Board focuses on vision for UK’s future

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVQ) – By 2020, the University of Kentucky aims to aggressively increase its six-year graduation rate to 70 percent — an increase of nearly 10 percent over recent figures. At the same time, the university wants to significantly close the achievement gap — retention and graduation rates — that exists between the general student population and students of color, first-generation students and students eligible for Pell grants.

There currently is a 15 to 17 percent gap in the graduation rate between those students and the general student population. Under the proposed strategic plan, those gaps would be closed to under 10 percent by 2020. “All great research universities have at their core a great undergraduate education experience,” said UK Provost Tim Tracy. “We can and we will be better. The question is what do we do to help them succeed.”

The goals for undergraduate success are among the primary components of UK’s proposed strategic plan, which is being considered this week by the university’s Board of Trustees. The plan is designed to set forward ambitious but achievable goals for the university between now and 2020 as UK aspires to be one of the best public, residential research campuses in the country.

The proposed plan — which can be read here — articulates key initiatives and goals for progress in five core areas:

–Undergraduate student success
–Graduate education
–Research
–Diversity and Inclusivity
–Community engagement

Between Thursday and Saturday, board members will hear presentations — with specific goals and areas of measurement — in each of the core strategic objectives. The board, then, is expected to vote on the proposed plan Saturday morning.

In the area of undergraduate education, which along with diversity and inclusivity were the primary areas of focus of Thursday’s meeting, Ben Withers, UK’s associate provost and dean for undergraduate education, said “we need to provide (students) with the transformational experiences” they need to reach their goals and aspirations … “Our role as a university is to lead this process of self-discovery.”

To that end, Withers said, over the next few years UK will work quickly to better integrate student planning, advising and course registration to track student progress toward graduation.

That will include helping students map out courses over several terms, Withers said, as well as utilizing “improved predictive analytics” to track the progress of students and intervene early when necessary when a student is at academic risk.

The university, Withers said, also will create a more systematic approach to helping students increase their financial literacy and wellness, as debt and financial issues often are large barriers to graduation.

In this initiative, the university will move quickly to create and hire a financial wellness specialist position and develop programs and workshops to help students.

“There has been a steady increase in four and six year graduation rates at the University of Kentucky,” Withers said. “But more can be done.”

In the area of diversity and inclusivity, Terry Allen, UK’s interim vice president for institutional diversity, outlined a timeline to expand training in the area of unconscious bias — the idea of acting and making decisions that may be perceived as prejudicial based on unconscious thoughts.

“There is a tremendous opportunity for us as we move forward,” Allen said of the goals outlined in the area of diversity and inclusivity. “Everybody must buy into — and everybody must accept the responsibility and be held accountable for — contributing to the diversity of the University of Kentucky.”

The proposed plan also calls for strengthening support for students of different colors, identities and perspectives.

“I’m very pleased that we are setting forth ambitious, but clear and achievable goals for our university — the university for Kentucky,” said Britt Brockman, chair of the UK Board of Trustees. “By articulating clear goals — and how we specifically plan to measure our progress — we are telling the people of Kentucky how we are working every day to earn the investment they are making in us, the brightest hope for this state’s future.”

The proposed strategic plan being considered by the board is the product of several months of work by hundreds of faculty, staff and students on campus, Tracy told trustees on Thursday. Six workgroups over the past several months examined trends in national higher education, the progress of UK relative to its benchmark institutions, and places where the university had gaps and could make progress.

“You need a plan,” Tracy said of the proposed plan. “You need resources and you need responsibility — people who are going to carry it out.”

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