A small group of mourners in black followed an empty coffin into the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda Monday morning to protest state budget cuts to Kentucky's higher education system.
More specifically, the funeral was held to say goodbye to Eastern Kentucky University's theater program, a casualty of about $25 million in program and personnel cuts at that Richmond school.
"Today we have brought an empty coffin, which symbolizes higher education as we lay her to rest where she was killed, inside the Capitol building in Frankfort, Kentucky," said EKU student Logan Burriss as he stood behind the coffin.
He was flanked by about 20 other students, most of them fellow theater majors.
"Inside this coffin lies all the faculty, with and without tenure who have been laid off due to these budget cuts," Burriss said. "Inside this coffin lies all the programs that we have lost."
Earlier this month, EKU cut about 150 positions, nearly 100 of them filled by faculty and staff. The school also cut numerous majors and minors, including theater, economics and deaf studies, among others. It also closed the university's Danville campus, ended men's and women's tennis, and stopped funding its marching band.
President Michael Benson called it a "perfect storm" of declining enrollment and nearly a decade in budget cuts, including a 6.25 percent cut over the next two years. Since 2008, state funding for Kentucky's public universities and colleges has been slashed by about $222 million.
EKU is far from alone. Morehead State University has cut administration and announced a voluntary buyout program. At Western Kentucky University, President Tim Caboni last week announced another $16 million in cuts, for a total of $31 million cut from its budget. Those cuts included more than 100 positions, closing an academic college and reorganized several regional campuses.
Legislators have put an emphasis in recent years on science and math degrees, and their importance to Kentucky's economy, and Gov. Matt Bevin has frequently derided liberal arts degrees, suggesting they should not be subsidized at public universities.
At their funeral, however, EKU students emphasized the importance of arts education for students.
Gabriel Douglas wrote a poem about how theater saved him from a lifetime of bullying for not being macho enough.
"Someone once said 'save the arts because the arts save lives,'" he said. "The arts save lives, the arts love people who feel unlovable because they don't care who you love, how smart you are or what color your skin is. The arts care about creating a beautiful masterpiece together. The arts matter to us, the arts matter to me. The arts just simply matter."