Dr. Ronald Johnson, interim president at Kentucky State University, has a long history in finance.
He also has years of service in higher education.
Johnson is using that experience as he helps guide KSU through a tumultuous time, and he spoke at the Rotary Club of Frankfort meeting Wednesday about the role of the university.
“The university is an important impact player in the town, and of course in the larger Commonwealth of Kentucky,” he said, “especially in its role as an equity institution, an institution that actually provides access to higher education to people who come from families where that’s not standard.”
Johnson was the first person in his family to attend college. He earned a PhD and a master’s degree in economics from Stanford University, and earned an MBA in finance and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Adelphi University.
In his work in higher education, Johnson is a co-founder, advisory member and chair of the development committee of the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Executive Leadership Institute at Clark Atlanta University, where he served as president.
The mission of the institute is to increase the number of qualified candidates for the presidency and cabinet-level positions at HBCUs.
Johnson has also served on the president’s advisory board of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges.
“The whole society benefits, not necessarily just because a person goes to college, but they understand they have to continue to learn, continue to understand that things are transitioning and they need to be able to transition with those changes,” Johnson said.
“Kentucky State University is very, very important in that context. Obviously there are other acts the university brings, but the university actually has to do better. It’s got to be able to add more value, it’s got to be able to make a difference in more lives, so that’s what I’m going to talk about today.”
Johnson gave enrollment numbers for KSU. For fiscal year 2023 the budget enrollment headcount was 1,139 for full-time undergraduate students. The number of full-time undergraduates was 1,299 for the fiscal year 2023 enrollment headcount on Sept. 14, 2022.
Part-time undergraduate students dropped from 192 to 58.
“From a budgetary standpoint that’s actually a good thing because part-time students pay less than full-time students,” Johnson said, “so if you have more full-time students your budget is strengthened.”
The Kentucky legislature passed House Bill 250 in April that appropriated $23 million to Kentucky State University for the 2021-2022 fiscal year. School officials had said without the funds, which are a loan, KSU would have been out of money before the end of the fiscal year.
“We’re trying to get this place fixed, but we’ve got to get it fixed the right way,” Johnson said at Wednesday’s meeting. “This institution has been in cycles, right? It’s come and gone and come and gone, and that’s the cycle for those people closer to my age.
“It’s called wash, rinse and repeat, and everybody my age knows what that means. That’s a loser. You’re going to keep doing that until you run out of detergent. Kentucky State continued to do that until it ran out of cash.”
On the financial side, Johnson has held economist positions at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the International Monetary Fund and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
He’s also managed portfolios of more than $3 billion for Smith Graham & Company and Franklin Templeton.
“The bottom line is for Kentucky State University to really reach its peak, it needs to have partnerships, partnerships with the Chamber (of Commerce), partnerships with the Rotary, partnerships with all other type organizations, non-profit, governmental, as well as for-profit,” Johnson said.
“It has to have partnerships, but it has to have something to offer to those partnerships, and that’s one of the things we’re focused on at the university.”
Johnson was asked if Kentucky State is known for specific strengths or is a generalist institution.
He replied that will be a topic of conversation when he meets with the Kentucky State University Board of Regents next week.
“The car’s in the ditch and the axle is broken,” Johnson said. “You first get the car out of the ditch and then you fix the axle. And then what? Where are you going? We have to establish that.
“I’ve been in leadership in a number of areas, and when I come to that institution, I lock and load into the mission. In this case for Kentucky State, I lock and load into the purpose of the institution, and now we’re actually going to develop that vision that ties that mission and purpose into the future.”