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PRESIDENT'S BLOG: UK Plays An Important Economic Development Role

By Eli Capilouto

The start of a new semester is a time of reminiscence and rejuvenation—an opportunity to reflect with deep gratitude on the progress we have made, and to set our sights with fierce determination on the future we seek.

As I walk the campus that’s once again buzzing with activity, I’m reminded of the stories that embody our ambitions.

Stories like that of Bryan Willis.

From Burkesville, Kentucky, a town of 1,500 in Appalachia, Bryan was the first member of his family to earn a college degree. While pursuing his studies in computer engineering at UK, he applied for internship after internship, determined to bolster his resume and prepare himself for the future he sought to build.

Two months after applying to the NASA Pathways Program, Bryan was fielding questions from a panel of engineers in Houston, Texas.

For the next three years, he interned with NASA while completing his degree.

He worked hand-in-hand with the Flight Operations Division on an application that aids in trajectory propagation; he also assisted with a lunar simulation that provides tactile feedback to astronauts roaming the face of the moon.

After graduating this past December, Bryan accepted a position as a computer engineer for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, leaving Lexington for Houston. He’s among the approximately 3 percent of applicants accepted to work at NASA.

Stories like Bryan’s should deeply inform how we contemplate our vision for Kentucky’s future.

His story colors my thoughts regarding the industries that would keep—or attract— students like Bryan, bursting with potential, knowledge, and determination, to Kentucky.

That’s why our Board of Trustees has challenged us to think anew about how UK positions itself to be the most important workforce partner for our state. It’s a charge that aligns with our founding mission more than 150 years ago as a land-grant institution.

We prepare young Kentuckians to compete and succeed in a changing economy.

We educate more than 30,000 students, and we are investing in need-based financial aid to ensure their success is not limited by their financial status today.

At the same time, UK also plays an important economic development role – not only in supplying a workforce, but in bolstering our economy and creating new solutions, businesses, and industries.

We do this work in partnership with the private sector in Kentucky.

Consider a few statistics: UK employs more than 20,000 people, paying more than $106 million annually in state and local taxes. In less than a decade, we have invested approximately $2.3 billion in construction to enrich the academic experience, strengthen the research enterprise, and expand our capacity to improve patient care.

Our research portfolio now totals nearly $380 million in annual research expenditures. In FY 2016 alone, research at UK resulted in $241 million in state taxes, 3,429 jobs across Kentucky, and $511.3 million in statewide production.

What story do these numbers tell?

They underscore that this activity provides economic return for Kentucky, ensuring that our local economy remains robust and high-performing.

We are making progress in our pursuit to create a brighter future.

This year, through the power of partnership, we find Lexington on the list of several important accolades:

  • A Wall Street Journal “Brain Hub” city

  • A Forbes “Best Place for Business”

  • A National Geographic “World Smart City”

But we have more work to do. We are asking ourselves, every day, how can we strengthen our role as an essential partner in the state’s economic development?

How can we produce more bold dreamers and strategic thinkers who bolster Kentucky industries and uplift communities?

How can we do more—be more—for the state we serve?

The start of a new semester affords us an opportunity for inspiration and illumination. We must harness it on behalf of the state and world we serve.

Eli Capilouto is president of the University of Kentucky.

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