Friday, August 12, 2022

Kentucky State U. Has Been Mired in Controversy. Now Most of Its Board Will Be Replaced.

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The financial and administrative scandals that led to the departure of Kentucky State University’s president last year continue to churn both inside and outside the institution.

In July the president, M. Christopher Brown III, resigned amid revelations that Kentucky State had a budget shortfall of more than $20 million, and questions over whether he had fully informed the Board of Regents about the financial troubles. Months later, the staff representative on the board said she had repeatedly warned other regents about the administration’s overspending.

Now the institution is facing increased state oversight of its governance and finances, deep budget cuts from its own administration, and uncertainty over its future leadership. While the search for a new president has begun, no candidates have been announced. The board, which is responsible for choosing the president, is being overhauled.

Last week state lawmakers passed a bill that would require Gov. Andy Beshear to replace the eight board members who are appointed by his office. (Three other regents are representatives of the faculty, the staff, and students.) The governor, a Democrat, has said he will sign the bill into law.

Legislators are frustrated by mismanagement at the university as well as its students’ poor academic outcomes, said State Sen. Christian McDaniel, a Republican, who sponsored a separate bill to waive the tuition and fees for any student who transfers from Kentucky State to another public college in the state. “Young people are showing up at that school expecting a college education,” he said, “and the institution is not delivering.”

Just 27 percent of Kentucky State’s students graduate within eight years, according to federal data, and more than a third transfer to another institution.

Overhauling the board, McDaniel said, “reflects a commitment to the students and the institution,” not to board members or administrators.

The bill to overhaul the board is just the latest action by elected officials to more forcibly oversee Kentucky State, the state’s only public historically Black college, and it’s probably not the last.

A Council’s Power

Late last year, after allegations the board had ignored signs of fiscal problems, Beshear directed Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education, a state agency, to evaluate Kentucky State’s finances and help it develop a new management plan — the second time in five years the council had been called in to assist the university.

The council found a $23-million shortfall — nearly half of the university’s $50-million budget for the 2022 fiscal year — and attributed it mostly to overspending on administration, said Travis Powell, vice president and general counsel of the council. The university’s problems, he said, were obscured by an out-of-date accounting system and audit results that were consistently late.

The university is likely to get the state money it needs to pay off the shortfall, Powell said. The legislation to provide that amount also calls for continuing oversight by the council, which is assisting in the search for a new president.

While the search committee had planned to announce two or three finalists in early April, Powell said, the appointment of eight new board members could upend that process. The new appointees will have to be approved by the state Senate before it adjourns, on April 14. In addition to that delay, the turnover of so many regents may cause some presidential candidates to withdraw, Powell said.

Even with the state dollars to erase the budget shortfall, Kentucky State is still spending about $7 million per year more than it is earning in revenues. Administrators and faculty members are bracing for possible budget cuts that could eliminate dozens of jobs.

Faculty leaders at Kentucky State are concerned not only about their jobs but also that the turmoil will weaken the institution’s ability to aid current students, many of whom are from low-income families, and will discourage other students from enrolling.

A February letter from the Faculty Senate urges the administration to look for other possible cuts and other ways to generate new revenue before eliminating faculty positions. The letter recommends cutting a number of administrative positions and rolling back the salaries of some administrators who were given raises by the former president.

Young people are showing up at that school expecting a college education, and the institution is not delivering.

Spending on instruction is already well below the national average, says the letter “To be blunt: Nothing could possibly have a more adverse impact on our students than indiscriminate elimination of faculty positions, and any such move will have devastating consequences on student success and enrollment for years to come.”

Final decisions on the budget won’t be made until June, said a spokesperson for the postsecondary council, when state appropriations are set, and enrollment and tuition figures are clearer.

In the meantime, however, the university’s leadership has suspended the tenure and promotion process, arguing the move is necessary to save money.

In an unsigned email from the university’s press office, Kentucky State officials said that decision had been made by the interim president, Clara Ross Stamps, and “will not negatively impact the work each candidate has conducted towards gaining tenure/promotion.”

Powell, at the postsecondary council, said that “these are decisions that will further commit the institution to its employees and pay them more money. It’s a pause, not a denial.”



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