Search for a president raises tough questions for Kentucky State regents

The search for Kentucky State University’s president was done by the book, said the search firm that did it, despite questions raised by faculty, staff and students.

“This is standard practice,” said Wanda Bigham of Academic Search in Washington, D.C., who clarified that the firm was charging only $70,000 of an approved $120,000 contract during a special Board of Regents meeting Wednesday.

That search produced 68 applicants and three finalists. Many in the Kentucky State community were outraged that the widely popular interim President Aaron Thompson was not included among the finalists. They were:

▪  M. Christopher Brown, provost at Southern University in Louisiana. He resigned as president of Alcorn State University in Mississippi 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, 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.

Bigham and her colleague Mac Stewart faced a barrage of questions from regent Paul Harnice, a Frankfort attorney who voted no on the finalists because he had not been given information about them. Only regents who served on the search committee received written documentation on the semifinalists and finalists.

“I think we have delivered what we promised,” Bigham said. “We have been faithful to the process, we have worked diligently, we want this to be successful, we want Kentucky State to be strong going forward in the future.”

Harnice’s questions addressed background checks on the finalists.

“It’s still not clear whether Academic Search gave selection committee full background checks,” he said. “Did you all select the finalists before you completed the due diligence?”

Bigham said background checks did not occur until after the finalists were chosen. But, she said, the search committee knew about the finalists’ problems before the choices were made. After an executive session to discuss personnel matters, Bigham did not speak to the media.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky State faculty senate is planning a faculty meeting to vote on whether to express confidence in the Board of Regents, particularly Karen Bearden, who has been chairwoman since 2012. The faculty senate has also voted on a resolution asking the board to make Thompson a finalist and interview him on campus along with the other three.

Alumnus David Neville said Bearden’s grip on Kentucky State means she doesn’t want an effective president like Thompson.

“She can’t control him, and she couldn’t control Dr. Burse,” who stepped down last year after two years at the helm, Neville said. “We’ve had years of this dysfunction, infighting and silos.”

Faculty Senate President Kimberly Sipes said she appreciated tough questions from Harnice and regent Elaine Farris.

“These are the questions we’ve been asking and have gotten no answers,” she said.

Onaje Cunningham, a junior from Louisville, said he was at Wednesday night’s meeting because he’s concerned.

“I don’t feel like it’s been best practices,” he said. “I just want an ethical process.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford