goal.

"In my mind, we are the statewide university.
We have the responsibility for the well-being of the whole state," says Todd.
Todd pledges to achieve that top 20 national status, but adds, "The real
question is how we really dig in and improve our state’s self-esteem by whipping
a few of these things."

Exactly how to "whip" these obstacles isn’t
completely clear yet even to Todd, but he is putting many of the pieces in place.

The Cooperative Extension Service, for example, plays
a major role in his plan.

Todd says to help solve major state problems, Extension
agents "don’t have to be experts in lung cancer, for example, if they can
encourage people in their communities to be willing to be a part of a study or
maybe just be interviewed by a doctor. If they can get the word out, we can start
to make some progress."

Todd has also launched a Center for Entrepreneurship,
and he serves as faculty advisor for a newly formed Entrepreneur’s Club.

"If we can get entrepreneurs to create some wealth
by the ideas that come through this research university, they are more likely
to invest in start-up companies than typical people in the state because that
is how they made their money," he says.

And Todd envisions not just individual entrepreneurs,
but entire communities taking an entrepreneurial approach.

"When communities around the state have an idea
about something they want to look into-such as the uranium plant in Paducah or
biotech in Owensboro or information technology in Somerset or wood products in
Breathitt County-then we can call upon our faculty who are specialists in that
area," he says. "The UK specialists will be able to spend some time
in those communities, to help brainstorm with them."

Todd acknowledges that it will take more than UK alone
to eradicate the Uglies.

"Even though we have a statewide mission, we are
not big enough to impact those numbers if we don’t work closely with the comprehensive
universities, the (Kentucky Community and Technical College System), and the University
of Louisville," he says. "We need to work together to adopt an Ugly,
go after it, and declare war on it."

Attacking Uglies and improving the economy of the entire
state are pretty big goals, even for the president of UK, and Todd acknowledges
that his vision has risks. Still, he firmly believes it is the right thing to

"My first workday I had a coffee break on the
grounds of the Patterson Office Plaza," Todd recalls. "As I was walking
through the crowd, one of the reporters said to me, ‘Today is the first day of
your administration. What would you like to be said on your last day?’ It didn’t
take me long to think about that. I said that if on the last day, it could be
said that the University of Kentucky did more for its home state than any other
land-grant university in the nation, then I could live with that. I am a native
Kentuckian who cares a great deal about the future of the state of Kentucky. Education
is what changed my life, and I think it is going to change all our lives."

University of Kentucky President Lee Todd on:

Education and high tech

If you look at Silicon Valley, before there ever
was a Silicon Valley, there was a Berkeley and a Stanford. Before there was
a Route 128 electronic beltway to Boston, there was Harvard and MIT. And before
there was a research triangle in North Carolina, there were three outstanding
universities. To me higher education causes those economies to be what they

Local talent

(We need to keep) our best and brightest in Kentucky.
The last year I taught at UK (1983), 80 percent of students left the state to
find jobs. These students are the economy drivers. These are the people who
start the companies and create the jobs. If we can keep those students here,
and if they can be involved in start-up companies here, then some of them will
choose to go back to their home counties.

University involvement in economic development

A reporter said, ‘It looks like you are going
to have an awfully heavy hand in this economy.’ I said, ‘If you are accusing
us, I plead guilty because who better now to change an economy than higher education?’
The citizens of Kentucky own a piece of us. I want people to understand that
this is our purpose and our mission, and they should expect something out of

Home-grown industry

It is time for Kentucky to solve our own problems.
We can continue to recruit companies to come in here and that has been good.
Toyota has been fabulous for this state. It taught us what world-class manufacturing
is. But we have to roll up our own sleeves and solve our problems with our brainpower.
That’s the only sustainable way to build our economy.

"Bucks for Brains" recruits the best and brightest

Lee Todd is not the only one who believes that
Kentucky’s universities should play an important role in improving the lives
of Kentuckians. In 1997, the Kentucky Legislature bet $110 million that attracting
top researchers and scholars could help the universities help the state and
the nation.

As part of a sweeping reform of post-secondary education,
Kentucky legislators approved funds for a program they called the Research Challenge
Trust Fund. Kentucky universities and colleges were to raise an equal amount
in private donations, creating a $220 million pool of money to set up endowed
chairs and professorships that would attract nationally respected researchers
and scholars. Since then, the legislature has approved significantly more funding
for the program, nicknamed Bucks for Brains.

It’s just the kind of program UK President Lee Todd
and his counterpart, University of Louisville President John W. Shumaker, believe
will catapult the universities to among the best in the nation, while solving
some important societal problems along the way.

"The Research Challenge Trust Fund, combined
with Kentucky’s 1997 higher education reform legislation, has propelled the
state’s public universities forward more quickly than any other recent higher
education initiative," says Shumaker. "It’s a model being watched
closely across the country and something the governor and legislature should
be very proud of.

"From U of L’s perspective, the program has
allowed us to attract and keep nationally and internationally recognized educators
and researchers in focused areas that are important to the university, its students,
and the state," says Shumaker. "Bucks for Brains has allowed us to
attract private and federal funds that would otherwise never have been available
to the university so that we can continue groundbreaking research and invest
other internal funds in the academic experience at the university."

At UK, 56 new faculty positions have been filled,
55 new endowed academic chairs have been created, and 125 new endowed professorships
have been created. Bucks for Brains funds also provide fellowships, scholarships,
endowments for research support and the library, and funds for visiting scholars
and lecture series.

"Bucks for Brains has helped us attract additional
federal funding for research-nearly $33 million for the sciences and engineering
last year," says Shumaker. "Every $1 million in federal funding translates
into more than $4.5 million to support the state and local economies. Last year
alone, new federal funding brought in approximately $150 million in economic
benefits to the region. "

-Debra Gibson

Don't Leave! Sign up for Kentucky Living updates ...

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.