Kentucky State faculty told to keep quiet on presidential search controversy

Faculty criticize Kentucky State University president search

A presidential search at Kentucky State University has tempers running high.
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A presidential search at Kentucky State University has tempers running high.

Amid growing concerns over Kentucky State University’s presidential search, the acting provost told faculty Wednesday that they must refrain “immediately” from discussing the search with their students in class.

Provost Candice Love Jackson said some students had complained that some faculty had talked about the presidential search in class, according to an email obtained by the Herald-Leader.

“This is unacceptable and an inappropriate forum in which to have these discussions,” the email said. “Refrain from engaging in these discussions during class time immediately.”

Late last week, a search firm that had been paid $120,000 recommended a slate of three finalists, but omitted the name of interim President Aaron Thompson, a popular administrator who has been at the school for the past eight months. Two of the three finalists had controversial backgrounds, and one had less than two years of experience in higher education.

The board of regents voted to bring in the three finalists, although two regents voted no because they had not seen any résumés or background material on the three finalists. One of those regents was Elaine Farris, chair of the academic affairs committee, who said Wednesday she found the email “interesting.”

“It is very important that we keep our focus on teaching and learning in our classrooms,” Farris said in a statement. “However, we also do not want to infringe upon the academic freedom of faculty members.”

The Kentucky State faculty senate has held two meetings on the search; on Monday, several members said they were angry that the search committee had not allowed more faculty input into the search. At the senate’s Monday meeting, faculty voted to make a formal request to allow Thompson to do an on-campus interview. The senate is to meet next Monday to discuss a vote of confidence in the board of regents.

Many alumni have said they are unhappy that Thompson did not make the final slate because of what they called the positive changes he has made at the historically black university, which has been in financial peril for several years.

Board of regents chairwoman Karen Bearden, meanwhile, has stayed mum, refusing frequent requests for comment from the Herald Leader and other media outlets.

The board of regents has scheduled a special meeting at 5 p.m. Feb. 22 to discuss the process led by Academic Search, a national firm based in Washington, D.C. The legislative Contract Review Committee approved a $120,000 contract for the company’s work from October through June.

Academic Search found the three finalists:

▪  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.

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.

Faculty, alumni and residents have expressed disbelief that the three finalists were the best candidates in the country.

“I find it very difficult to believe these three people were the top candidates of a national search for this position,” professor Ken Andries said Monday. “Whoever comes in will be met with a tremendous amount of skepticism and concern.”

The faculty senate will hold another meeting Monday, officials said.

Also on Wednesday, Student Government President Ralph Williams, who serves on the board of regents and was a member of the search committee, put out a statement in support of the process, calling the controversy “contrived.”

“The process unfolded as planned, and three candidates were selected as finalists through a thorough, confidential process,” Williams said.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford