The man charged with leading a full review of Kentucky State University amid questions about finances, recent Board of Regents resignations and the resignation last week of former President M. Christopher Brown II says he has a vested interest in seeing the school come to thrive.
After all, he was for 10 months the interim president.
“My goal — as someone who really loves Kentucky State and who has a vested interest as a citizen, an African American, a former interim president and now the head of higher ed — is to make sure that Kentucky State remains a strong, viable and valuable institution to the state,” Council on Postsecondary Education President Dr. Aaron Thompson said.
What that review will entail is not yet clear, Thompson said. He said that he and others at CPE are working with acting KSU President Clara Ross Stamps, members of the Board of Regents, newly appointed CFO Greg Rush and others for the review.
When asked to elaborate on the financial concerns raised by regents, Thompson expanded the scope of the review to include any potential issue at KSU by hinting at “other issues” not yet fully investigated. He said he would know more about the financial concerns in about two weeks.
“We don't know everything yet,” Thompson said. “There are some money-flow issues as well as some other issues that we don't fully know yet.”
He said that his office will be as transparent as possible, with the exception of cases in which a “legal concern” arises.
As Brown indicated in an interview with HBCU Digest last week post-resignation, Thompson said that taking out debt to construct a large new residence hall was a primary source of concern among regents.
Brown also preemptively pushed back on potential “character assertions” that he said “disrupt the core of the black community” when they’re leveled against leaders like himself. Beyond financial mismanagement, he noted sexual immorality and nepotism as potential allegations — he strongly denied both.
Thompson said that neither of those topics were on his plate currently, but added that he thought the current campus administration was “looking at everything.”
“I have not been charged with looking at that,” Thompson said. “I don’t know if the current campus folks are doing that. My guess is that they are looking at everything. I will look at ways to make sure that student success happens in a way that is healthy for the institution and healthy for the state.”
KSU is currently the subject of two lawsuits, one in federal court and one in state court, that center around sexual harassment allegations made by an unnamed person against former admissions director Justin Mathis. One suit was filed by the student himself and the other was filed by Xavier Dillard, a former counselor who claims he was fired for bringing concerns about Mathis and others to light.
In response to another point Brown made — that university performance metrics, including student retention, were up — Thompson said that the former president had put the school on a “positive trajectory” in some ways.
Brown's performance evaluations, including the most recent one, from the Board of Regents were all generally positive.
“I think Chris, and his team, really have done a great job in helping to fulfill a lot of those pieces,” Thompson said. “What comes with student success is the academic piece, but also the social, emotional and the cultural elements. All of those need to be in a situation where they're healthy, happy and growing. I do believe they're on a positive trajectory; we just want to do everything we can to help it to continue to grow.”
Some former administrators told The State Journal that they believed the culture on campus was toxic, with one calling the KSU administration "the worst assemblage of bad people I have ever known."
In reference to former Chief of Staff Tymon Graham, who was terminated from his role last Thursday and said that the CPE probe had something to do with his firing, Thompson repeated what a CPE spokesperson had told The State Journal at the time: Personnel actions are made by the administration.
“We do not recommend personnel actions,” Thompson said. “… We will look at structure and a variety of things, but all the actions that have been made have been made by the current administration.”
Stamps has denied a State Journal request for an interview this week, citing the need to prepare for students’ return to campus.
Thompson said that the KSU Foundation — an entity related to the university that accepts private donations on its behalf yet asserts independence from KSU — is not currently part of the review, but could come into play depending on “where the money goes.”
Speaking of his long history with the institution, Thompson said that he didn’t see any conflicts of interest as the man overseeing the state-backed review into the school he used to lead.
Beyond his tenure as president for 10 months in 2016-2017, during which several of the current members of the Board of Regents were still there, Thompson also served as adviser on Board Chair Elaine Farris’ dissertation at Eastern Kentucky University, where Thompson taught for over 20 years.
Farris, who became the state's first black superintendent in 2004, is a member of EKU's hall of distinguished alumni. Under Thompson's supervision, she completed her dissertation in 2012.
“I'm not sure how that would affect (the review),” Thompson said. “But if I thought it did, I would remove myself from that. And Elaine was on the board when I was the interim president and I wasn't chosen president.
“I know Elaine, but I know everybody on the board. So I would have no more conflict of interest, in working with Elaine, than I would any single person on board.”
Thompson, whose tenure featured faculty strife about the selection process that led to Brown’s hire, said he has “no desire” to become KSU president.
“I would have loved to have been president back then, but that didn't happen and I moved on,” Thompson said. “Do I want to see KSU with a successful presidency and will I do everything I can to make sure that it is successful? Yes … I am not approaching this with the idea that I want to be president of KSU again. In my current role now, I get to help KSU in lots of ways and still help all of our other institutions in the state.”
Thompson said he was interviewed in 2017 for the permanent presidency, but that "it was clear that the intent was not to move me forward" to the final three. Those finalists were Brown, then-Supreme Court of Oklahoma Justice Tom Colbert and former Lincoln University Provost Said Sewell.
One consistent theme that popped up in Thompson’s interview about the review was that it would be as much or more about putting structures in place to help the university succeed as it’s about figuring out what went wrong.
He said the review isn’t just meant to get KSU “back to square one,” but to grow the school’s reputation.
“I'm gonna do this with as much of a positive attitude as I possibly can,” Thompson said. “… This needs to be something positive for Frankfort, positive for KSU and positive for the state. I hope we can create that dynamic of positivity to make sure that we're as successful as I'm hoping that we will be.”