Kentucky State University's president announces retirement

gkocher1@herald-leader.comMay 9, 2014 

Mary Evans Sias sought to raise KSU's graduation rate by 20 percent by this fall.

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Mary Evans Sias announced Friday that she will retire June 30 after serving 10 years as president of Kentucky State University in Frankfort, the state's only historically black university.

Sias is the only female president among the state's public universities.

Sias, 63, in a statement released by the university, said: "The last 10 years at Kentucky State have been truly the most rewarding of my 36-year career in higher education.

"While there is always more that could be done, now seems like the right time to step aside and let the next person provide the momentum to continue to move the needle forward for KSU."

Karen Bearden, chairwoman of the KSU Board of Regents, said in a statement that the board will have an interim president in place by July 1. The statement also said the board will "move quickly" to select a search firm and develop a presidential search process to conduct a national search.

Sias and Bearden declined to comment further. When both were sought for interviews, school spokeswoman Felicia Lewis said, "We don't feel it's appropriate to do that right now." Regent Mindy Barfield also declined to comment.

Sias' retirement comes at a time when KSU has been under increasing scrutiny — from within and without — about its low graduation rates.

In May 2012, KSU's graduation rate hit 14 percent. An enrollment decline resulted in a $4.8 million loss of revenue for the year. The graduation rate rose to 18 percent in 2013.

The Frankfort State Journal reported in January that KSU's six-year graduation rate is higher than only 8 percent of accredited four-year historically black colleges and universities in the continental United States. In a ranking of 85 historically black schools comparable to KSU, the school ranked 78th in terms of six-year graduation rates, the paper found. The paper also reported that KSU's rate has steadily dropped — it was 41 percent 10 years ago.

That same month, Sias presented the university's plan to increase retention and graduation rates to the Board of Regents. The plan included projections to increase graduation rates by 20 percent for this fall and by 31 percent for fall 2016.

Kentucky State has had difficulties in dealing with budget deficits, but it isn't unique in that respect. Historically black colleges and universities are vulnerable because they are committed to educating low-income and disadvantaged students. And they are tuition-driven, so when students aren't enrolling or can't pay tuition, it affects their bottom lines.

Still, the university has been lauded in some areas.

In September, U.S. News and World Report ranked KSU 25th among historically black universities in the country.

The Kentucky legislature approved funding this year for several capital projects on KSU's campus and $5.4 million in agency bonds to support the construction of KSU's new athletic complex.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky announced in March that it would start a $375,000 scholarship program for top students at KSU.

Beginning next fall, KSU will choose five freshmen from a pool of high-achieving math, science and engineering students. Those students will receive full-ride scholarships, the first three years on a pre-engineering curriculum at Kentucky State and the final two at University of Kentucky. After those five years, the students will have an undergraduate degree from KSU and an engineering degree from UK.

During that time, each will work with mentors from Toyota, receive internships and other training at the Georgetown plant, and be considered for employment with Toyota after graduation.

During Sias' tenure, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools approved a measure that will allow KSU to offer as many as three doctorate programs. The first begins this fall, when KSU will offer a doctorate in nursing practice.

Sias was picked as Kentucky State's 13th president in February 2004. At the time, she was senior vice president for student affairs and external relations at the University of Texas-Dallas. She joined the UT-Dallas administration in 1995 as both associate provost and associate professor in the School of General Studies.

Before that, she was chief executive of the YWCA of Metropolitan Dallas for 13 years.

Founded in 1886, KSU reported 2,370 undergraduate students and 163 graduate students in the fall 2013 semester. It reported 623 total employees for 2013-14, down from 665 in 2011-12.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @heraldleader.

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