Kentucky State University President Mary Evans Sias, in a commentary published recently by The State Journal, reflected on change. Touching on the seasonal transition marked by the turning of autumn leaves, she went on to discuss the necessity for her institution to adapt to economic and academic change.
The next day, in her annual State of the University Address, she filled in some of the details. Because the school’s once-growing enrollment has taken a downward shift, she told faculty and students she would freeze all vacant positions in an effort to save $3 million; failing programs would be scrutinized.
The president explained why she believes KSU is losing students – and the money they bring to campus and the local economy. Like the university, which has lost 11 percent of its funding since 2005, students are up against a financial wall. Tuition is increasing to replace diminished funds and many find they can’t afford to pay the price, especially those who depend on federal Pell grants, now waning. Sias reminded her audience that 73 percent of KSU’s students qualify for those grants when they’re available.
Nevertheless, in both her speech and her column, she pledged the institution will not give up on its mission to educate young people who need financial and/or academic assistance. She still hopes it can nearly double total enrollment to 4,300 by 2020, with a student body including gifted scholars as well as many who need a hand – being the first in their families to venture into higher education.
Not everyone is convinced she’s on the right track to achieve these goals. Lacy L. Rice Jr., a 1994 KSU graduate who continued his business administration studies elsewhere, believes the president has failed the school and its alumni, even though the Board of Regents has generously rewarded her efforts. In an op-ed piece for The State Journal, Rice wrote scornfully of the string of “retention” bonuses the board has granted Sias since 2008. “In all,” he pointed out, “she can accumulate $400,000 no matter how the university performs, just to stay in 2016.” It’s a pattern he likened to the awarding of bonuses to Wall Street bankers who plunged the nation into economic chaos.
Presidents of Kentucky’s other public universities have been offered bonuses, too, but some have declined them, all or in part, in light of the dismal economic conditions the nation and the commonwealth have battled over the past five years. Perhaps Sias should consider following their lead, especially with her subordinates expected to make sacrifices.
Rice further questioned the president’s academic priorities. “The university has been quick to enroll too many unprepared students,” he complained, “while many honor students were left waiting for answers or offers.” He said KSU has not only fallen short of enrollment targets but has tallied abysmal retention and graduation rates.
Change, which the president promised to deliver, can be a good thing or not, depending on your viewpoint. It’s certainly something the university has experienced throughout its history. What began in 1887 as the State Normal School for Colored Persons finally desegregated in 1954 but is still classified as a historically black university. It’s also a Land Grant university which rightly takes pride in its aquaculture program and the ongoing effort to rescue family farming in Kentucky.
Declining enrollment and funding are changes KSU did not want but cannot easily reverse. A university that cherishes tradition must also embrace innovation and rededicate itself to achieving excellence in difficult times.