After a contentious and contested search process, the Kentucky State University Board of Regents voted 7-3 to hire M. Christopher Brown as its 15th president, despite the fact that he resigned from his last presidential job over financial improprieties. He is currently the provost at Southern University in Louisiana.
The vote sparked impassioned speeches from three dissenting regents — Elaine Farris, Paul Harnice and Ronald Banks — to abandon a failed search and start over.
“This dark cloud is not going to leave unless we put the best process in place,” Harnice said. “To make this decision right here right now is a really big mistake and Kentucky State cannot afford to make any more big mistakes.”
Farris said the board should not hire a new president until “we get our own house in order on this board.”
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“I cannot vote for Brown because I do not think he is the best fit,” she said.
But Mindy Barfield said Brown was a “bold, innovative leader. He had the most concrete plans for Kentucky State, and I look forward to working with him.”
Board of Regents Chairwoman Karen Bearden abstained from voting and refused to comment after the vote.
The presidential search committee — made up of KSU regents, faculty and staff, along with Frankfort community members — chose three finalists, including Brown, in a national search, but did not include interim President Aaron Thompson, a popular leader among faculty, staff and students.
Farris and Harnice were joined by Banks, a former Kentucky State administrator who was appointed Monday by Gov. Matt Bevin to fill an empty seat. Banks said he supports Thompson and asked the board to either delay their pick or start the search over.
“I am definitely against the fact that he (Thompson) didn’t get an interview,” Banks said shortly after Bevin announced his appointment around 2 p.m. Monday. “I’m going to ask for more time, I’m going to ask them not to make a decision tonight, and possibly open another search.”
Thompson applied for the job. He has declined to comment since the finalists were announced.
Meanwhile, the school’s faculty senate has scheduled a vote of no confidence in Board of Regents Chairwoman Karen Bearden next week. Faculty Senate Chairwoman Kimberly Sipes said the presidential search has only highlighted longstanding problems at Kentucky State, including tenure and retention, instructional budgets and a lack of faculty raises. Several faculty have also asked the board to declare their search failed and start over.
Bearden has consistently refused to speak to the media about the search and other issues.
“All these things have been issues for years and nothing ever happens,” Sipes said Monday morning. “The difference this year is that the community got involved in the presidential search and they were unhappy. A conversation about the decisions being made by the leadership gave us an opportunity to bring these other issues to light.”
Brown beat out Said Sewell and Thomas Colbert for the job. 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. Colbert, is 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.
Brown was considered a rising star at Alcorn State University in Mississippi until he resigned in 2014 after reports of lavish upgrades to the president’s residence without seeking the legally required bids, according to the Associated Press.
The three finalists visited Kentucky State last week, meeting with faculty, staff, students and regents.
Kentucky State has suffered from shaky finances and declining enrollment in recent years. Between 2013 and 2015, total enrollment fell from 2,533 to 1,586, although it has since risen 30 percent. The school was excluded from last year’s state budget cuts to higher education because former President Raymond Burse said it might force the school to close.
Despite Brown’s well publicized problems, he is well-liked by faculty at Southern University, said professor Thomas Miller, the former Faculty Senate and served on the search committee that hired Brown as provost.
“He’s been superb,” Miller said. He works well with faculty, he has the institution’s best interests at heart, he’s transparent to a degree I have not seen in other administrators. I trust him.”
Miller said search committee members were concerned about Brown’s resignation, but they concerns were “allayed” by faculty at Alcorn State.