UPike as a public university would enable mountain counties to prosper

October 12, 2013 

Greg Stumbo spoke out Wednesday against President Barack Obama's plan to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. He also placed blame for the "total demise" of coal on Sen. Mitch McConnell's inability to reach a legislative compromise with Democrats on energy issues.

Nearly two years have passed since the effort to create a state university in Eastern Kentucky became public.

It began in December 2011, when former Gov. Paul Patton, Rep. Leslie Combs, Sen. Ray Jones and I proposed to bring the University of Pikeville into the state's public postsecondary system.

Almost immediately, our suggestion was met with a hailstorm of opposition from such university presidents as Morehead State University's Wayne Andrews and Western Kentucky University's Gary Ransdell, not to mention other county officials.

This newspaper also editorialized against it even while recognizing that the coal industry was in jeopardy.

Those of us who supported this effort presented undeniable facts to anyone who would listen, from Gov. Steve Beshear and other legislators to the Herald-Leader editorial board and the Kentucky Coal Coalition, which is composed of county judge-executives and magistrates.

We told these policymakers that a plan to rescue Eastern Kentucky from a total economic reliance on coal had to start with enhancing public education opportunities.

Unfortunately, our pleas fell on deaf ears, with the exception of Gov. Steve Beshear, who agreed to create a scholarship fund from multi-county coal severance tax dollars.

This allowed third- and fourth-year college students in the region to pursue their bachelor's degree close to home either at area private colleges or at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System branches that had partnered with a regional four-year university.

Patton, who was UPike's president when this initiative began, promised local officials in counties like Bell and Harlan — where the local opposition to a public UPike was strongest — that his school would reach out to work with their community college, making upper-level courses available in those areas.

Remember, this was supposed to be the responsibility of Morehead and Eastern universities, both of which have failed miserably over the decades in fulfilling this task.

Unlike the false promises made by those institutions, Patton kept his word. As a result, and working with KCTCS, distance-learning programs were set up by UPike in Harlan, Bell, Letcher and Johnson counties.

In the 2012 and 2013 legislative sessions, Rep. Combs and I passed a bill in the House to make the pilot coal-severance scholarship program permanent.

Unfortunately, our bill died in the Senate in 2012, and was only passed by that chamber in the final minutes of the 2013 regular session, meaning it could not get final approval before the midnight deadline for adjournment.

The manner in which the Senate acted, essentially denying students in both the Eastern and Western Kentucky coalfields the opportunity to further their education, was the cruelest and most blatant abuse of power I have witnessed in my 34 years of public service. I hope this wrong will be corrected during the 2014 regular session.

Even if this program is made permanent, though, I still believe there needs to be a comprehensive plan to save the counties of Eastern Kentucky and this discussion should include the possibility of authorizing a full-time, four-year public postsecondary school.

This could be achieved by using our own coal severance money, which is a win-win for us and the taxpayer while it helps our children and young adults achieve a brighter future.

Time is drawing short to take action. Each week, it seems, we learn that more mines are closing and more coal miners are out of work.

My hope is that the leaders of our public universities, the Senate, your editorial board and others who opposed our effort will now open their eyes to what is so obvious to those of us who live and grew up in the mountains: The only long-term solution is improving the educational attainment levels.

The 12 counties that have been the focus of our effort — Pike, Leslie, Magoffin, Letcher, Harlan, Perry, Bell, Martin, Johnson, Floyd, Breathitt and Knott— have a college graduation rate of 9.1 percent for citizens who are 25 and older. Statewide, the rate is 17.1 percent, and for the nation it is 24.4 percent.

This statistic, when combined with the decline in the coal industry, doubly underscores the need to do more than what has been done.

In closing, I want to thank Beshear and those county officials and judge-executives and magistrates who over the past two years have changed their views on this extremely important issue.

They were the easy ones to convince, since they see the problems daily. We can only hope that the others I have mentioned will be granted a new vision as well.

Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg is speaker of the Kentucky House.

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