Feb 162011

Lee Todd? Jim Gray? Coach Coal?

As individuals commonly identified throughout the state and nation as leaders who reside in this city, we demand better leadership of UK President Lee Todd, UK Basketball Coach John Calipari and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. We want to know, when it comes to mountaintop removal, which side are you on? What are your thoughts about the past weekend’s much-publicized civil disobedience in Frankfort?

Eastern Kentucky coal has a long and deep relationship to this state and its citizens. This is particularly true for our city of Lexington, which continues to operate as the western gateway to Eastern Kentucky. This was true in the 1700s when men rafted lumber ripped from old growth Eastern Kentucky Appalachian forests down the Kentucky River and around the fertile peninsula of inner-bluegrass lands, which Lexington  commanded, profitably, from 40 miles inland. It was true in the 1800s when barges transported iron ore and coal from the Red River onto the Kentucky, providing cheap and efficient heat for Lexington’s growing cityscape (now revered by progressive preservationists). And it remains true today, as Lexingtonians trade their hospitals and outlet malls for cheap energy and the plentiful coal-spoiled waters of the Kentucky River, both of which headwater in Eastern Kentucky.

Mountaintop removal is not simply an Eastern Kentucky problem whose solution requires intervention in Frankfort. MTR in Eastern Kentucky is also a Lexington problem, a UK problem, a democracy problem. The list goes on. We are not separate from what happens 40 miles to our east.

We at this paper have spent a great deal of time these past two years tracking local discussions over that elusive quality, leadership, and what it means to Lexington. Todd, Gray and Calipari have featured prominently in those discussions, nearly always in glowing terms. The UK Board of Trustees has cited strong leadership as justification for CEO Todd’s wage increases, which totaled $400,000 in just the past two years. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, newly swept into office, owes much to his reputation as a person skilled at cultivating and stewarding creative leadership from below. Certainly UK men’s basketball coach John Calipari’s leadership skills are given great credit in his turning around the team from the rudderless ship of Billy Gillespie.

Our request is simple. We ask that you tend to your well-paid and powerful positions as city and state leaders: provide leadership on MTR. Speak.

The argument can, and probably will, be made that what has taken place in Frankfort has nothing to do with Lexington, the University of Kentucky, or its basketball team. The implication of this line of thought inevitably results in calls for restraint, a need for a university president, or a basketball coach or city mayor, to shut up and stay the hell out of the way of “the problem.” To not bud in.

We don’t buy the separate spheres argument, nor do we agree with its implication, that being silent on matters of great importance constitutes leadership.

In a leadership role, UK president Lee Todd has shown an interest in speaking up for students. Within the past 2 months, Todd has publicly defended the right of basketball recruit Enes Kanter, for example, to remain eligible to play basketball at UK. Todd did this, in part, on grounds that young Kanter, who had played basketball professionally in Turkey for three years prior to matriculating here, deserved a UK education.

Todd has not shown the same care and concern for Kanter’s fellow student, UK Physics graduate student Martin Mudd, one of the 14 citizens holed up in the capital building. He also has not extended the same interest to the Kentucky Kernel journalists who embedded at the capital to cover the historic protests. Neither has Todd commented on Erik Reece, a UK writer in residence who also featured prominently in the act of civil disobedience, or Jason Howard, another graduate student who has played important behind the scenes work as a media relations point person.

An ambassador for the university, why has Todd remained silent in the face of these highly publicized engaged civic acts? Does advocating for a 17 year old one-and-done professional basketball player from Turkey really trump speaking out for a group of long-time university students (and Kentucky citizens) engaged in the practice of civil democracy–people whose concerns precisely address the Kentucky Uglies of poverty, poor health and unemployment that Todd has harped on (to the benefit of his salary) these past 10 years?

We don’t want to just single out Todd. Mayor Gray has talked openly—been a leader—in looking 60 miles west and embracing Louisville as a meaningful neighbor, but he has yet to look east the same distance. Coach Coal will soon house his entire basketball team in a coal dorm, paid for in part by Luther Deaton, chairman at Central Bank. The same bank partially funds Coach Coal’s multi-million dollar salary by purchasing an advertising package with UK athletics to have the elite-eight finishing coach featured in a number of Central Bank ads. These city leaders are not untouched by coal and the protests taking place in Frankfort. They are not exempt from having to offer reasons for their actions.

As we understand the term, leaders hold strongly to beliefs and take public actions that inspire and compel others to act in a common good. This definition of leadership compels leaders into the free market of public action. They must take stances; they must convince an interested public—followers—as a precondition of becoming leaders. Leadership is not declared, salaried, diploma’d, militia’d or termed. It is simply a function of action, commitment and communication. Anyone can do it.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thkiinng that Governor Beshear is the only person needing to talk MTR openly. Todd, Gray and Calipari–some of our communities’ leaders– collect paychecks that derive chiefly from the assumption that they operate as city and state leaders. We demand they fulfill their definitional and contractual obligations of being important regional leaders.

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