A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Opinion: Kentucky’s research universities — UK and UofL — answering the call now and for the future


By Neeli Bendapudi and Eli Capilouto

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Commonwealth this spring, Kentucky’s research universities – the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville — answered the call.

Local and state leaders turned to us to lead the way in identifying and treating patients, addressing shortages in testing and protective equipment and conducting research close to home to aggressively attack a global health crisis.

We quickly began offering tests for health care workers and Kentucky’s sickest patients. Our hospitals dedicated clinicians and caregivers to this fight, and we supported other hospitals by rapidly processing their tests as well.

Neeli Bendapudi

Both universities began producing masks and swabs to protect our health care workers and patients. That has enabled us to increase our testing capacity – a critical element in a long-term approach against this disease.

UK set up the state’s first field hospital on its campus to handle potential surge of infections and established a team of researchers to focus on potential vaccines and therapies, one of which is about to start its first clinical trial.

UofL’s Center for Excellence in Research in Infectious Diseases and its Center for Predictive Medicine, as part of the national CDC network, are testing potential vaccines and treatments to stop COVID in its tracks. And UofL researchers have developed a technology that appears to block the novel coronavirus from infecting human cells.

Under unprecedented conditions, we are taking unprecedented steps to help and heal, protect and provide solutions.

But there’s another important way we are leading, too. Now, more than ever, the future – our future – will depend on highly skilled workers and deep thinkers. We will need graduates, who not only compete for jobs, but create new jobs, new ideas and new approaches to both old and new challenges.

So much in our world is still so uncertain. But the necessity of thinkers and doers who can compete and thrive in an interconnected and diverse global economy will be even more important.

In this area as well, our two universities are leading our state toward a better, brighter and more certain future.

Consider these markers and milestones of progress – from our two universities from 2016 to 2019 — that underscore our commitment to charting that path forward:

• We increased bachelor’s degree annual production by 909 students, 99 percent of all bachelor’s degree growth among Kentucky’s public universities – still, and perhaps even more so in the future, the entry point into the global economy

• We increased the number of STEM+H degrees awarded annually by 654 graduates, 86 percent of Kentucky’s increase in areas that are, in so many ways, the foundation of economic growth

• We boosted degrees awarded annually to underrepresented minorities by 273, or 60 percent of the state’s total growth, critical to our state’s ability to thrive in an increasingly diverse world.

• And while the overall number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually to students from low-income families dropped, UK and UofL awarded 142 more degrees annually to these students, an increase of 5.5 percent – growth that signifies our commitment to all students and their families. We may be forced to separate, rather than congregate, right now. But our commitment to all students, regardless of who they are or where they come from, must be stronger and broader than ever before.

Eli Capilouto

These graduates will enter the workforce at a remarkable time. We are being tested and tried as never before in our lifetimes. As we both return to classes this fall, we will be reinventing and reimaging normal – what some are even calling the next normal.

None of us knows what that will look like. But we do know what that world will require – students with varied backgrounds and skills, comfortable with grappling with complex ideas and solutions more often found at the intersection of disciplines.

We are seeking and finding solutions at the cellular level to community challenges. With a deep bench of supportive world-class teachers and researchers, we will be prepared for what lies ahead. And we are poised to prepare young students with fertile minds and boundless potential to lead us.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has, for the moment, taken away their commencement ceremonies planned for this past weekend, nearly 10,000 degrees will have been awarded from the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky this year.

These graduates will be our teachers, our health care providers, our engineers and our artists. They will build companies, invest in their communities and lead our Commonwealth through public service.

Long after our current short-term crisis has dissipated, these graduates will push Kentucky toward a brighter future. They will be prepared to tackle and solve the next pandemic and the next global crisis.

And they, too, will look to our research universities – the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville – to continue to lead the way.

Eli Capilouto (left) is president of the University of Kentucky. Neeli Bendapudi (right) is the president of the University of Louisville.


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