The Kentucky State University faculty senate voted Thursday by a wide margin to express no confidence in Board of Regents Chairwoman Karen Bearden and narrowly voted to express no confidence in the entire KSU Board of Regents.
The highly unusual move caps off a tumultuous two months at the historically black college, in which numerous people protested a presidential search that omitted popular interim President Aaron Thompson and instead included two candidates with blemished records and another with minimal experience in higher education.
Last week, the board voted 7-3 to hire M. Christopher Brown as its 15th president, despite the fact he was ousted from his most recent job as president of Alcorn State University because of financial improprieties.
The faculty senate voted 50-30 to express no confidence in Bearden, with five people abstaining and one ballot left blank. Out of 110 eligible faculty, 86 cast ballots.
A separate vote of no confidence in the entire board was much closer — 39 to 36, with 11 abstentions, according to the registrar’s certified vote totals.
Kimberly Sipes, the chairwoman of the faculty senate, said the vote came after years of concern over the board of regents. Despite the vote being largely symbolic, it signals a dramatic rift on the Frankfort campus.
“There have been a significant number of faculty who were concerned with leadership and decisions being made at the university by the board of regents and by the leadership of the board,” Sipes said. “So the presidential search was the tipping point. We needed to make a statement to let our feelings be known. Our goal by doing this, now that we know a majority of the faculty are in agreement, we would like the board to take notice, and be able to have a discussion of issues that are important to the university.”
Sipes said several attempts were made by the administration to stop the faculty senate’s vote or declare it illegitimate.
Bearden has declined to speak to the media since the presidential search began attracting attention. Instead, regent Ekumene Lysonge, who chaired the search committee, issued a statement calling the vote a “crossroads” for Kentucky State.
“Our board has heard the voices of many stakeholders for the past several months,” the statement said. “The Frankfort community, our alumni, our staff, our students, and now our faculty have all shared their voices. We respect the role of academic freedom, and the shared governance model in higher education. ... The board has been and is ready to hear any and all concerns, from the faculty, staff, students, and/or community ... Our board plans to use yesterday’s results as a catalyst for change.”
Thompson, the interim president, issued a statement Friday calling on the university to “come together.”
“Coming together means that as a university community (faculty, students, staff, regents, alumni and the external community) we must put the hat on that represents our institution as a whole and not our individual interests — despite any lingering individual differences in opinion,” Thompson said. “We must rise above our differences, our silos, our hostility, our personal agendas, our distrust and the vitriol of recent months and move forward. We must stop personal attacks and character assassinations. We must embrace and implement a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect.”
However, the faculty senate’s vote appears to have caused a division along racial lines. The recently formed Kentucky State University Faculty of Color Caucus issued a statement decrying the vote, partly, the statement said, because the number of black faculty have declined in recent years. According to a 2015 report from Kentucky State’s Office of Institutional Research, black faculty make up 24 percent of the university’s total.
The statement said “sheer paucity of African American faculty members has resulted in our systematic and de facto alienation, marginalization, and disempowerment within the institution’s and the faculty senate’s shared governance and decision-making processes, protocols, and mechanisms.”
“The caucus is greatly troubled and concerned about the current tensions and divisions occupying the KSU faculty and, in our view, it is apparent that these divisions have contributed to a complete collapse of conventional communication channels and guidelines,” the statement said.
Kentucky State has suffered from shaky finances and declining enrollment in recent years. Between 2013 and 2015, total enrollment fell from 2,533 to 1,586, although it has since risen 30 percent, and it’s currently facing a nearly $7 million deficit. The school was excluded from last year’s state budget cuts to higher education because former President Raymond Burse said it might force the school to close.