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Kentucky State University is located at 400 E. Main St. in Frankfort, Kentucky. (Hannah Brown | State Journal)

The finances of Kentucky State University have recently come under increased scrutiny. However, one area within the budget in particular has undergone a drastic change. Slowly, over the course of two decades, spending on instruction has dropped even amidst ongoing concerns about underinvestment, according to documents viewed by The State Journal.

In 2001, KSU spent 28.2% of its annual budget on instruction. Today, KSU spends just 12.8% on instruction. 

The percentage has dropped under multiple consecutive administrators, including former President M. Christopher Brown II, and is one of the lowest percentages among multiple peer groups, including HBCUs and land grant universities. It has also been the topic of concern since at least 2001, when the percentage of the budget dedicated to instruction was nearly double what it is today.

As the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education undertakes a review of KSU’s financial status, one of its topics of investigation will be KSU’s instructional spending, which has taken a bumpy dive over the past 20 years. Although some were concerned with KSU’s levels of instructional spending in 2001, the ratio had dropped by 2010, when barely 20% of the university budget went towards instruction. In 2017, when Brown entered, the percentage had dropped to 15.5%, and at the time of his exit in 2020, it had dropped another few percentage points, to 12.8%. 

In the past decade, spending on instruction as a "primary mission expense" (which excludes expenses from depreciation, operations, and maintenance) has dropped by over $5 million, even while the overall operating budget has grown by nearly $1 million. KSU spends the lowest percentage of its budget on instructional expenses of public institutions in the state of Kentucky, though it is also the smallest.

“Instructional spending” includes faculty salaries, tutoring and all spending on courses, whatever their subject area is. It specifically excludes spending on administrative personnel who lack a teaching role, which was one of the conclusions of a 2003 report by Baker & Hostetler on KSU. Among other areas, the report highlighted “too much administrative overhead” as a potentially problematic area, citing past faculty concerns that in 2001 only 28.2% of operating funds went towards instruction.

It noted that administrative versus instructional spending is “in part a philosophical issue… and in part a management issue.” The goal for KSU, according to the review team, was to ensure that “the maximum expenditure possible goes to supporting student success and related academic goals.” This would hopefully include boosting KSU’s status among peer group institutions.

“It may seem obvious to say that a university should strive to place the highest proportion of its expenditures on its core mission of education, but it is not uncommon for administrators to be preoccupied with other matters to the detriment of student success,” the report read.

Although that claim is from 2003, similar concerns will be reviewed by the Council on Postsecondary Education, which is now reviewing KSU’s financial status, according to Clara Stamps, the acting KSU president.

“Kentucky State University is working closely with the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education to review the institution's financial status,” Stamps said. “As part of this analysis, Kentucky State will review instructional spending. A review of data within the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is in progress.”

In an emailed comment to The State Journal, Brown cited the movement of advising budget from the category of "instruction" to another unit called "student success" for part of the decrease in instructional budget.

Although KSU spends many times less on instruction than other Kentucky public universities — Western Kentucky University, for instance, spent 37% of its budget on instruction — there are reasons behind some gap. KSU is a HBCU and a land grant university, historical background which means the service mission of the university is typically stronger, according to Shaun McKiernan, the director of budget and finance at the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. It is also smaller than many other Kentucky public universities, meaning that administrative costs are expected to make up a larger part of the budget.

“A smaller institution I would expect to have a higher administrative cost, just by nature of the fact that every institution needs a leadership team,” McKiernan said.

However, faculty analyses over the past 20 years have raised concerns that even amongst other land-grant universities, HBCUs, and small schools, KSU’s investment in instruction was low and its administration was bloated. 

“Any way you look at it,” Reba Rye, a longtime KSU art professor who retired in 2018 after serving on a number of finance-related faculty committees, said, “we were still way below everybody else.”

A 2004 assessment noted that KSU was first of 20 comparable universities, including 15 HBCUs and 9 land grant universities, in ratio of non-faculty employees to students, and fourth overall in number of admin employees, despite being the smallest of any of the comparable universities. A 2009 report by faculty regent Tucker Landy to the faculty senate noted the dropping instructional spending that year — from 24.3% to 22.9% — and criticized the investment decision. 

“Certainly in comparison to the other Kentucky publics (where the percentage spent on instruction is around 35%) and to any set of benchmarks, this percentage is low,” Landy wrote.

“The trend at KSU is, of course, not unique,” he continued. “I am afraid that a good reason for this is the lack of glamour associated with the classroom. There are no headlines in the media for low class enrollments, or for making sure departmental operating budgets are adequate, or for keeping faculty salaries high enough to attract the best full-time talent to lead the class. Such efforts, however, have important long-term benefits, in retention, graduation rates, student careers, alumni support, and public respect.”

However, in the 11 years following Landy’s comments, spending on instruction has dropped by 40%. In comparison to other spending it has decreased even more, with the percentage of budget spending going to instruction decreasing by 44%.

This trend was made more concerning, according to Rye, by Brown’s relative lack of communication. Former president Raymond Burse, Rye said, was more open with the faculty around budgeting procedures. Budgetary data, such as a spreadsheet detailing the salaries of all university employees, was “regularly supplied”, according to Rye. This meant that analyzing the budget was easier for Rye and her companions on the Faculty Senate, and for those following budget hearings.

Things changed under Brown, according to Rye, who said that “he would not give out any of that data directly to the faculty,” making oversight more difficult.

In the fall of 2017, Brown created an ad-hoc committee to study and compare faculty salaries, and named Rye, a faculty representative, as its chair. After years without raises, Rye said, the committee was seen as a gesture towards equity and improving pay equity both within the university in comparison to other universities. Excited, Rye requested salary information from within the committee.

Then, she said, KSU stalled for nearly the entire academic year, citing confidentiality concerns with the data, over months of delayed emails. Administration finally sent the data to its own committee in April 2018, the week before Rye’s retirement and months after the initial request had been filed, making action impossible.

“(Brown) just unilaterally quit that dialogue,” Rye said. “That dialogue was not available. We could not get data directly from institutional research. We could not communicate (or) get anything out of them.”

It was a surprise and a disappointment to Rye in part because she had such a positive first impression of Brown. At Brown’s first faculty meeting, in 2017, she clearly remembered his comments on the budget: that the problem was not the amount of money that KSU received, but how it was spent. 

“We were really excited to hear that,” Rye said. “But then that did not happen.”

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