KSU still suffers from bad decisions, substandard leadership, and lack of gubernatorial oversight
Kentucky State University has conquered numerous obstacles over the years. While there were many external malicious entities who tried to bring her down, some of the problems were external. In the words of many current and former internal personnel who have been with KSU multiple years, this is the worst managed they have ever seen and it has resulted in the worst ever climate on the campus for all entities except the Administration.
There is plenty of blame to go around. The Governor’s Office, Board of Regents, and Administration all share in the problems facing KSU. The Governor’s Office, along with the University President, has determined that KSU should not have any alumni on its governing board. KSU is the only public institution without five or six of its appointed Board of Regents members being alumni. Dr. Mary Evans Sias was hired by a board which consisted of at least half its appointed members being alumni. After Gov. Beshear took office, that number quickly dissipated and was replaced by a current board in which only two of its members even had a relationship with the institution before being appointed. It is no wonder they act as if they have no vested interest in KSU and seemingly use it as a resume builder.
A report titled “Kentucky State University: Planning for Renewed Excellence”, otherwise known as “The Baker & Hostetler Report”, from April 25, 2003 was to be the driving force towards sustained success for KSU. The report was commissioned by the university and the Council on Postsecondary Education, or CPE, in 2001. The findings included a directive “for the Governor of Kentucky to appoint persons to the KSU Board of Regents who have the requisite knowledge, skills, experience, and commitment” due to “the broad and far-reaching responsibilities of the Board of Regents.” The report also advised “that it be composed of persons who understand how an effective governing board should operate, and are committed to constructively contributing to its work.” It seems that maybe the Governor’s Office either was not aware of this or did not care because the board’s reputation since Laura Douglas was chair was as an enabler; this board, according to many and according to board minutes, essentially signs-off on Dr. Sias’ decisions. During a conversation with someone from the Governor’s Office, the representative admitted that no one there held the boards accountable, even though the members are gubernatorial appointees. At some point, when an institution’s graduation and retention rates slide annually under the leadership of a BOR, someone in the Governor’s Office should inquire from the appointees why state funds are being wasted. When the graduation rate hits 14%, someone from that office should inquire what the BOR is doing to replace the university’s leadership or calling for appointees to resign. Therefore, in accordance with what was said by the representative and according to these other facts, the Governor’s Office violated KRS 164.350 (2) “Each board of regents shall periodically evaluate the institution's progress in implementing its missions, goals, and objectives to conform to the strategic agenda. Officers and officials shall be held accountable for the status of the institution's progress.” It also violated KRS 164.321 (1) b. 3. “…In filling vacancies, the Governor shall act so as to provide, inasmuch as possible, equal representation of the two (2) sexes by appointing a member of the sex that is the lesser represented at the time of the appointment…” The Governor appointed a man to replace Laura Douglas in 2012 making the current composition five men and three women.
The BOR provides no real involvement or leadership in the university community. The appointees do not support university activities or visit the campus until their board meetings. Some even appear to those meetings late and have been known to miss committee meetings. KSU deserves better leaders and such attitudes show why the Governor should have appointed people who truly cared for the institution to its board.
According to the Baker & Hostetler Report, “The Board of Regents is charged with the normal responsibilities of a governing board including establishment of institutional policies, approval of the institutional budget, the hiring of employees, and the determination of compensation for employees.” The members seem ignorant of its duties under the Kentucky Revised Statutes Chapter 164. It has allowed its charge to dismiss employees, which is a violation of KRS 164.360 (3) “Each board may remove the president of the university…and upon the recommendation of the president may remove any faculty member or employees…” Some of its current lawsuits could have been avoided if the board had just followed the laws set by the Commonwealth. Furthermore, according to KRS 164.365 (1) “anything in any statute of the Commonwealth to the contrary notwithstanding, the power over and control of appointments, qualifications, salaries, and compensation payable out of the State Treasury or otherwise, promotions, and official relations of all employees of Eastern Kentucky University…and of Kentucky State University…shall be under the exclusive jurisdiction of the respective governing boards of each of the institutions named.” Employees with high salaries have routinely been hired between BOR meetings in violation of this law and the board has levied no penalties.
The police departments of each public institution is the responsibility of the BOR. KRS language was changed in 2013 from “Safety and security departments” to “Police departments”. It allowed a Vice President to change the police department to a safety and security department, unnecessarily, in direct violation of the June 26, 2007 KRS 164.955 (4) “Safety and security departments created and operated by the governing boards of public institutions of higher education shall, for all purposes, be deemed public police departments and the sworn safety and security officers thereof are, for all purposes, deemed public police officers.” They also allowed him to terminate a qualified chief, who had full law enforcement powers in Kentucky, and hire an interim chief with no law enforcement powers, while also providing her a high salary, lodging, and transportation, which also violated KRS 164.950 “The governing board of each public institution of postsecondary[higher] education is authorized to establish a police[safety and security] department and appoint police[safety and security] officers and other employees for the university, college, or other institution of public postsecondary[higher] education for which it is responsible, to prescribe distinctive uniforms for the police[safety and security] officers of said institution, and to designate and operate emergency vehicles. Police[Safety and security] officers so appointed shall take an appropriate oath of office, in the form and manner consistent with the Constitution of Kentucky, and shall serve at the pleasure of the governing board.” The language was changed June 25, 2013 and the old wording is in parentheses. The lawsuit stemming from the actions taken, and the disastrous hiring of the interim chief which proved to be an embarrassment to the university, could have been avoided if the BOR had taken corrective action. The act of hiring the unqualified chief placed KSU in jeopardy of losing funding according to an April 2013 State-Journal article.
The State-Journal reported in June 2012 that KSU was finally able to balance its budget by raising tuition, freezing hiring, freezing raises, and transferring from its reserves. An October 2012 State-Journal article detailed that Sias admitted the possibility of cutting 15-20 jobs, after she had assured her faculty and staff that no jobs would be cut, due to low enrollment. In the article Sias said that two students lost cost the university $28-38K, or a person’s job. The university reorganized to eliminate obsolete or vacant jobs, which cost some employees over $10k in salary.
However, the board allowed Sias to expand the administration for a university that enrolled less than 3000 students. It has more executives than Murray State University, which enrolled over 10,000 students in Fall 2012. The Baker & Hostetler Report noted that KSU did not understand economy of scale back in the early 2000s and it seems to be an ongoing problem. In noting that the university the university should increase enrollment to address this problem, the report recommended “that KSU commit to keeping its administrative overhead as lean as possible, in order to focus the highest possible proportion of resources on student success.” KSU enjoyed more academic success under previous, smaller administrations while operating with essentially the same amount of collegiate students (KSU’s current enrollment figures include dual-credit, or high school, students).
The board allowed Sias to reorganize and expand Student Affair, which had one vice president and two assistant vice presidents in 2011-2012, to have one VP, three assistant VPs, and an additional administrative assistant who was given a director’s title and salary since 2012-2013. The BOR also allowed the incoming VP to place all employees on probation, even though they had successfully undergone a probationary period earlier in their careers. This contributed to textbook low morale and undue tensions during the academic year. The VP replaced on assistant VP making $67k with two making a total of $165k.
The Board allowed Dr. Sias to replace administrators during the academic year, obligating the institution to pay the outgoing administrators’ salaries (She even had administrators sitting in the same position during the year). This cost the university $250k more than if she had made the replacements at the end of the previous year. They also allowed her to hire a VP with no experience and another whose dismissal from the same position at another institution was questionable. They also let her hire an assistant VP whose institution faced drastic declines stemming from last year in the same position he accepted at KSU. The board allowed Sias to continue her recent trend of hiring new people with less experience into positions with higher salaries. Her most recent hires resulted in the university paying three new VPs $60k more than the people they replaced. The BOR also allowed the top 8.6% salaries at KSU to total over $6.4m, which represented 21% of the total Fiscal Year 2013 payroll. On average, they cost each students almost $2600. There were 26 employees who made over $100k, including nine which made over $150k.
Why has this been allowed to happen? If the BOR had continued to use the Baker & Hostetler Report as a blueprint, it would have possibly led KSU in a positive direction and created an atmosphere of trust and safety on the campus. A record number of professors and leaders retired rather than continue facing what many have described as an impending train-wreck at KSU. Many speculated that those positions remained vacant through the beginning of the school year.
However, one replacement was for the Business and Computer Science Department Dean. In keeping with Sias current, questionable practice, the university is taking its time to replace a critical position. She did replace the dean with an interim whose degrees are not in Business or Education and who recently earned a Masters in Theology. This is also in keeping with Sias hiring practices of placing unqualified friends in positions. Being a former Lexmark Customer Service VP does not qualify a person to be a dean. The board did not intervene to correct this situation.
The BOR needs to perform the job it was given by the Commonwealth. As a governing board, it is to oversee the President of the University and give her directives on how to lead the institution. Many have witnessed that she has given the BOR directives to which they complied over the years. This writer witnessed it first-hand at a July 2013 special board meeting. Frankly, if the members of the board cannot hold the university president accountable, they need to resign so people who can perform this duty can accept responsibility of KSU. These members must realize that they, not Dr. Sias, are ultimately responsible for the progress of the institution and when they accepted their position that they also became liable for its disposition.
Another problem the BOR has not owned is on notification of its meetings. KSU does notify the public of BOR meetings according to the KRS. However, it usually does not give notification until one or two days before the meetings. Does the BOR not want the public to attend their meetings? Is it trying to hide how it operates?
Dr. Sias stated that KSU needed to change in October 2012 and January 2013 articles in the State-Journal and Herald-Leader. The first to change, however, should have been her. Some of her raises and evaluations were based on, according to newspaper articles, her membership on various national boards and committees. While she was travelling the world, she should have made more stops to alumni chapters. She has been at KSU almost 10 years and still has not visited all the Kentucky Chapters. The president of another, larger Kentucky institution visited every national chapter in a year. The chasm is obvious to students who have remarked that she does not respect the alumni. Many alumni have claimed that they will resume their support of the university after she leaves.
Part of the problem includes her not being on campus enough to lead. She should have been able to reverse the negative metrics trends by directing and leading her administration in executing plans which included: higher admission standards, more streamlined degree programs, increased recruitment of top students in Kentucky, increased donations from corporations and foundations for scholarships and programming, professional public relations and promotions for the institution and its accomplishments, more solicitation of the Commonwealth for athletic infrastructure, more athletic sponsorships, and increased community engagement throughout the university’s service area. Her travels have caused her to miss a graduation, several national alumni meetings in Frankfort, and most national recognition events for KSU’s alumni.
Sias always acknowledged the main problems at KSU. However, they did not just begin in 2011-2012 and it should not have taken her eight years to change course. When she interviewed with the community and alumni for her job, she proclaimed that she preferred leading her subordinates in making necessary adjustments to discharging them. Additionally, leading does not mean just issuing directives; it means being the example on campus by visibly "rolling up her sleeves" during this time of crisis.
Finances have been a challenge since the Reid Administration. She could have shown leadership by cutting her executive staff and requiring VPs to accept pay cuts with her. Another HBCU and several other institutions have taken these measures to assist students with financial aid and to allocate resources to other deficient areas. If she and Hinfred McDuffie each accepted $10k pay cuts and each of the new VPs took pay cuts to their predecessors’ levels, they would prove themselves to be Thorobreds, and it would release $81k to be used elsewhere. She could save another $103-113k by eliminating one of the Student Affairs assistant VP positions and paying the remaining one the salary of the previous AVP. KSU would also save another $20-30k by eliminating the “Director of Information and Management Analysis” position, which is actually an administrative assistant, since there is no department or need for one on a small campus. These proposed cuts equate to over $200k in salary savings, which does not include corresponding benefits.
Other cost savings measures could include making several AVP positions department heads and rolling back salaries to correspond to those positions. As noted earlier, KSU performed better with fewer positions at a much lower cost. As the Baker & Hostetler Report noted, this bloat at the top should actually be a lean structure, not the monstrosity currently in play. KSU’s current structure resembles an inverted top; like similar structures which tapers at the bottom, it will be doomed to topple. Sias is at fault for creating a structure which resembles an institution five times KSU’s size and the BOR is at fault for allowing it.
Sias has created calamity by relying on interims for key positions. KSU had an interim for many years in the provost position. She knew in advance of vacancies and did not conduct searches for positions like the Registrar, Concert Choir director, head football coach, Business and Computer Science Department dean, and others before the end of the previous academic year so new personnel could be hired and taken control of their area of responsibility. Interims face limitations in their positions which also hinder the university.
Her handling of the band director situation has been disastrous at best. This situation has resulted in an interim, even though the old director was suspended January 15. The jury is still out on the reason it took so long to resolve the employment issue. If it had been settled in March, she would have had enough time to hire a full-time director who could have recruited and had time to develop his own style. However, it took seven months of speculation for resolution, during band camp. She also hired an assistant to the interim band director, something the former director asked for and was denied frequently. This move seems suspicious to many who questioned the effects she allowed to happen on the top recruiting tool for the university by allowing the situation to drag along so long.
Sias also seems to administer policy inconsistently. She answered media questions about the band director situation, after declining to address personnel matters her previous nine years. To many, this makes the President seem vindictive and stereotypical. Hopefully, this is a change in policy and she will now disclose why key employees, like coaches and directors, were separated. To date, the reasons for the removal of Football head coaches Farrier and Dickens are unknown as are those of other coaches who were fired. Continuing this course will be in-line with accepted practices while not portraying the President as a hypocrite.
Sias has also made questionable decisions on capital projects. Since she arrived, she knew the importance of renovating the track & field facilities. Proposals for resurfacing the track were submitted during her first year. Since that time, the Frankfort high schools, University of Kentucky, and Western Kentucky University have updated their facilities. KSU has disclosed several designs during this time. The current proposal is as ill-conceived as the one suggesting it to be built in the football stadium. The most costly option is moving it to a lower-level, wooded area is the current incarnation of having a fully-functioning track facility. KSU has a solid surface in a prime location. The less costly option would be to resurface the track, renovate the infield and build the stands and press box area. Various track coaches, former KSU track & field athletes, and facilities designers/builders questioned the rationale for the current option since it would cost at least twice as much to complete.
The shack at the entrance in front of the Exum Center has been an irritant to many within the KSU family, even students. Fundraising 101 teaches that labor costs be included in the amount requested. Sias even gave a couple purposes for the structure and mislead some who inquired about it. First, it was to be a guard shack to keep Frankfort residents who come to campus and attack students off the property. Then it became a welcome center. But, it has been unmanned since its completion. Sias moved the police department and parking office from the main campus to the South campus. She has no signs notifying visitors where to get a parking pass, but they will be ticketed for not having one. That shack could serve as the new parking office and visitor center. Many, including students, agree to this use opposed to it sitting vacant. Sias publicly stated that UK and the University of Louisville had similar constructs, seemingly not knowing that several members of the audience were alumni of the institutions who knew the statement was false. She seemed not to realize that KSU is public property in which anyone is allowed access to the university as long as he does not pose a threat to others on the campus.
Recent property purchases and their service dates have proved embarrassing for the university. Sias had to delay the launching of the boat that Dr. Harold Benson, former Cooperative Extension Director, secured. She had to beg Frankfort to forgive the outstanding amount of the Old Library. KSU would have avoided these situations with careful planning.
Sias allowed KSU to recruit too many students who were not prepared for a four-year institution. She admitted that they had to take remedial classes which do not count towards their degree. She also admitted that this lead to many students not being able to remain at KSU due to their funds depleting. Another admission was the fact that many programs were designed for students not to graduate in the traditional four years. These factors lead to KSU’s low graduation rates. But, she could have fixed these if she was on campus working with the interim provosts during her first eight years.
She could have worked with the VP of Student Affairs to ensure KSU admitted higher achieving students who were college-ready. The Council on Postsecondary Education reports on student readiness showed that KSU’s students were the least prepared, even with Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges System institutions included. Essentially, KSU enrolled many students who should have attended community and junior colleges. Afterall, KSU does a better job helping those students to matriculate than it does the students it recruited as freshmen, who transfer to other institutions at a 50% rate according to federal financial aid reports.
KSU recorded that 49% of the students it enrolled in 2010 and 2011 and 60% it enrolled in 2012 had high school GPAs less than 2.5. From 2006 to 2011, 13 to 15% of the freshmen it enrolled had high school GPAs less than 2.0. In 2012, 83% of the students KSU enrolled had GPAs less than 2.5 and 57% had GPAs less than 2.0. The Sias-era graduation rates have been under 30%, including 14% Spring 2012 and 13% last year. KSU’s four-year graduation attributed to Sias has been under 10% twice, including an all-time low of 5% at the end of the 2011-2012 school year.
Sias has proclaimed that KSU faces the same challenges as other HBCUs and used that as an excuse for KSU's performance metrics in Kentucky. However, even though KSU ranked 26th among 80 HBCU’s evaluated by US News & World Report using 2011-2012 data, with 39 ranked, it and Central State University had the lowest retention rates at 52% (The next lowest was 64%). KSU also had the lowest graduation rate with two other which were less than 30% while the rest averaged around 40%. The top HBCUs outperformed UK in retention and graduation rates. Taking effective, corrective action, not making excuses, was what KSU needed.
Morale has been low since Sias interviewed for the Morgan State University job, then received a raise after her second year at KSU. Restructuring and placing established employees on probation made it worse. And promoting an administrator with a history of womanizing and DUI caused many to question her decision-making. That administrator had three DUIs since 2006, including two in 2011 within a month. All three were in the KSU service-area, including one in Carrollton, the site of the worst DUI accident in American history.
Several more missteps have occurred the past few years due to her decisions. However, addressing those which have been resolved or disclosed previously would be redundant. Frankfort residents are already aware of several issues an discuss them continuously.
Change is needed at KSU, and that change needs to start at the top. Everyone, from the Governor to the Administration, needs to accept responsibility for KSU’s progress and their role in it. The Governor needs to replace current board members with KSU stakeholders, i.e. alumni, during the next few appointment cycles. This will become a major gubernatorial issue for many alumni who reside in Kentucky. The BOR needs to read the Kentucky Revised Statutes to learn their responsibilities, read the Baker & Hostetler Report, hold the university president accountable, and become more active with campus activities and personnel. Dr. Sias needs to rebuild relationships with all constituencies and partners, become more active with the alumni, operate within the scope given by the KRSs, personally lead her administration in higher expectations and measurable outcomes, make more detailed decisions, and focus more on running a Kentucky institution. She needs to make some sacrifices to balance the needs and services at KSU. She needs to make the success of KSU personal as it is tied with her legacy, which is not looking good.
If these entities succeed in their positions, change will be positive and long-lasting. The change in direction needs to be immediate as Gov. Beshear and Dr. Sias will soon transition out of this group. Dr. Karen Bearden and the BOR need to govern KSU and begin searching for a new charge. Dr. Sias needs to start thinking about her legacy and the lives she can continue to touch during her last two years at KSU. She has had some personal successes during this era. Now that she has profited from KSU, she needs to return the favor and ensure it can survive another 125-plus years. Many alumni, faculty, staff, and students have dealt with these leaders professionally. However, if KSU fails due to leadership's actions/inactions, the stakeholders will take it personal because KSU and the Frankfort community deserve better.
Lacy L. Rice Jr. is a 1994 KSU alumnus and free-lance writer with credits in several local, regional, and national publications.