Is UK entering the post-faculty era?

North of Center

I attended the University of Kentucky for seven years during the early Aughts while earning my PhD in American Literature. At the time, the school was then under the rule of President Lee Todd and in the midst of its costly, quixotic attempt to become a Top 20 Research University. I ended up writing a number of pieces on this Top 20 push that, while certainly in need of some copy-editing, stand out as quite prescient early inquiries into the corporatization of higher education here in the Commonwealth.

Among the last of these, written days after the birth of my now 13 year old daughter, was a piece focused on the hiring of the current UK president, Eli Capilouto. I was pretty straightforward about the hire:

I didn’t expect much at all from this hire. Granted, I’m mildly surprised that UK went for “Jewish with an immigrant’s story” for its piece of the multicultural pie—I expected female, maybe Indian, middle-aged or older and crusty—but beyond that, nothing. That a mid-tier-university second-in-charge medical administrator unloved by his faculty for being autocratic was enticed behind closed doors to accept a $650,000 job to run what is, essentially, a publicly funded hospital with its own professional sports team, makes perfect sense to me.

So when news broke Friday morning that Capilouto had formally dissolved the University Senate, I wasn’t too surprised. And while I haven’t particularly followed UK in over a decade, it still feels like we’ve reached an end of a certain era. Not necessarily the end of the corporate university. More like a new phase of it, one in which faculty (like off-shored blue-collar factory workers before them) have moved from the Top 20 winners circle to the ‘we need more diverse voices’ losers parade.

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Quick backstory for those of you not living in Lexington. In February, the UK Board of Trustees charged Capilouto with recommending to it changes to the university’s governing regulations. This sudden vital need for change came from a private report (haha!) composed by the Delloitte Consulting firm, who has, you may guess, no other connection to the city or university. This private Delloitte report (haha!) singled out the University Senate for reform, which it charged with being slow, not diverse enough, and having too many words in its rule book. (Seriously. The private sector consulting firm’s private report (haha!) charged a university body of academics with…detailed wordiness. The university president agreed, as did many academic deans who, presumably, were also once wordy academics. You want an easy synecdoche for the end of higher learning, there it is.)

The 120+ person University Senate is comprised mostly of faculty, with a few students, deans, and a staff member sprinkled in. Since 1918 when it was formed, the Senate has had the explicitly delegated authority to oversee and approve educational policies—courses, curriculum, academic policies, academic calendars, etc. The old idea grows out of a now quaint commitment to shared governance and letting field experts exert control over their university’s educational quality.

Until Friday. On Friday, Capilouto dissolved the University Senate and delegated its authority upwards to the Board of Trustees, who then immediately gave that power back to Capilouto. In place of the University Senate, Capilouto created 4 new “advisory” bodies who have no functional power. A faculty senate. A staff senate. A student senate. And a gumbo council with faculty, staff, and students. Here’s a pic of this new corporate structure that (haha!) vests all power in CEO Capilouto.

The CEO power grab. Advisory power flows up to Capilouto; delegated authority flows down to Capilouto. Get ready for a new presidential salary and a suite of administrators to manage the senates!

If you’ve been following higher education or UK at all, this corporate power grab is probably not much of a surprise. Certainly not if you were reading my work from 15 and 20 years ago.

What is surprising, or at least notable, are the groups who supported CEO Capilouto’s corporate power grab. Staff and students, in the form of the Staff Council and the Student Government Association, both passed resolutions in support of their CEO’s new unlimited powers. Why was that?

One reason may be hinted at in a recent piece by Adam Tooze, in which the Columbia University history professor sketches a political economy of his university as a way to help make sense of its outsized use of force against student demonstrators there. Tooze focuses on a recent audit of Columbia’s budget. He writes:

At least in financial and economic terms, Columbia is not one simple thing – an educational institution, or an alumni social network. It is a $5.8 billion-revenue organization consisting of at least seven main entities.

*A medical-industrial complex.
*An externally funded research complex.
*Very large professional schools – business, law etc.
*Columbia College for undergraduates
*A real estate empire – the original core of Columbia’s endowment
*The fund management organization that manages the financial assets of the endowment.
*A development arm that raises money from alumni

As Tooze notes, the largest revenue stream from Columbia University, LLC, is the medical-industrial complex. Student revenue is a close second, but this revenue stream is split across medical, professional schools (business, law, etc.), and the “traditional” undergraduates, the ones we make movies about and train our reports on, who take STEM or artsy or media or social science classes.

Tooze uses these different Columbia U revenue streams to show how the traditional undergraduate is, financially speaking, not worth much to the university’s bottom line, and therefore OK for pummeling by cops, particular as its views (if we can assume that pro-Palestine is a current “traditional undergraduate” consensus) are at odds with other Columbia, LLC, revenue streams like investment income, private gifts, and real estate.

At University of Kentucky, LLC, with its Columbia-busting $6.8 billion operating budget, the revenue splits look somewhat different. As with Columbia, UK’s main revenue stream is its statewide medical-industrial complex, though it constitutes a significantly larger percentage of revenue. UK medical brings in a whopping $4.5 billion, or 66% of all UK revenue, with just about all of it going back to service UK Healthcare! (No bubble there, eh?)

Tuition, meanwhile, is significantly less important to UK, LLC, at $580 million, or 8.5% of revenue. To this, we could also add the Commonwealth’s public contribution from state taxes of $311 million (roughly what it was when I was covering it in the Aughts), for a total of $891 million, or 13.1% of total revenue, with most of this revenue going to what we used to understand as the core focus of an institution of higher ed: teaching undergraduates.


Faculty exist in both the medical and traditional revenue sectors of UK, LLC. But my guess is that the educational policy changes made by Capilouto fall most harshly on the old university sector, and not the medical complex faculty whose teaching generally involves donning a white labcoat and making hospital rounds to paying patients with their lab-coated students. This may explain the vote in favor of Capilouto’s resolution made by Faculty trustee and neonatal physician Hubert Ballard .

Faculty Trustee Hubert Ballard.

Hubert is a happy man, and not likely to be affected by the CEO’s decision to unilaterally assume control of educational standards. Hubert and his doctor faculty buddies, I’d guess, probably view CEO Capilouto as delivering on just about everything they want. Why would this happy man and his buddies shake the apple cart?

New staff power

In the way we imagine university life, the staff and student populations generally reside at the bottom of the university hierarchy. So why have they aligned with Big Bossman and his Advisory Board, and not with rank-and-file faculty?

This is a striking switch from the Top 20 days when I covered the university, where “top flight” faculty were understood as the key to university revenue growth and Commonwealth greatness, true unquestioned rock stars for whom the entire university apparatus rolled out the Kentucky blue carpets. With Capilouto’s reorganization, those days seem officially over, perhaps in part due to the global overproduction of academics, which has made them largely replaceable commodities. Like the growth of Dow Chemical from Michigan bleach manufacturer to global weapons supplier, the modern university has simply outstripped the need to rely on its core business model of educating students.

Staff growth, meanwhile, reflects the rise of a different form of power, one which UK’s explosive three decades of growth has enabled. One can tease out this new power base from the college’s restricted funds, which roughly equal the revenue that is generated for teaching by student tuition and Commonwealth appropriations. These restricted funds, some of which are generated by faculty in the “old” educational revenue stream, generally support staff positions from lab assistants and water quality experts to grant-chasers, housing administrators, and UK Athletics. We often talk of a growing administrative bloat across CEO universities, but so too has there been an explosion in non-core staff positions.

Beyond medical, this has been a growing revenue stream for the university. Functionally, Capilouto’s new Staff Senate holds no real power. Symbolically, however, it grants staff who operate independently of core-teaching a seat at the proverbial table worthy of their co-equal financial footprint to faculty within the UK conglomerate. (Some staff may also remember UK’s early Top 20 policy to compensate faculty more than staff, based on the claim that faculty circulate on a “global” market and staff circulate and earn salaries on a “local” market. Cozying up to the dude with all the power to determine salaries may seem like both a smart move and a giant middle-finger raised to faculty.)

Student-Staff-CEO power assemblage

To me, most notable was the SGA resolution of support given by students to Capilouto’s corporate restructuring. In the heady days of the Top 20 push, students were directed to get on board with what they were told would be a future increase in the value of their UK diploma, as more top-flight faculty were recruited to replace the current schlubs students were apparently currently stuck with. And students did get on board with Top 20.

But over the past 15 years, as the CEO model of educational revenue streams has gained prominence both within and outside the university, a different model of higher education has emerged. This one defines the students as customers, people who pay to receive a range of services from the educational emporium. And as customers go, UK students have become increasingly wealthier as CEOs Todd and then Capilouto have increased tuition costs. As a commercial service provider, UK upgraded from Target to Banana Republic, and its Banana Republic customers generally skew toward the sort of high-wealth populations who are likely to grow up in homes generally supportive and trusting of CEOs.

The student transformation underlies the more general corporatized return of in-loco parentis policies, most notably Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) policies. While DEI has the vocal support of some faculty, usually academic versions of smiling Huberts whose departments directly benefit from such policies, DEI is in practice a top-down corporate model for ensuring student customer satisfaction. It generally sidesteps faculty teachers (who have pretty much been incorporating DEI into their work for decades now) and instead vests its authority in a separate staff structure created by administrators (who pretty much ignored DEI issues until people started filming cops stepping on the necks of black men).

The original text of SB6, which was described as “anti-blackness to its core” by Loserville U African American Studies faculty Ricky Jones.

Take a look at the biggest critics of this years “anti-DEI” bill, SB6, which would have banned the ability of UK and other Commonwealth academic administrators from compelling DEI statements from its employees, like a modern-day anti-communist pledge. Its most vocal critics were university administrators like Eli Capilouto, staff members affiliated with DEI programs—and high school and university students, who sided with the centralized administrative power to compel faculty and others to sign such pledges.

I will stop here, as I have well exceeded my desired word count for this quick thoughtpiece. I am a verbose academic at heart. So let me conclude with a big disclaimer: faculty are notorious for making a giant deal out of the smallest of issues. Is the dissolution of the University Senate and its delegated power to manage academic quality a death knell for the university? It seems like a big deal to me and something worth following up on, which I’ll do.

Not to sound like an old codger, but a university that revolves around temporary CEOs and transient student/customers is not really a university. Faculty have their faults–believe me, I know this all too well–but their long-form contract labor commitments form the backbone of higher ed institutions. More than any other group, they are most vested in the university’s continued long term health as places of learning. Making their views advisory seems like an own-goal, if one cares about the products produced by higher education.

Please post comments below on where I’ve missed (or hit). And do send me contacts via email of people with whom I ought to follow up:

Republished with permission.

Danny Mayer is the founder of North of Center,  a news and commentary site that since 2009 has covered the world through a focus on Bluegrass Region politics, culture, geography, and history.

You can support Danny's work by signing up for his substack publication, Shatty Town!, as either a free or paid subscriber.  Coverage areas include biking, hiking, paddlingurban developmentcronyismhigher education, city gardening and gleaning, Ohio Valley history, and national retail politics. Some poetry, too.