A Conversation with Kentucky State University President Mary Sias

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by Amara Phillip and Frank L. Matthews

President of Kentucky State University since 2004, Dr. Mary Sias added chairwoman of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities to her list of titles in November. In that capacity, Sias is charged with being one of the chief advocates for not only Kentucky State and the 17 other “1890s” Land-Grant HBCUs, but public institutions across the nation. Her tenure as APLU board chairwoman comes at a difficult time for her constituent institutions, as many are reeling from deep cuts in public funding amid unprecedented state budget shortfalls. Sias speaks with Diverse about her passion for education and goals for Kentucky State and other APLU institutions.

DI: Why did you decide to become an educator?

MS: I grew up in Jackson, Miss., and at the time both my parents had only an eighth-grade education because Blacks couldn’t go on to finish high school, and there were no public high schools for them. But my mother would sit at the table every night and go over the things she had learned. So I got educated [at] the kitchen table and thought I wanted to be a teacher. When I got to junior high, I was in a college preparatory track.

My teacher, Mable Pittman, was the first person I knew who had a master’s degree. I would help her grade papers and stay after school every day to talk to her and listen to her. And she was the first person who talked to me about the possibility of getting a Ph.D. So I understood that a master’s degree wasn’t going to be my stopping place. Those two women were my source of inspiration.

DI: What should aspiring college presidents do to prepare for the daily challenges you face?

MS: One of the most important things to do is to make sure you have good budgeting skills. You have to understand fundraising and have improved skills in those areas because we’re going to be relying much more heavily on external funds. We’re becoming a more state-assisted institution as opposed to state-supported. You must have strong communication and interpersonal skills. You must be able to work with people of diverse backgrounds.

You have to understand the legislative process. And you must work with faculty in order to meet the needs of the students we’re educating. You must also be well-schooled in technology and student characteristics because they’re different from when we were in school.

DI: Many public institutions have struggled to cope with deep cuts in state funding. Has Kentucky State been affected by the state budget turmoil buffeting many public institutions?

MS: We have probably lost 25 percent of our appropriations over the last seven years. We’ve had to learn to operate more efficiently and effectively and be able to address some of these issues. We do need to improve our fiscal plan and that’s particularly difficult in times like these — we have an $800 million-plus shortfall. In the commonwealth, the legislature really has been a strong advocate. A new study indicates that Kentucky has been leading the nation in finding new ways to improve graduation and retention rates. They’ve tried to keep these cuts to a minimum.

Unlike in California, where they’ve lost 40 or 50 percent of funding, they’ve been very helpful in giving us resources so we can do our work. We’ve recognized that times have changed, and we’re never going to go back to the way it was, but you can have lemons, or you can have lemonade. We choose to have lemonade.

DI: Why are the 1890s, and HBCUs as a whole, still relevant?

MS: I think that it’s sometimes very easy to overlook the influence that land-grant institutions have. When you think about what those missions are — those missions are as relevant today as they ever were. And teaching our students is only part of what the land-grant institution does. We are committed to agriculture in the life science fields, and it’s very relevant today. We have one of the highest obesity and high blood pressure levels in the country in Kentucky, and they affect African-Americans more than other segments of the society. We’re looking at food and nutrition, we’re looking at how we change the diets of elementary school students. We’re looking at water quality issues and other sustainability issues.

We’re looking at green jobs and how you grow biofuels. Those are issues that our country faces. As this country evolves as part of a global community, food shortages, how to improve the quantity of food, how to impact nutrition, water quality in underdeveloped countries — all of these are going to be issues in the future.

Twenty percent of African-Americans who graduate come from HBCUs. We are and always have been a critically important sector for higher education. We have to find ways in our country to look at how we’re going to educate more of our students of color. Even at institutions like KSU, we provide a third of teachers of color in Kentucky. We’re going to be asked to produce more African-Americans who earn degrees in STEM fields and enroll in graduate school. HBCUs are not the problem, we’re part of the solution.

DI: Typically, Traditionally White Institutions aren’t major advocates for Black colleges. Are you able to leverage your role as APLU Board chair to get them to buy into the need and the purpose for Black colleges?

MS: [TWIs] understand changing demographics — they understand what this country is starting to look like. And I think people who are knowledgeable and well informed understand that this is not about your social conscience. This is about the good of the nation. … You want well qualified and trained people. And those people by and large are going to be people of color and we need to educate them. And it is cheaper to educate them than to pay for them to be in jail.

DI: In terms of the 1890s what threats concern you most?

MS: It was only recently that the Farm Bill was passed, and we finally got access to all the money that the 1860s (original land grant institutions) did, and it worries me continuously that people think that we’re smaller because we’re 1890s [and] we are not as competent and are less qualified. And that misnomer is often still pervasive when you sit down at the table today. It’s bad for people to have wrong perceptions about you; it’s even worse when you are totally ignored. And unfortunately sometimes people don’t talk about the elephant in the room, and race is still the elephant in the room. We are people of good will and good nature, but we go with what we know first and often the decision is made on whom you’ve always done business with as opposed to looking and seeing what it is we have to offer.

DI: What are your goals for APLU?

MS: APLU wants to ensure that we continue to advance learning and discovery. When we look at what role we can play to ensure that all students are improving their educations, we want to be sure our students can compete globally, and we’re working very hard with other countries around the world — particularly Africa and China — and we want to look at energy initiatives. At the end of the day, the goal of APLU is to support its member institutions and make sure they provide a high-quality education for our students and remind us to be vigilant about our role in the world because we don’t exist on this planet alone. Our agenda is one of accountability, global competitiveness, and improved math and science ability of our teachers and students, and that we internationalize our campus so that we can compete globally. And online learning will be a part of this as well.

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