Nancy Cox to Retire from UK, Serving More Than 20 Years as Agriculture Leader

By Jay Blanton 

Nancy Cox — the long-time dean of the Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFE) at the University of Kentucky and the first-ever vice president for land-grant engagement — plans to retire in late summer, UK officials said Wednesday.

Cox will serve as dean and vice president until a replacement is selected.

Under her leadership, the college has seen tremendous growth in support of the state’s signature equine industry. Cox championed the formation of the UK Equine Initiative (now UK Ag Equine Programs) in 2005, recognizing the need for UK to provide more enhanced services to this signature industry. This program is now the largest undergraduate major in the college and a top program nationally.

In recognition of her leadership in equine safety, in 2020 Cox was appointed co-chair of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority nominating committee. She has worked extensively with equine organizations to help advance and support the industry. She is a member of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club and serves on the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation Board. She is also a member of the Iroquois Hunt Club.

“Our land-grant mission is central to who and what we are as Kentucky’s university. That mission is why we were founded — to serve and advance this state. No one has been more central to that mission over the last two decades than Nancy Cox,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “For nearly 10 years, as dean of the Martin-Gatton CAFE — and since 2020 as our inaugural vice president for land-grant engagement — Nancy Cox has defined, enhanced and expanded the University of Kentucky’s land-grant mission.”

“Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment is at the heart of UK’s land-grant mission — educating and preparing young people to better our state, serving in every community of the Commonwealth,” Cox said. “It has been my honor to help lead those efforts for more than 20 years at UK — in research, extension, guiding the college and forging new efforts to expand our land-grant mission through expanded engagement efforts. We have such tremendous people, who are dedicated to this mission and who are leaders in their fields. It has been an honor to serve with and among them during a time of such growth for our university.”

Among numerous accomplishments during her tenure at UK, Cox:

  • Directed a comprehensive re-examination of the Cooperative Extension Service to strengthen its capacity and meet Kentucky’s growing 21st century needs;
  • Led the creation of innovative programs and partnerships, such as the Racetrack Safety Program and James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits;
  • Shepherded a more than $65 million partnership with the federal government to develop a state-of-the-art United States Department of Agriculture forage animal production research facility;
  • Helped foster the largest gift in the institution’s history — $100 million from The Bill Gatton Foundation — which will enhance scholarships, academic programming and research;
  • Launched the nearly half-billion-dollar capital transformation of the Martin-Gatton CAFE currently underway;
  • With the college’s administrative team, led the collaborative effort to re-build the Grain and Forage Center of Excellence at the college’s Research and Education Center in Princeton, Kentucky; and
  • Served as UK’s first vice president for land-grant engagement and initiated a process to thoughtfully think about how the university extends the ethos of the land-grant service and mission throughout every corner of the campus community.

Cox came to UK in 2001 from Mississippi State University to serve as Martin-Gatton CAFE’s associate dean of research.

During that time, Cox oversaw the college’s $25 million research enterprise — which has now nearly doubled — and represented UK on the state’s agricultural commodity boards. Cox oversaw the investment and renewal of UK’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which serves a critical animal and public health role in the Commonwealth. She was the founding administrator for several growing equine programs and was central to initiating numerous partnerships with private industry, such as with Alltech. She also routinely served on key federal policy boards and organizations.

Cox developed deep ties with agricultural industry and educational leaders across the state, including Kentucky Farm Bureau, all major commodity organizations, Kentucky State University and various economic development partners. She began service as dean of the college in 2014. In 2020, Capilouto named her UK’s first vice president for land-grant engagement.

During that time, Cox initiated a multi-disciplinary effort called UK Engage, which seeks to involve people across the university community — in agriculture, economic development, journalism, the arts, health and other areas — to facilitate more purposeful and strategic collaborations to serve the state.

One of the initiatives of the UK Engage effort has been the Engagement Academy, an annual, two-day symposium that brings together scholars and community members to focus on campus-wide collaborations. She also launched the competitive engagement grant program last January to award collaborative campus and community projects strengthening the university’s ties to the Commonwealth.

More recently, Capilouto tasked Cox with co-chairing a workgroup around expanded university partnerships as part of Project Accelerate — an initiative directed by the UK Board of Trustees for the university to find ways to accelerate its efforts in advancing the state.

Prior to her administrative career, Cox taught and conducted research in animal physiology. She received a bachelor’s degree from Furman University, a master’s degree from the University of Georgia and a doctorate from North Carolina State University.

Capilouto said a national search will be conducted for the position of dean and vice president for land-grant engagement. He hopes a selection will be made by early fall.

“Nancy is irreplaceable as a leader,” Capilouto said, “Her legacy and commitment are profound examples for us to follow as we continue our work as stewards of a sacred promise to be Kentucky’s university in all that we do.”

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It’s all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.