Reading David Hawpe's column was a bitter pill. Hawpe, a third-generation Pike Countian, knows better.
As he well knows, people in the core coal counties of Eastern Kentucky have been crying out for a four-year university in the heart of the mountains for at least 40 years. I have heard Hawpe advocate for such a university on more than one occasion, years before he joined the Morehead State University board in 2011.
Ron Eller, in his award-winning narrative of life in Appalachia, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, discussed the issue succinctly:
"Despite the opening of a law school in Grundy, Va., and a new medical school at Pikeville College in Eastern Kentucky, graduate and professional schools and institutes for scientific and medical research were scarce in central Appalachia, leaving most of the region's professionals to be educated outside the mountains and denying localities the economic and civic benefits that such institutions provide to dynamic communities.
"During an era when job creation was often linked to information exchange, knowledge management and innovation, there was not a single rank-one research university in all of central Appalachia, between Morgantown, W.Va., and Knoxville, Tenn., and between Blacksburg, Va., and Lexington. Large research institutions on the perimeter of the region and a number of excellent small colleges and regional universities expanded their links with the rural interior counties during the period, but the intellectual and economic impact of higher education on Appalachia remained limited."
The additional reasons for needing a rank-one university in central Appalachia have been oft-stated and are well known to Hawpe. He discussed some of these issues as recently as November 2009 on Bill Goodman's KET program, One to One:
The continuing brain drain from Eastern Kentucky, in which, during some periods, every third person (including Hawpe) ended up outside the region in urban areas such as Dayton, Detroit and Louisville.
The recognition that mountain students want to stay in the region for their higher education and that their parents want them to do so.
The need for institutions in central Appalachia that can drive economic development and provide both forward and backward links for job creation.
The overwhelming need in Eastern Kentucky to deal with the disgraceful disparity between the number of distressed counties there and those in other central Appalachian states (77 percent in Kentucky, compared with 4 percent, 17 percent and 18 percent respectively in Virginia, Tennessee and West Virginia). That provides the most salient indicator that the current educational model for Appalachian Kentucky is not sufficient.
The UPike proposal does not stem from any UPike financial or enrollment difficulties. Under former Gov. Paul Patton's leadership, UPike has stabilized. Enrollment for the three years of the Patton administration are 1,005, 1,328 and 1,860 respectively. UPike would be turning over to the state assets of nearly $200 million, so it would be many years before the taxpayer contribution equaled the worth of the assets gained.
The driving force behind the UPike proposal is to increase substantially the bachelor-degree attainment level in the 12-county area envisioned, to establish a rank-one university in the heart of the coalfields to help stimulate the creation of jobs and intellectual capital, and to assist in extinguishing once and for all Eastern Kentucky's distress.
This debate should be about what is best for the children and people of Eastern Kentucky, not what is best for any particular higher-education institution. When only 9.1 percent of adults 25 years or older in the 12-county area have bachelor's degrees or higher (compared with 17.1 percent statewide), can anyone seriously argue that the needs of those high school students are being met?
The goal of the UPike proposal would require an additional 340 graduates per year. If UPike is only 60 percent successful in that goal, it would pay huge human-resource dividends for Eastern Kentucky and its coal counties.