Students, faculty, and staff have endured the dysfunction at Kentucky State University long enough. Long-time employees the past few years have said that the climate on campus has been the worst ever with Dr. Mary E. Sias being the catalyst for the disjointedness. People on campus, especially the past couple years, have walked on eggshells for fear of being terminated or expelled; many long-time employees left rather than face the constant harassment levied by the Administration, including over 20 professors.
This semester has been boiling since the beginning of the academic year with the upperclassmen wanting change. However, the change they received was not what any of them wanted and it might be the tipping point for this small university. For the first time that anyone can remember in Kentucky higher education history, Sias terminated a sitting regent without explanation. Leslie Thomas, who was sworn in earlier this year, was told that she was an at-will employee, the university did not need to give her an explanation, and that her “services were no longer needed”.
Regent Thomas was in her 26th year as Director of Student Life. She had received many exemplary evaluations before Dr. Lorenzo Esters was hired last year. Suddenly, she became a bad employee and faced constant harassment. This was noted by several sources on campus because she was one of three white directors in the unit and all three were the only ones issued written reprimands last year; one was terminated during the year and the other bowed to the pressure to retire. Mrs. Thomas filed a grievance, but according to KSU’s procedures, it had to go to her supervisor and since he was the one it was filed against, Esters denied it.
Students were already upset that Mrs. Thomas was forced to vacate her office over the summer and move into a smaller one by Dr. Jacquelyn Gibson, her immediate supervisor who occupied the space. When Mrs. Thomas tried to move to the larger of two spaces which was occupied by her assistant, she denied by Esters and forced to take the space formerly occupied by her secretary who was moved to the lobby desk where the interns worked. Students reported witnessing Mrs. Thomas being harassed to the point that she and Gibson faced mediation earlier this year so she could function in her position.
She was already the lowest paid director on campus, watching Sias hire new ones with less experience in their positions, but higher salaries. She also had the highest impact on students as evidenced by the outpouring of support on social media by current students and alumni. In over 25 years, she built more relationship within the KSU family and the Frankfort community than any of her superiors will ever amass.
At the heart of this maelstrom brewing on campus is Sias, who conveniently went on vacation through Thursday of this week amidst the firing of this regent. Like many who engage in bullying tactics, she did not face Regent Thomas, but sent Esters, General Counsel Lori Davis, and Human Resources Director Gary Meiseles to do her work at 3pm Friday. They informed her that she had until close of business to vacate the premises. Esters left through a back exit rather than face students who gathered at the Student Center for answers and had a police officer to drive his car to the South Campus where he exited the campus. Sias had left earlier in the day.
Sias knew that Regent Thomas, who thought she has a good relationship with the President and met with her repeatedly to end the harassment by Esters and Gibson, would stand for the best interest of the staff and students like she had for decades. One of the most recent issues which plagued Sias and that the Board of Regents surprisingly tabled, was Sias trying to further restrict the grievance rights of employees. Regent Thomas was an advocate, understandingly, for reform since the current policy did not account for the offending party being part of the process. There were other issues which benefited employees and students which Sias opposed that she knew the regent would champion. One she pushed through previously was a "use-it-or-lose-it" policy for employees and their vacation time. They would no longer be able to accumulate days which could be traded in for cash when they retired. Some of the employee had not taken vacations in over 10-20 years and would lose their benefits. Mrs. Thomas was opposed to policies like these. Therefore, Sias simply eliminated one of the threats to her control over the BOR.
While many see race as a major factor in Esters wanting to terminate Mrs. Thomas, others see Sias’ ever reaching grab for power as her reason. One mistake that the BOR made in 2003-2004 was rewriting its by-laws to give Sias more power over several matters, including: some personnel matters (Out of compliance with KRS 164.360 and .365), creating the BOR agenda with the chair, and being a part of the process to request an audience with the BOR. Sias also often remains in the room when the Board goes into closed session, even though she is not a member of the BOR. She vehemently opposes anyone who brings these facts to her or the BOR’s attention.
Sias sees no need to change. Though her standing with alumni, faculty, staff, and students have fallen drastically over since she received her new bonus deal in 2011. She will receive $400k in 2016 if she remains at KSU during the entire calendar year, no matter how the university performs. The university currently has the lowest graduation possibly in the history of the university (No one can remember it being in the teens) and it continues to drop. Students are transferring out of the university at alarming rates and undergraduate enrollment is bolstered only by dual credit students (part-time high school). Ironically, many students credit Mrs. Thomas for helping several students to stay at KSU. No matter how KSU performs or if she were to be terminated, Sias would still receive the bonus.
Students were already frustrated with Sias and her administration before Mrs. Thomas’ firing. They have witnessed the treatment and disrespect of the faculty, staff, alumni, peers, and their student leaders. Many of them, along with many alumni, are now calling for Sias and her administration to be terminated. Many are looking for the BOR to overturn the termination, or provide answers, since it has the final decision in the matter. If it fails to reverse the decision, or at least let Mrs. Thomas claim her retirement, the backlash will be felt throughout the Commonwealth. By blatantly and callously removing the voice of the staff on the BOR, a dangerous precedence has been set. This is something one might expect in Wisconsin or another state which stripped employees of rights and protections. However, laws in Kentucky, especially in higher education were created so stakeholders in the public institutions had guaranteed protections. KSU’s leadership either does not comprehend this or does not care.
This situation is in the hands of the Board of Regents. The questions are:
Will a Dr. Karen Bearden led Board continue to let the students, faculty and staff of the university be abused?
Will the BOR continue to be Sias’ pawns or will they take control of their charge as directed by KRS 164?
Will the BOR step in and correct a wrong against a fellow regent or will its appointed members send the message that they truly do not care what happens on campus?
Will the BOR rewrite its by-laws so it is in compliance with state laws?
And, will the BOR do its duty under KRS 164.360 and .365 by dealing with this personnel matter and investigate the complaints Mrs. Thomas had against her supervisors?
The next Board meeting is Friday at 1:30pm. We will have to wait for answers.
Finally, bullying is illegal in Kentucky. According to the Kentucky Department of Education website, October if Bullying Prevention Month. On the page, it defines the act as “[A] repeated pattern of aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power that purposefully inflicts harm on the bullying victim (Olweus, 1993). Bullying assumes a variety of forms, including: . Direct physical or verbal actions that cause physical or emotional distress and . Indirect acts of social aggression designed to ruin a victim's personal reputation or social standing.” The Board should also look into the behavior of its administrators to ensure a safe and productive work and study environment for all employees and students. If not, the Commonwealth should intercede so KSU can be productive to its potential.
Lacy L. Rice Jr. is an independent writer with works in several publications and is also a 1994 graduate of Kentucky State University.
The photo is Regent Thomas with the 201-2014 KSU Royal Court. The picture is copyright of NBEI Photography 2013, Lacy Rice Jr, photographer.