Kentucky State Presidential Search Accompanied by Controversy - Higher Education
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Kentucky State Presidential Search Accompanied by Controversy

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by Reginald Stuart

Kentucky State University’s search for a new president has run into a rolling storm of troubles amid widespread criticism this week from across the university’s community over its search committee’s controversial recommendation of a list of final candidates that excludes the institution’s widely embraced interim president.

The decision sparked complaints from Kentucky State’s faculty senate and discussions in some classes about it. By mid-week, acting Provost Candace Love Jackson, had sent an e-mail message to the university’s faculty to stop “immediately” from discussing the search in class with students.

Aaron Thompson is Kentucky State’s interim president and is not currently under consideration to take on the job on a permanent basis.

A key member of the university’s staff senate and, separately, several state lawmakers who have been supportive of the university, also had pointed questions about the finalists, according interviews in the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper that serves the Lexington-Frankfort area and has followed the university for years.

University officials declined to comment about the series of developments surrounding the presidential search. A spokesperson for the small, state controlled institution located in Frankfort, the state’ capital city, said a statement on the situation was coming soon.

The university’s interim president, Aaron Thompson, and acting provost Jackson, were out of the state late this week and unavailable for comment, said the spokesperson. The university’s general counsel was not commenting at the time of inquiry, the person said.

Furor about the list of finalists began emerging this time a week ago when the university Board of Regents’ five-member Presidential Search Committee voted three to two to accept the list of three final candidates from its Washington, D.C.-based consultant, Academic Search. Those who did not vote for the list said background information had not been shared with them

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Two of the three candidates — M. Christopher Brown and Said Sewell — were academics with higher education experience that includes some question marks about their past service. Thomas Colbert, an Oklahoma judge who is a Kentucky State alumnus, had less than two years’ experience (1982-84) in higher education serving as an assistant dean in a university law school.

The university paid Academic Search, a noted academic talent scouting group, $125,000 for the final list of candidates.

“I have a lot of questions about this process and the selection,” state Rep. Derrick Graham, a Kentucky State alumnus, told the Herald-Leader in an interview published earlier this week. “For the first time, I felt comfortable with a leader who was bringing together all the elements to make the university and the community thrive,” said Graham of Frankfort. “I am very disappointed in this decision.”

Graham’s views echoed those of many others who questioned the search committee’s wisdom in taking the consultant’s recommendation, the larger issues surrounding the institution aside.

One higher education executive who advises institutions across the nation on presidential searches said the university could have done as well seeking candidates on its own and avoided this week’s backlash had more constituents of the university community been included in screening the early pool of prospects. The executive said he advises institutions against relying on outside scouts when considering candidates at the dean and vice president level and above.

Another seasoned higher education executive cautioned against criticizing the search firm too harshly without taking other issues facing the institution into consideration, including the increasingly tough competition for presidential talent today and the fact that it is tougher to get prospects to consider an institution with a record of financial hard times, declining enrollment and, in the case of state-controlled institutions, unpredictable funding by state legislatures

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Among peer institutions, Kentucky State is competing with a number of schools for a president, including Florida A&M University, Fisk University, Morehouse College and Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

“All three candidates would be qualified for the Kentucky State job based on its description,” said the observer. “Whether they would be a good fit is a call the board will make,” the observer added, noting the decision is in the hands of the Kentucky State Board of Regents at this point.

Kentucky State, the 130-year-old federal land grant college initially established as a legally segregated institution for Blacks, has faced significantly hard times since the national economic meltdown dating to 2008. Its enrollment began sliding even before, although enrollment as of last fall was 2,090, up 32 percent from the same count in 2015.

Today, the historically Black college boasts a broad sense of diversity today, with 51 percent of its students as of last fall counted as African-American, 32 percent Caucasian, three percent Hispanic and the remainder Native American, Hispanic and “other.”

The drama over the search committee’s decision is likely to continue next week. The faculty senate has set a meeting for next Monday to discuss a vote of confidence on the board regents. The university has promised to address the dust up by weekend or early next week.  Several alumni leaders have also voiced their intention to continue pressing for Thompson’s consideration for the job, given his success in the past year. The university has set a community meeting on the selection process for Feb. 22.

“I was really shocked he (Thompson) didn’t make it,” said Brian Walker, president of the Lexington chapter of the Kentucky State alumni association, echoing others in offering high compliments for Thompson’s work in the past year.

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“We could have saved the money (paid the consultants) and used that for scholarships,” said Walker. “I just think he was a perfect fit,” said Walker, adding that he and other alumni leaders will be writing letters to the regents challenging Thompson’s exclusion from consideration.

“He’s been praised for boosting morale and enrollment,” said a university ally.

The board agenda lists March as the selection month.

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