Some Kentucky State University faculty and alumni are pushing back after the school’s board of regents announced Friday that their $120,000 search for a new president had produced two finalists with controversial backgrounds and one with less than two years of experience in higher education.
Left off the list of finalists was interim President Aaron Thompson, who applied for the job with significant support from faculty, alumni and the Frankfort community after financial problems almost closed the school down, according to Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort.
“I have a lot of questions about this process and the selection,” said Graham, who is an alumnus of the historically black university. “For the first time, I felt comfortable with a leader (Thompson) who was bringing together all the elements to make the university and the community thrive. I’m very disappointed in this direction.”
The KSU faculty senate’s executive committee scheduled an emergency meeting Monday to discuss the search, which they described as “failed.”
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The finalists are:
▪ M. Christopher Brown, the provost at Southern University in Louisiana. He is a former president of Alcorn State University in Mississippi who resigned in 2014 after reports of lavish upgrades to the president’s residence without seeking the legally required bids, according to the Associated Press;
▪ Said Sewell, the provost of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. He received a vote of no-confidence from the faculty last year and went on an extended leave of absence.
▪ Thomas Colbert, the first black justice on the Oklahoma Supreme Court, where he still serves. Colbert graduated from Kentucky State in 1973, but his only higher education experience was as an assistant dean at Marquette University Law School from 1982 to 1984.
At a later meeting of the full faculty senate, members said they were upset because of a lack of input, the quality of the finalists and the fact that Thompson was not included in the final list.
Senator Ken Andries said the search was flawed. “I find it very difficult to believe these three people were the top candidates of a national search for this position … Whoever comes in will be met with a tremendous amount of skepticism and concern,” he said.
The senate voted to ask the board of regents to add Thompson as a candidate for an on-campus interview. Members of the staff senate indicated they might join that resolution.
“These are the best candidates you can find?” asked Travis Haskins, vice president of the staff senate. “Something doesn’t sit well with me.”
Last week, two members of the board of regents voted against the finalist list because of a lack of information. Although five regents served on the search committee, the other five regents were not “given any written materials or background on the the candidates” before voting, said Regent Paul Harnice.
“I voted no because I don’t like to vote on things I don’t know anything about,” Harnice said Monday.
He said he was perturbed by subsequent press reports about the candidates. “I plan to fully delve into those issues,” he said.
In October, the Kentucky legislature’s Government Contract Review Committee approved a $120,000 contract for Kentucky State to hire Academic Search of Washington, D.C., through June 30 to conduct a presidential search.
“I think the search committee could have done a better job of getting the people selected,” said Brian Walker, president of the Lexington chapter of the Kentucky State Alumni Association. “Dr. Thompson has been doing an excellent job, and he should have made the top three.”
Officials at Academic Search were not immediately available for comment Monday. KSU spokesman Rick Smith said Thompson was not available for comment.
“I did speak to him earlier today, and he shared that he wants everyone to continue to support Kentucky State University moving forward toward greater success beyond what has already been started,” Smith said. “He says he will support whoever is selected as president.”
KSU general counsel Gordon Rowe said two of the candidates had “allegations” against them, but “they also have very strong credentials, something that seems to have been overlooked.”
Thompson came to Kentucky State on an interim basis after the sudden departure of President Raymond Burse last May after two years on the job. Thompson is an executive vice president and chief academic officer of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, where he oversees areas of academic success, achievement gap closure, curriculum development and diversity in Kentucky’s eight public universities. He is the author of numerous books about collegiate success.
Last fall, enrollment at KSU increased 30 percent over fall 2015.
Freshman Marcus Hodge said Monday that students were surprised Thompson didn’t make the final cut.
“He is doing a good job, everyone thought he’d be on the list,” Hodge said.
Another Kentucky lawmaker and alumnus, Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, said he was extremely concerned about the search process. As a former chairman of the legislature’s postsecondary budget review subcommittee, Simpson said he was well acquainted with Kentucky State’s precarious finances and that Thompson is “the exact type of individual that university needs for its continued existence.”
Kentucky State was excluded from last year’s budget cuts to higher education because Burse said it might force the school to close.
Karen Bearden, chairwoman of the KSU Board of Regents, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“This is a really, really important decision for Kentucky State because there are a lot of problems that need to be solved,” said Harnice, who was appointed last year by Gov. Matt Bevin. “We can’t afford to get this wrong.”