Dec 082010
 

Does Lee Todd blame stupid Kentuckians for Top 20’s failure?

By Danny Mayer

This is part of a regular series that analyzes components of the University of Kentucky’s pro-business Top 20 compact with the state. This segment will look at Top 20’s relationship to Undergraduate Education, particularly its relationship to ACT scores.

Does Lee Todd blame stupid Kentuckians for Top 20’s failure?

I wrote these words in my moleskin about halfway through UK CEO Lee Todd’s press conference announcing his retirement from the University of Kentucky. At the presser, Todd had (among other things) boiled down to two the greatest impediments to UK’s attainment of the Top 20 Dream: the lack of state funding caused by the unforeseeable collapse of an over-leveraged market and the high population of educationally-challenged college-age Kentuckians.

At the time I wrote the question, Todd was in mid-response to a question posed by Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Cheryl Truman. Truman had asked about the Top 20 Business Plan, which had elicited Todd’s second press conference lesson on how persistently low in-state ACT scores kept UK from doing well in the U.S. News and World Report (and inner-UK) rankings.

Piecing together odd patchworks of things he would and would not do to achieve Top 20 status, Todd told Truman he “would tell people to listen, and read and think because we did explain [Top 20] and we did show it.” Perennial shitty ACT scores by Kentucky natives, for example Todd explained, had really screwed the undergraduate rankings.

It was about this time that I wrote the above moleskin question. It was followed by two more questions. These were likewise preceded by a continuation of Todd’s response to Truman, descriptions of what he would not do to compensate for the unfortunate circumstance of living in a state with poor ACT scores.

Todd: “…We could go out and…recruit 40% of our freshman from California and Texas—there are schools that are doing that right now,” the CEO challenged the crowd. “And then as soon as they get their degree they leave the state. Wanna do that? Is that a fun thing? Not gonna do that.”

Me: Todd FREAK OUT?? Does he think we’re football boosters???? California has mad mad talent—

Todd: “…Or I tell you what we could do, we could choose to go out to a recruiting fair, and pay kids to fill out a document to apply to this university, and then reject them, so that our selectivity rate would go up, and our U.S. News and World Report rate would go up. Doesn’t happen? It does happen. And we’re not doing that.”

Me: Scratch second question. No pay for play (publicly). Back to first question?

By the end of the press conference I’d still not formulated any coherent thoughts regarding the question of Todd’s antipathy toward UK students, so I figured I’d might as well be a reporter. So I spent some time formulating a more diplomatic question than Are you blaming stupid Kentuckians for Top 20’s failure? Here’s my September 22 email:

Lee Todd:

I’m re-submitting my September 10 and September 17 emails to you. I’d appreciate a response.

September 10 correspondence:
At the September 8 news conference announcing your retirement, you stated that ACT scores played a major part in UK’s low undergraduate ranking. I believe you suggested these low scores factored into both the US News rankings and UK’s own Top 20 rankings.

I’m curious to know how large a part ACT scores play in both rankings? Do they comprise, say, 70% of the rankings? 50%? I’m also curious to know what changed regarding Kentuckians’ achievement on ACT scores between the years 2005 and 2010. I’ve chosen these dates as they correspond to your nationally recognized Top 20 Business Plan and your statement regarding low Kentucky ACT scores at your press conference. Was the ACT score criteria unknown to you at the time of your Business Plan in 2005?

September 17 correspondence:
In your state of the union speech yesterday, you claimed that other schools were raiding Texas and California for students to help their rankings. You also made this same claim in your retirement press conference. Can you provide me with evidence to corroborate your claims? What schools are doing this? Are they Top 20 Research University schools?

Thank you for your time,
Danny Mayer
Editor, North of Center

Now, needless to say, I never got a response, so I can only answer some of these questions definitively. Best I can tell, ACT scores, as weighted by UK in its own metrics for becoming a nationally ranked, Top 20 Research University, comprise one-ninth of the entire Top 20 rankings, and only one-third of the undergraduate portion of that ranking. So the ACT scores that Todd spent so much time on comprised just a little over 10% of UK’s failure. And that failure, he’s been clear to let us know, lies below him at the K-12 level.

In terms of the change between ACT scores between 2005 and 2009 (the last date recorded on on the school’s Fact Book), they have remained mostly flat, with 2009’s 24.7 the only ACT average better than 2005’s 24.5.

To me, at least, it seems exuberant to have expected that Kentucky ACT scores would buck the historical ten-year trend of steady fluctuations beteween 24 and 25. Further, it would seem irrationally exuberant to have expected that increase to have happened while flooding the campus ACT market with 1500 new Kentucky students. This seems like a recipe for disaster if you have chosen to benchmark yourself based on ACT scores–evidence more of a failure of planning rather than a failure of not-high-enough student ACT scores.

As to Todd’s impassioned defense against our state raiding the Texas and California school systems for students with ACTs above 25 who are willing to pay out of state tuition, well I can’t say I even bothered looking into what other vile Top 20 schools are doing the dastardly things Todd’s talking about.

But you can read the Top 20 Business Plan’s section on “Strategies for Attaining National Prominence.” In that section, the authors note that bigger schools perform better in national rankings, and then they use this observation as evidence for UK’s need to grow. “[A]nalyses of recent trends in UK’s applicant pool,” the Plan asserts of one potential benefit of growth, “suggest that UK has the potential to increase enrollment of highly qualified students, especially among nonresidents.”

Up through the late 1990s and into the mid 2000s, the percentage of out-of-state undergraduates at UK hovered around 15% of the student body. Since Todd’s Top 20 Business Plan, that percentage has increased to 20% of the student body. The new “online” bunch of classes that Todd has trumpeted as a growth revenue, allowing the university to expand without having to pay the costs for increased students on campus, has attracted 25% of its students from out of state. This is one of the few traits, a commitment to online course growth, that Todd has solidly come out for in regards to the presidential search.

As to the larger question, my first, whether Todd scapegoated the state’s historically under-educated population, the Kentucky Ugly that he used to sell as his UK brand, to paper over Top 20 failures that seem to owe more to his own business-oriented world-view shortcomings than the population he’s claimed can’t produce Top 20 ACT scores…well, I can’t speculate on that.

I can say, however, that contra Todd, ACT scores did not ruin UK’s rankings. In fact, it’s not even quite fair to say that ACT scores were the main culprit in damaging the school’s undergraduate ranking. In terms of undergraduate education, the school is currently ranked 61, falling 12 slots from the Top 20 2005 “benchmark” position of 49.

The ACT scores for this current year are not much changed from the benchmark year. Both scores reflect some of the highest ever ACT averages at UK. Clearly, there are other problems with undergraduate education here, and they are much greater than the already historically well-documented phenomena of low ACT scores.

Here are a couple:

Statistical: Since 2001, UK has seen about a 12% increase in students. These have been hailed by Todd as one of his great accomplishments. Great news. Unfortunately, there was only a 6.8% increase in teaching faculty over the same time. More students, less teachers. In the same time period, the number of “other faculty,” a category that includes research, clinical, extension and library faculty, increased nearly 20% over the same timer period.

Perhaps UK students perform poorly in undergraduate rankings because in terms of the single most important aspect of education—having good teachers—their president has set them up for failure by choosing to make more research hires than teaching hires.

K-12/Common Sense: The very acknowledgement that the Kentucky pool of applicants is not excellently prepared for college (as measured by ACT scores) seems to suggest that what Kentucky needs is not a nationally recognized research university, but instead an institution dedicated to more mundane goals. This is less marketable but perhaps more rewarding.

This acknowledgement is also the best argument for re-directing education funds downard, to K-12 and community and trade colleges, and not upward, to the state’s flagship university.

Neoliberal: Todd’s model of undergraduate education seems to be based on attracting the brightest students from around the state, nation and globe. In order for UK to rank accordingly on a one-size-fits-all Top 20 metric system, Todd must increase his undergraduate metrics. His solution, at the moment, seems to be an exploition of the growth industry known as online education, a full-frontal Kaplan assault into the Top 20.

Todd’s solutions, it should be stated, seem more market based than anything else. In market-base terms, this particular ACT story gets fixed like this: Kentucky does not provide a good enough pool of academic talent, as measured in ACT metrics, for it to slide up the research rankings.

However, Kentucky does have market advantages that, say, Cal-Berkeley does not have. Compared to a place like Berkeley (or a state like California), Kentucky, the state and the university, is still economically exploitable in terms of regional land and wage differentials. Because it is poor, Kentucky is relatively cheaper than most other states. School, like Appalachian coal mines or Saigon button factories in their places, is cheap here. Just not for you.

[This article was edited on December 10. The statement reading “Up through the late 1990s and into the mid 2000s, the percentage of out-of-state undergraduates at UK hovered around 85% of the student body” was changed to reflect the correct percentage of out-of-state students: 15%.]

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  One Response to “Looking backward: undergraduate education”

  1. Wait a minute. I thought conventional wisdom said that Dr. Lee Todd was AWESOME and on the fast track to sainthood?

    Did I miss a memo or something?

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