Today, the WKU Board of Regents (6 in favor, 4 against, and 1 abstention) approved a partnership with the Medical Center to construct a new building on the Bowling Green campus that will, among other purposes, function as an indoor practice facility for WKU athletics, a new location for the Department of Physical Therapy (DPT), and for the Medical Center’s use. This decision also correlates with the Medical Center’s partnership with UK to bring a four-year medical program to Bowling Green, where UK medical students can take courses in BG. This partnership between WKU and the Medical Center means that the location for the DPT, which is at the Health Sciences Complex located off site at the Medical Center Complex, will be the future home for UK’s medical students, meaning that the DPT will be relocated to this new building that will be constructed between the football stadium and baseball field. At first read, this sounds like an excellent partnership, but there are many facets of this agreement that have major implications for WKU. After weeks of thoughtful consideration, I voted “no” with three other Regents for a number of reasons. Although I am bound to uphold the Board’s ultimate decision, I strongly urge you to take the time to read my justification for my “no” vote and learn why I believe this is a very bad deal for WKU:
- The Medical Center? – First and foremost, the Medical Center is a major, well-known health care provider. Their business model inevitably requires them to make profit-oriented decisions, and it is clear that they would not be investing $22 million in WKU without the certainty that profit could be made. Most importantly, it is imperative to understand that the Medical Center is one health care provider that competes with Graves Gilbert Clinic, Western Kentucky Orthopedics, and Greenview, meaning that a partnership with WKU would give them a substantial advantage over their competition for market shares, and it would place WKU smack in the middle of a decades-long battle among these groups. Essentially, we are now a pawn in this perennial game. Because the decision was made to move forward with this partnership, the Medical Center will now be the official health care provider for WKU and we will be tied to one another for up to 99 years. While there are some positives that can come from such a partnership, I do not believe this is the best decision for WKU because, as a complex, respected, and long-standing university, we have healthy, trustworthy relationships with many health care providers in BG and should not actively be jeopardizing friendships that can have a debilitating effect on our university in the long-term.
- Cost – For students asking how in the world are we constructing a new building when we have just taken large budget cuts from Frankfort and have raised tuition, the answer is that WKU is only paying for maintenance and operations (M&O) cost for this building, which is still of great concern to me. I am concerned because that funding could come from various pools that could be debilitating to academic quality, and the money that will be used to pay for M&O could have easily gone to reduce the massive cut to Track & Field. Moreover, while WKU Athletics is the primary beneficiary of this building, it does not appear that they will be financing any of the cost. And for those who see my opposition to this as affirmation that I am anti-athletics, that is simply not true; I am anti-bad deals for WKU. WKU can still be very much competitive in C-USA, but tying ourselves to the Medical Center and giving them a permanent spot on campus to set up shop not related to WKU Athletics or the DPT is not the way to move forward.
- Bad Timing and Toxic – Perhaps one of the obvious points that should be pointed out is this is terrible timing with the selection of a new university president. Moving forward with this partnership to the detriment of other health care providers in our community can easily serve as the catalyst for a toxic WKU environment, one that is already plagued by seemingly-incessant cuts to higher education. Selecting a high-quality candidate to become the 10th president of WKU may now be significantly tougher. If a candidate feels that a substantial portion of our community may be apprehensive toward the university’s capacity to make tough decisions and feels as though the same individuals may even consider withholding support to the university if they are not supportive of the Medical Center, this is highly problematic for our presidential search and it could cause us to lose an excellent candidate. Moreover, this new partnership requires us to terminate our contract with Graves Gilbert Clinic, which came to our aid when we privatized Health Services. They have been dedicated to us, and now we are turning our backs on them before our contract expires. Finally, this is also toxic on the university-level because, due to the opaqueness of all of this, there is no way to accurately gauge the willingness of students, faculty, and staff to support such a project.
These are just three of the numerous reasons I withheld my support for this partnership, and I have tried to make them very clear cut. A far more prudent, defensible, and reasonable decision would have been to expand our Health Sciences Complex already located on the Medical Center’s campus (and serves as an already-existing partnership between WKU and the Medical Center) to ensure that our Department of Physical Therapy and the incoming group of medical students with a new UK-WKU medical program partnership would have the space they need to be successful. Simultaneously, while expanding this area, we could generate private donations solely for the purpose of constructing an indoor practice facility to be used by WKU Athletics and for intramural teams without tying ourselves to a questionable business plan. While this is certainly acceptable for the Medical Center in terms of it aligning with their business model, I believed (and still believe) we simply cannot condone a situation where it is perceived that WKU is selling itself out for a building for athletics.
I am concerned about WKU cultivating a toxic environment between our university and Bowling Green, not making fiscally-responsible decisions, not maintaining high academic quality and successful athletics programs, and tying the hands of our next president to a 99-year decision. I believe that as one looks past the smoke and mirrors of this deal, it is clear that there will be negative consequences. Again, I do, in fact, believe an indoor practice facility would be a great addition to WKU Athletics and that we need an appropriate, designated place for the new medical students who may be taking courses with WKU beginning in 2018, but this partnership with the Medical Center will only sever mutually-beneficial relationships we have cultivated over the past few years with other health care providers in Bowling Green.
Finally, as a Regent, it is my fiduciary responsibility to make the best decisions for WKU in the long-term. I do not believe this was the best decision for our university and stand with Regents Ridley, Burch, and Smith; however, I am ethically bound to move forward with the Board’s decision.
All the Best,
Jay Todd Richey