Kentucky State Presidential Search Key to National View of Land-Grant HBCU Leadership

Legislative oversight could dramatically change the campus, and create a blueprint for other public HBCUs.

Courtesy: Kentucky State University

Legislative oversight could dramatically change the campus, and create a blueprint for other public HBCUs.

It may not draw the attention of North Carolina A&T, South Carolina State or Southern, but Kentucky State University’s presidential search is critical to shaping the landscape of historically black land-grant institutions around the country. And in many ways, it could tilt the balance of how state legislators engage (or ignore) black colleges in the years to come.

Kentucky is in a strange place when it comes to higher education. The state’s governor Matt Bevin has twice replaced the board of trustees at the University of Louisville, and while he’s being sued for it by the attorney general, it is a litmus for how much influence or overreach state government may be allowed to exert over public colleges and universities, with accreditation standards to be damned.

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Now that KSU’s presidential search is drawing to an end, there’s reason for concern that all of the things which lawmakers in Kentucky did with the U of Louisville as a litmus, will now be possible at smaller schools like KSU.

If Louisville, with all of its resources as an athletic and research powerhouse for the state can’t avoid political intrigue and meddling, what will Kentucky State have to stop the same from happening on its campus? What will protect the school from the governor or lawmakers pressuring eight state-appointed trustees on its 11-member board from using their votes and influence to marginalize academic development and student access through budget cuts and programmatic realignment?

Even with the school’s recent success in boosting student enrollment, what shields KSU from sweeping changes that could limit the school’s capacity to grow? The University of Kentucky last month announced plans to overhaul its financial aid system to focus more on need-based students than those who earn consideration for academic merit. This could have a significant impact on KSU’s enrollment, and ability to attract a student pool from varying racial, economic and geographic definitions of campus diversity.

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And if planted ideologues of state legislators can change KSU for the worse, what is to stop other states throughout the country from committing similar actions against HBCUs in North Carolina, Alabama, Missouri, and Louisiana?

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The next president of Kentucky State should be someone with land grant experience, a strong record of academic development and a proven acumen of how to engage white peers in legislation and private industry. If growth is not an option because of the state’s budget issues and leadership flux, officials should stop now and name interim Aaron Thompson as the permanent selection.

But if there is a real commitment to KSU and stakeholders believe there is room for improvement from a narrative that just last year contained whispers of the school potentially closing, then it’s time to find the leader who enjoys the politics which come with life in the Bluegrass State. And that person must be allowed to hold lawmakers accountable with comprehensive data about what Kentucky State means to Frankfort and the state, and what it ultimately will mean if policies designed to kill smaller schools actually succeed.

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