The Kentucky State University Foundation has paid nearly $85,000 to a Washington, D.C. public relations firm that reports only to the Kentucky State University Board of Regents, working independently of the president and the school’s public relations staff.
Robert Pierre of Bald Cypress Media was hired by former President Raymond Burse in April 2016, according to an initial contract, with a retainer of $8,500 a month in order to “help tell the story of KSU’s transformation and renewal.” That contract was extended “verbally” in September so Pierre could also work on the search for KSU’s next president, said KSU General Counsel Gordon Rowe, but Rowe would not say who extended the contract.
Bald Cypress’ bills are being paid by the foundation, which holds several accounts for the use of the Kentucky State president, said foundation executive director Donald Lyons. The foundation’s main purpose is to pay for student scholarships and support academics.
So far, Lyons said, the foundation has paid Bald Cypress $85,000, although he has not yet received an invoice for March.
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Interim President Aaron Thompson declined to discuss the firm, except to say that he sends its invoices directly to the foundation.
“He (Pierre) reports directly to the board of regents,” Thompson said.
Pierre, a former Washington Post reporter, declined to comment for this story. Karen Bearden, chairwoman of the board of regents, also declined to comment.
In a prepared statement, KSU officials said the Bald Cypress contract was extended to help with the presidential search. “Since that time, Bald Cypress has worked with the presidential search committee and university staff to develop media strategy and news releases related to the presidential search and to provide overall media outreach regarding the search process and the selection of a new president,” according to the statement.
Rick Smith, vice president for external relations at KSU, said Pierre initially assisted his department in reformatting an internal newsletter and worked on a campaign to reach alumni. Smith, though, said he has not been told anything about Pierre’s work with the presidential search committee.
Pierre wrote a long and detailed news release that went out less than five minutes after the board’s contentious and split vote to hire M. Christopher Brown as the next president on March 13. Pierre also accompanied Brown during a visit to campus on March 20.
“My department was not responsible for creating the news release announcing the new president,” said Smith, who oversees two other employees who do public relations for the school. “It was given to us by the legal department to release after the vote.”
And while Pierre works for the regents, at least some of them are not aware of his work.
“This is the first I have heard of this,” said Paul Harnice, who was appointed to the board late last year. “I didn’t know anything about the retention of a public relations firm or anything of that nature.”
Regent Elaine Farris said she was aware Pierre had been hired to work on KSU’s image, but the board had not voted as a whole to use Bald Cypress in the presidential search.
“I am not aware of a contract extension or what the scope of work is for Bald Cypress at this time,” Farris said. “My question would be why would we continue to have a public relations person for the search process, and who is that person reporting to? The board as a body has never had a conversation with the consultant around our public image or any other communication about the university.”
Other regents did not respond to request for comments.
Harnice said the contract also troubles him because of KSU’s already lopsided spending on administration versus instruction. According to the Council on Postsecondary Education, KSU spent just 18 percent of its 2016 budget on instruction, compared to 20 percent on institutional support, which is the category that includes administration.
In comparison, Morehead State University, which is the closest state university in size to KSU, spends 35 percent on instruction and 13 percent on administration.
“I will say this: this level of administrative expenses for a school of 1,600 students is simply not sustainable,” Harnice said. “I’m just trying now to really dig in the numbers but some of what I’m learning about money being paid out, it’s alarming to me and it needs to be looked into.”
The Frankfort university’s six-year graduation rate, which fell to 13 percent in 2011, is now at 22.1 percent, the lowest in the state, according to the Council on Postsecondary Education.
Faculty senate chairwoman Kimberly Sipes said she has concerns about the university’s use of the foundation to pay Bald Cypress.
“My concern is people are being asked to donate money to the institution, and we assume that money will be used for the benefit of the students,” Sipe said. “What we’ve seen is that money is being used to pay for public relations directly related to what we believe is the chair of the board. That is an additional concern that we have about how money is spent at the university. That money is not being spent on our most important goal, which is instruction.”
The board of regents’ use of a separate public relations firm highlights numerous schisms that have split the KSU campus amid the highly contentious presidential search.
Last week, the faculty senate voted 50-30 to express no confidence in Bearden and in a separate and closer vote, the entire board of regents. Those votes then prompted a protest by the Faculty of Color Caucus, which said the vote was pushed by white faculty, who dominate KSU’s academic life despite it being a historically black university.
Some faculty were angry that Thompson had been left off the list of presidential finalists, even though he had applied for the job. Under Thompson, student enrollment has gone up for the first time in several years, and a $3.5 million deficit has been reconciled through targeted spending cuts.
Of the three finalists, two had blemished records, and one had very little experience in higher education. Brown, a former Historically Black Colleges and Universities Male President of the Year, resigned from the presidency at Alcorn State University because of alleged financial improprieties.