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The New(est) Dispensation of Kentucky’s Domain of Greed, Power, and Corruption

October 27, 2009

My institution, The University of Kentucky, continues to receive national media coverage for the embarrassments that take place on campus and in its administrative meetings.  Our latest shameful news is that the University Board of Trustees met today to discuss whether or not they would accept Joe Craft’s proposed gift of $7 million and the handcuffed obligation to spend it on a new dorm for its college basketball players.  The new dorm, if built, would be required to have the name “coal” in it, mostly because Craft is the CEO of Alliance Coal, LLC.

As expected, the Board of Trustees didn’t spend much time worrying about the ramifications of their decision and quickly voted to accept the gift and move forward with plans to build the new “Wildcat Coal Lodge.” There has been a great deal of buzz on campus the past few days, and now national media outlets are turning to cover the incident, and not without an attitude of condescension and pity either.

Check out what Dave Zirin, a sports editor at The Nation and the host of Edge of Sports Radio, has to say on the Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC).  The clip is interesting, even if misguided in its guffawing focus on the idiocy of naming buildings after coal, but Maddow does ask a good question about the role that private industry now holds in college athletics.  This five-minute interview is yet one more sign that we need to supplement our news diet with more sources and more information than what appears on television.

Joe Craft has already donated millions of dollars to the University of Kentucky Athletics Association so it could build a new practice facility for the men’s basketball team.  This project, while largely funded by Craft’s own pocketbook, did force the university to dip into its coffers (which, by the way, come from state tax payers), even though university administrators protested and said that UK is suffering from a “crisis in undergraduate education.”

Now, Craft has organized a group of influential coal barons, bankers, and other Lexington figures to form a group called “The Difference Makers.”  The Kentucky Kernel features a story with a list of these people.  These are precisely the people who exploit Kentucky’s land, people, and economies.  They have access to the highest percentages of concentrated wealth in the state, and they could use their financial clout and resourcefulness to raise money for the university’s general education fund instead of its already bloated athletics department.

Craft’s group had the audacity to announce their plans during an on-campus forum on coal and the university last week.  Almost all of the university’s electricity comes by way of Kentucky coal, and various university leaders met to discuss the future of this energy resource and our responsibility as an institution to seek alternatives.  Instead, it became another forum for Kentucky’s coal industry to advance its agenda vis-a-vis UK programming.

Back to Maddow’s point.  Doesn’t this decision by the Board of Trustees constitute some sort of egregious violation of the line between corporate advertising and educational endeavor?  It does, but she should have focused on the fact that such uneasy collaboration has been going on for a long time, mainly out of sad necessity.  I’m currently sitting in the William T. Young library, writing in the Toyota Reading Room, a space that’s been subsidized by a predatory multi-national automotive company that’s done more to dismantle union labor in Kentucky than any industry except coal mining.

Universities like UK willingly turn to corporate deals and agreements because they feel as if they need the money.  They are underfunded by state legislatures to be sure, but more often than not, universities simply allow billion dollar companies to profit off of their clientele.  They get little in return.  A good recent example is UK’s decision to allow Apple Computers to build a store in its Student Center.

What Maddow and Zirin also neglected to mention is that the Board of Trustees’ vote today is just one example of a longstanding partnership between the interests of big coal in Kentucky and University of Kentucky athletics.  Last week, Friends of Coal sponsored a men’s basketball practice, which UK students could attend if they subjected themselves to watching women’s volleyball and men’s soccer games.  Friends of Coal also sponsors replays at home football and basketball games.  The formula for the coal industry, and a lot of other industries in Kentucky for that matter, is simple:  find the product people in the state care about more passionately than anything (Kentucky basketball) and find ways for them to associate their positive passion toward it with their own product (in this case, coal.)

Zirin hits the nail on the head again.  Lee Todd won’t do anything to stop this because he see all things university related as a business transaction.  He hasn’t actually taught in a university since the early 1980s, he’s a former board member of IBM, and he’s hopelessly skewed by the values of the marketplace.  The sun is not shining bright on my old Kentucky home today.

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14 Comments
  1. duffman permalink

    it is a sad story often retold..

    very few folks run the state for their own benefit..

    most of this is done with other peoples money, by people who have more than enough, and have none of their own money at risk..

    i could tell many tales, you are welcome to email if you like..

  2. Zach Gibson permalink

    Why should Joe Craft and the Difference Makers help fund a college that denounces how they live their life and how they recieve their income. If you were wanting a real story you would also tell that the Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge was also funded by coal. Here’s a story you and the kernel report without facts.

  3. Dave Zirin permalink

    A buddy emailed me this to me and I gotta give up the props. This is a terrific post. I learned a great deal from it and I wish I’d seen it before appearing on the show!

    Thanks for the work on this.

  4. Buck Woodford permalink

    Good post, Andrew.

    I’m no huge fan of the coal business — but cant say I object to the concept of companies trying to associate their brand/product with things consumers think positively about. That should the playbook for any brand.

  5. Dave permalink

    Isn’t “Wildcat coal mining” an explicit reference to illegal, destructive mine practices? Maybe we should have a plaque about that in the new lodge, huh?

    Hey – maybe next time the donor will be from Tennessee and we can call it the Volunteers Lodge.

    And if the Board of Trustees 3 members who represent the Students, Faculty, and Staff all voted against this name change… who the hell do those other 16 people represent?

    I’m very proud of the students, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth members and Greenthumb members who spoke out on this issue – and very disappointed in the Board of Trustees for doing everything they can to bring in more money – even for things we don’t need.

    Seriously – have you seen the inside of the Joe B. Hall Wildcat lodge? It’s absurdly nice as it is.

  6. Dave permalink

    Hey – if you’d like to come out and get involved in the campaign to raise awareness around this issue, we still have a chance to stop the naming process – and otherwise educate our campus about problems in the coal industry.

    UK Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC) Meeting – Tomorrow (Wednesday) at 7:30 in the Student Center, Rm 111 or 115

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=4640129709

    http://www.kftc.org

  7. duffman permalink

    you guys are not seeing the big picture here..

    what is a better way to serve the university?

    a) give 7 million to build a dorm for basketball players

    b) give 7 million to establish a coal scholarship fund for former miners kids

    c) give 7 million to establish chairs to attract better faculty

    d) put your real money where your mouth is.. and move your corporate headquarters from tulsa OK to lexington KY to provide better jobs for the state that has generated your wealth

    if you concentrate on the naming process, without dealing with the deeper issues, you have already lost..

    see also.. pyrrhic victory..

  8. duffman permalink

    dave..

    the 16 people you refer to are appointed by the gov of the state of KY.. did you not read my original post

    you want change.. focus your energy.. make your voice (an the mass of the silent majority) heard. if you do your homework in advance, and hold your elected officials accountable for their conduct. it makes it harder for them to hide self dealing special interests..

    a place to start.. many EXCELLENT lower arena seats are sold to elected officials all over the state. the seats do not come with the REQUIRED “donation” required of everybody else. say these seats would have an annual “donation” of 1,000 each.. do the math.. (say there are 500 such LOWER arena seats). 1,000 x 500 = 500,000 annually x 15 years = 7.5 million (which by my calculations is greater than the 7.0 million currently offered by the current coal group). in the past these seats were gratis (free), but to lessen the outcry they were made to pay face value. this is still well below actual cost..

    this is not an isolated incident.. and should be illegal, but if the politicians of the state were above board they should stop the practice.. and open the seats up to students, fans, and donors.

    another place to look is “sold out” vs actual people going through the turnstiles.. you can manipulate perception by how you calculate attendance. it has become common practice across the country to manipulate the numbers when you go to a “SOLD OUT” event a year in advance, only to attend the event and find HUGE blocks of empty seats (think the NCAA lottery for the final four). you put up your money a year in advance for the absolute worst seats in the house because it is “sold out”. when you attend you see huge sections of better seats that are totally devoid of people..

  9. duffman permalink

    ps..

    if these people are “friends of coal” and “friends of uk” do they do the friendly thing and give the coal that UK uses (the big pile near Kennedy’s and the PPD building) to UK for free??

    if the answer is no.. i offer the humble suggestion that they do so (then placing a big sign by the pile – that says “donated by friends of coal), and let UK use the cost savings to build a new building..

    just a thought.. if we are all just “friends”

  10. Duffman…all excellent points! One could write a book about all of this stuff. Unfortunately one already exists, Ellison’s _Kentucky’s Domain of Greed, Power, and Corruption_, but it’s horribly written, constructed with facile logic, and misguided.

    Someday, I’ll do better, in some capacity. I think blogging is a start. I also agree that organizations like KFTC should load their arsenal with uneasy collaborations like the one you’ve just described.

    The problem is that not much of this will change as long as people continue to idolize college basketball.

  11. duffman permalink

    andrew

    WE THE PEOPLE is a mighty powerful statement!!

    we are given the right, too often we choose to not to exercise it, and then complain when we must live with the consequences!

    i must confess that i have not read ellison, but i feel sure much is not it there. i have read the denton book and am well aware of much information that was not in her book.

    if you are serious.. you have my email..

  12. Bill permalink

    Coal is a major factor in the economic success of Kentucky. What will replace it and how will the poor people of Kentucky afford high energy bills when you allget your way and wipe out coal? I hear all these grand judgments but no solutions. Typical.

  13. duffman permalink

    bill,

    you are missing the point..

    local control and local ownership..

    KU was better when it was a local company..

    keeping money (via ownership) means keeping jobs..

    how many american jobs are now in china??

    when the top five global coal companies are headquartered in kentucky’s borders i will be happy..

    and yes, this is a concrete solution.. not just a grand judgement

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