Lexington one of six ‘university cities’; can it take advantage of it?

October 18, 2015
Mayor Jim Gray, right, greeted University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto at a Lexington Forum luncheon on Jan. 24, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

Mayor Jim Gray, right, greeted University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto at a Lexington Forum luncheon on Jan. 24, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala.


Lexington has been a college town for more than 200 years. But when Scott Shapiro, a top aide to Mayor Jim Gray, was benchmarking local data against other cities recently, he discovered something interesting: Lexington was one of six U.S. cities whose numbers place them in a unique category.

This group, which he calls “university cities,” have distinct characteristics that make them different from smaller college towns or major cities with big research universities. And those characteristics translate into big economic development opportunities in the 21st century’s knowledge-based economy.

“This is one of those ah-ha moments,” Gray said of the analysis.

So, how can Lexington capitalize on this insight? We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, let’s see what Shapiro discovered about university cities, which he defined as metropolitan areas of between 250,000 and 1 million people with students making up at least 10 percent of the population.

Each city has a diversified economy closely tied to a major urban research university. In addition to Lexington, the cities are Madison, Wis.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Lincoln, Neb.

Each city has an abundance of attributes that naturally come with universities, including educated people, talent, openness to new ideas, innovation, entrepreneurialism and a lot of arts and culture.

These cities seem to have more of these attributes than college towns, in short, because they are big enough that many students can stay after graduation rather than moving on to find economic opportunity.

But unlike major cities with universities, these six university cities have a lower cost of living, less crime and, in many ways, a higher quality of life.

Shapiro’s analysis found, for example, that 42 percent of adults age 25 and older in university cities have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 29 percent nationwide.

High education levels seemed to have a big influence on productivity and wages. When adjusted for the cost of living, Shapiro found that the median annual salary in university cities is only about $700 below that of the nation’s 15 largest cities.

Unemployment rates from 2009 to 2013 averaged 6.3 percent in university cities, compared with 8.7 percent in other similar-sized cities and 8.8 percent in the nation’s largest 15 cities.

Business starts averaged 16.3 percent higher in university cities than in similar-sized cities, and only slightly below the rate for the nation’s largest cities. The number of non-profit organizations, which often drive social entrepreneurship and improve quality of life, was almost double that of similar-sized cities.

University cities are much safer. Violent crime averaged 36 percent lower in the six university cities than in similar-size cities and 40 percent lower than in the nation’s 15 largest cities.

And university cities are more fun. They have 47.2 percent more arts, recreation and entertainment places per thousand residents than the average of similar-size cities. And while they average fewer cultural assets than the 15 largest cities, they have more of them per thousand residents — 25.7 percent more.

One key attribute of a university city is being the “right” size to balance economic opportunity, cost of living and quality of life. And therein lies a danger. While Austin is what many university cities aspire to become, the Texas capital has lost some luster as housing costs and traffic headaches have risen.

Shapiro has started a blog (Universitycities.org) to share news and ideas about university cities, and he is talking with the University of Kentucky about hosting a national symposium on the topic next year.

This subject isn’t just of interest to academics; it has a lot of practical application.

Lexington’s mayor sees the university city model as an important lens through which to view many things, from business recruiting efforts and workforce-development strategies to land-use planning and infrastructure investment.

“I think it helps us in the sorting and filtering process,” Gray said. “When you know who you are, you have a better chance of getting where you want to go.”

For one thing, he said, it shows that Lexington’s economic development strategy should be mainly built around leveraging assets that grow out of the presence of UK, Transylvania University and other education centers.

It also underscores the importance of making sure affordable housing is available and traffic doesn’t get out of control. It means Lexington should nurture cultural institutions and other quality-of-life infrastructure that talented, educated people and the companies that want to hire them look for in a city.

The next step, Gray said, is to benchmark Lexington’s data against the five other university cities to assess strengths and weaknesses.

“I think we’re poised for exploiting the knowledge economy in a better way than the industrial cities have been,” Gray said. “It’s a question of how do you really take advantage of that.”

Transylvania transition offers fresh start, important lessons

February 18, 2014

Transylvania University has the opportunity to make a fresh start with a new president. How well everyone seizes that opportunity will determine the institution’s future for many years to come.


Seamus Carey

Seamus Carey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., was chosen Monday to become the 26th president of Kentucky’s oldest university, chartered in 1780. He was one of four finalists brought to campus to meet with faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Transylvania has been in turmoil since soon after Owen Williams, a former Wall Street banker with impressive credentials but little academic leadership experience, was hired as president in 2010.

Williams took over after the retirement of Charles Shearer, who earned a lot of affection and respect during his 27-year presidency for rebuilding Transylvania, nearly tripling its endowment and doubling enrollment.

Williams impressed Transylvania trustees with his intellect, his diverse accomplishments and his plans for taking the liberal arts college to the next level.

Owen Williams

Owen Williams

But Williams’ arrogant and autocratic style rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, both on campus and around town. Williams antagonized Transylvania’s faculty to the point that it voted 68-7 last May to express no confidence in his leadership.

Trustees responded by giving Williams a unanimous vote of confidence and blaming the faculty. Still, within weeks, Williams announced he would leave at the end of this academic year. Carey takes over in July.

Transylvania’s turmoil offers lessons the university community — or any large organization, for that matter — should take to heart.

The first lesson is that it matters how you treat people. However intelligent or visionary a leader may be, he can’t accomplish much if people won’t follow him.

The second lesson is that governing boards make better decisions when they are diverse and aware. When mounting dissatisfaction with Williams exploded into faculty rebellion last year, trustees were surprised. Had they been plugged into the broader Transylvania and Lexington communities, they would not have been.

The final lesson will be more of a test. How well can Transylvania’s faculty, trustees, staff and students work together with the new president to try to achieve some of the worthy goals Williams sought?

Transylvania reached the top echelon of American universities for a brief period in the 1820s. The rest of its history has been a series of ups and downs. Can Transy become a national player again? Improvement requires change, and change is hard.

UPike plan should lead to discussion about raising coal severance tax to improve Kentucky education

January 15, 2012

The political wild card in this year’s General Assembly is a high-powered proposal to make private University of Pikeville a state-supported school.

The idea is being pushed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former Gov. Paul Patton, who is now the University of Pikeville’s president. The idea has solid support from southeast Kentucky legislators and community leaders. Gov. Steve Beshear has ordered a thorough study.

Like many ideas that sound good but get complicated as you dig into them, this proposal needs thorough study. But it also provides an excellent opportunity for broader public discussion about how more educational attainment could improve life in Kentucky and how we should go about paying for it.

Having the state assume ownership of a private school is a very Kentucky thing to do. That is how five of the state’s eight public universities came to be: Western and Eastern in 1906, Murray and Morehead in 1922 and the University of Louisville in 1970.

“This sounds like the same thing: We’ve got a campus here and all we have to do is make it a state school,” said Bill Ellis, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University and author of the new book, A History of Education in Kentucky. “It all comes down to politics and who has the votes.”

Creation of those state universities was generally a good thing for Kentucky, Ellis said. It made education more accessible and brought economic development and culture to communities across the state.

Many people in southeast Kentucky argue that their region — with some of the state’s highest rates of poverty and lowest levels of educational attainment — has been shortchanged.

Southeast Kentucky is part of the service areas of Eastern and Morehead state universities, but both campuses are a long way from many of the region’s towns and hollows. Pikeville and surrounding areas would no doubt benefit economically and culturally by having a state university.

But for years now, the General Assembly has cut state support for higher education. Given that, can Kentucky taxpayers afford another university mouth to feed? Stumbo and Patton say that is not a problem: Rather than using general fund money, state support can come from Eastern Kentucky’s coal severance tax revenues.

At this point, let’s step back and look at the big picture. What do legislators really need to do to help Appalachian Kentucky catch up with the rest of the state — and Kentucky catch up with the rest of the nation?

Let’s begin with the notion that more state support for education is essential. That is because nothing has more power to improve Kentucky’s economy and society than educational attainment.

Regardless of whether Pikeville becomes a state university, lawmakers should find ways to reverse the budget-cutting trends that have contributed to skyrocketing tuition at Kentucky’s state universities and made them less affordable.

The stated goal of the University of Pikeville proposal is to make higher education more affordable and attainable for mountain students. But are there more cost-effective ways to do that?

Rather than taking on another campus, would Kentucky get more bang for the buck by using coal severance tax money to finance scholarships for mountain students at Kentucky’s existing public and private universities, including Pikeville?

Perhaps those scholarships could be supplemented with loans from severance tax money that would be forgiven if students lived and worked in the mountains for a few years after graduation. That could curb the region’s historic “brain drain.”

But let’s not stop there. The Pikeville proposal creates a perfect opportunity for a broader discussion about the severance tax that Kentucky has levied on the coal industry since the 1970s, and how that money should be used.

The severance tax rate of 4.5 percent, which hasn’t changed in decades, is among the lowest of major coal-producing states. It generates more than $200 million a year. But over the years, much of that money has been wasted on building vacant industrial parks and other political pet projects, plowed back into subsidies for the coal industry or gone to benefit parts of Kentucky nowhere near the coalfields.

If the severance tax’s goal is to improve life and create a new economy in the coalfields for when all of the coal is gone, there could be no better use for that money than improving educational attainment.

So regardless of whether the University of Pikeville receives state support, the General Assembly should take this opportunity to raise the coal severance tax to national norms and focus the money on education. That’s right: Turn this political wild card into a trump card for Kentucky’s future.

What the ad for Lee Todd’s successor should say

September 11, 2010

Lee T. Todd Jr.’s decision to retire as president of the University of Kentucky in June has me thinking about what the advertisement seeking his successor should say.

Not what it will say, but what it should say.

Wanted: University of Kentucky president. As UK’s 12th chief executive since 1869, you will be taking on perhaps the toughest job in Kentucky. It pays about a half-million dollars a year, but you could get more money for less work at another state’s flagship university.

By the way, your salary will pale in comparison to the millions that go to your head basketball and football coaches. Don’t expect any sympathy from the faculty and staff, who are generally underpaid and haven’t received a raise lately. Or students and their parents, who have seen tuition double in recent years.

There is a lot right with UK. The university is more open, collaborative and entrepreneurial than it used to be. Enrollment, student performance, research and diversity are growing, and the university is producing some outstanding graduates, including doctors, engineers, architects, diplomats, business people and, believe it or not, world-class opera singers.

You will be succeeding Lee Todd, a passionate, energetic and visionary leader who has been president for a decade. He changed attitudes and focused UK on its most important missions: educating Kentuckians for good jobs and richer lives; and harnessing the university’s brainpower to improve life in Kentucky.

Todd set lofty goals but failed to achieve many of them. That was largely because legislators stopped funding his plans once the economy fizzled. Todd made his share of mistakes, but he led with high ethical standards and positioned the university as well as he could for the future. In many ways, he will be a tough act to follow.

UK’s state funding has been almost flat for a decade, so if you want more money to make the university great, you’ll probably have to find it somewhere else. Kentuckians have rarely been willing to invest enough in education, even though it would do more than anything else to improve the state’s long-term economy and quality of life. Long-term thinking has never been our strength.

Kentuckians like to talk about creating a top-ranked university, but we succeeded only once, briefly. When Transylvania University, now a private liberal arts college, was Kentucky’s state university in 1818, trustees hired a young up-and-coming Bostonian, Horace Holley, with a charge to make it great. He did, and for a few years Transylvania was being mentioned in the same breath as Harvard and Yale.

Despite phenomenal success, Holley was run off in 1827 by Kentuckians who didn’t appreciate the value of higher education, legislators that didn’t want to spend money on it and a governor who just wanted to build roads.

We mention this episode because it has often echoed through two centuries of Kentucky history. Perhaps the toughest job you will face as UK’s next president is convincing average Kentuckians and their political leaders that, as former Gov. Paul Patton succinctly put it, “education pays.”

That won’t be easy. Many Kentuckians are suspicious of new ideas and averse to change. They avoid risk for fear of failure or criticism. Ignorance and powerful vested interests often combine to keep the status quo.

Your biggest distraction in this job will likely be UK’s basketball and football teams and their boosters. These programs are rich and powerful and prone to trouble. They bring in a lot of money, and some of it goes to academics. But not nearly enough.

Sports are fun and exciting diversions. But at UK, as at many universities, athletics has become the tail that wags the dog. Big Blue Nation demands winners at all cost. Todd thought he could tame the Wildcat. He couldn’t.

If history is any guide — and your tenure is very long — you will face a sports scandal or several. You will constantly be at odds with rabid fans who think the university exists to support a sports franchise, rather than the other way around. Good luck with that.

This job requires masterful political skills, Oprah-like charisma, the stamina of a marathon runner and the patience of a kindergarten teacher. Still interested? You must be either crazy or genuinely committed to making Kentucky a better place.

If the latter is true, please apply. We need you.

Class aims to bring Transy, neighborhood closer

April 7, 2010

Transylvania University and the North Limestone neighborhood sit side by side — and worlds apart.

Kurt Gohde, a Transy art professor, and Kremena Todorova, an English professor, are trying to do something about that. For the past three years, they have taught a class called Community Engagements Through the Arts. It’s not an art class or an English class. The dozen or so students each year have come from a variety of majors.

“The original idea was that at Transy we needed to be better neighbors to our neighbors,” Gohde said. “We don’t have a lot of windows on that side of campus — just a lot of fences.”

Both the university and the neighborhood have been there for two centuries, and both have had good times and bad. The neighborhood, one of Lexington’s most racially and economically diverse, declined in the 1950s and ’60s as residents moved to the suburbs.

But in the past decade, many young people have been attracted to the neighborhood’s rich diversity and affordable stock of old homes worth restoring — from once-elegant brick mansions to Victorian frame shotgun houses.

An active neighborhood association has worked hard to clean up the area while embracing the many poor people who live there. Three new community gardens are being planted on city-owned lots along North Limestone. Once-seedy Al’s Bar at North Limestone and East Sixth Street is now one of Lexington’s coolest places. Duncan Park has a new summer concert stage.

Still, most North Limestone residents are much different culturally and economically from their neighbors at the private liberal-arts college.

“We want the students to gain an awareness of people who are very close to them that they know so little about,” Todorova said. “We want them to learn how they can connect with people who are not like them. It’s not easy.”

The Community Engagements class started meeting at Al’s Bar, moved to a community center last year, and has met this year in a commercial building being restored at North Limestone and Loudon Avenue.

The first year, the class put together a film exploring misconceptions about the neighborhood. Last year, students organized a show of residents’ eclectic collections at Transylvania’s art gallery.

This year, students worked with residents and others to make nearly 50 colorful quilts that are on display at X Furniture, 760 North Limestone, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sunday.

The quilts will be donated to Build A Bed, an organization trying to gather 2,000 volunteers in Frankfort on May 8 and 9 to build 500 twin-size beds and prepare “bedtime bags” with linens and toiletries for Kentucky children who need them. (For more info: www.build-a-bed.org.)

The class held five “quilting bees” this winter with neighborhood residents and other Transy students. The project’s energy was contagious: One student’s family made several quilts, as did Arturo Sandoval’s art students at the University of Kentucky and children at James Lane Allen Elementary School.

“We found that it was a great way to spend time with people and tell stories,” Gohde said. In addition to making quilts, the students interviewed residents about neighborhood history and lore.

Some students come to the class wanting to “help” the neighborhood, but that’s not the point. “We’re looking for ways to connect with and understand the neighborhood,” Todorova said. “If anything, we’re helping ourselves by educating ourselves.”

Resident Archie Turner has faithfully attended each class, as has neighborhood association president Marty Clifford, a candidate for the Urban County Council’s 1st District seat.

“It has been not only a good thing for the community but for the students,” Clifford said. “It has given everyone a different perspective. There are a lot of hidden jewels in this community that have been covered up by some of the negative things in the past.”

Student Austyn Gaffney, a sophomore from Bowling Green, said she will always remember the 98-year-old African-American lady she met who has told her stories about how the neighborhood and Lexington have changed over the decades.

“Without this class, I don’t think I would have been challenged to do that,” she said. “It’s a start toward building better relationships.”