University of Kentucky has rehired civil rights activist it laid off last summer

Chester Grundy started UK's first Black Student Union and founded the MLK Center.
Chester Grundy started UK's first Black Student Union and founded the MLK Center.

The University of Kentucky has rehired Chester Grundy, a long-time civil rights activist whose dismissal from UK last year prompted publicity and protest letters.

Grundy is on a two-year contract with the UK College of Medicine as a senior advisor to Dean Fred DeBeer on diversity issues. His focus will be advising the dean and senior leadership on recruitment and retention for underrepresented student populations.

Grundy helped start UK's first Black Student Union in 1969 and went on to found the Martin Luther King Cultural Center and direct it for more than 30 years. He was laid off in June as part of the largest round of job cuts in UK's recent history.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said President Eli Capilouto did not direct the College of Medicine to hire Grundy.

"It's been an amazing turn of events," said Grundy, who started in October. "I think I still have a worthwhile contribution to make and this gives me the opportunity to round out my career in a way that's respectful and deserving."

In a statement, DeBeer said the college has made strides in recruiting and retaining minority students, but they need to do better.

"That is why, as dean, I made the decision to bring on Chester Grundy as a senior diversity adviser," DeBeer said. "As part of his work with the college, Chester will advise me on our policies and practices that serve to foster the kind of inclusive and diverse environment that helps all of our students succeed. To that role, Chester brings a deep understanding of both our institution and our community and how to help foster and sustain the commitment we all share to maximizing the potential of everyone — students, faculty and staff."

Grundy will make about $90,000 a year.

The hiring is timely given recent questions about UK's minority record in the College of Medicine by a former medical school student, who says UK systematically tried to force minority students out of the school.

Lachin Hatemi, who graduated in 2009, started tussling with UK last year over his requests for data about how many black students had left the school before graduating. UK denied numerous requests submitted under the Kentucky Open Records Act, saying the low number of black students would make them identifiable, something prohibited under federal law.

Hatemi enlisted the help of the Lexington chapter of the NAACP, and has talked about the issue with some news organizations.

Blanton told the Lexington Herald-Leader that there were 52 black students enrolled in UK's medical school from 2004 to 2009. Forty-seven of them graduated, which is a 90 percent graduation rate, he said.

Charles Griffith, associate dean of students at the College of Medicine, said the graduation rate for black medical students has stayed about the same over the past decade. Griffith said black students made up about 3 to 4 percent of incoming medical classes; this past year the percentage was 5.3 percent. That is six students out of a class of 118.

About 7 percent of Kentucky's population is black.

"We're always trying to do better," said Griffith, citing support programs for minority students that include intensive monitoring of student grades and peer tutoring. "Once people get in we want to make sure they succeed."

In an email, Hatemi, who is Turkish, said he did not think the college is acting in "good faith."

"I made countless open record requests for demographic data of black medical students between 2004-2012 and my requests were denied every single time," he said.

He also recruited hundreds of other people to make the same requests and they were also denied.

Hatemi said he had heard about Grundy's hiring, and "I admire him personally and I believe he can make a difference if he is allowed. It is too early to say anything."

Grundy declined to comment on Hatemi's claims, saying he didn't know enough about the situation.

Another medical school graduate thinks the situation is more complex.

Jai Gilliam graduated in 2001, and is now a pediatric internist at Central Baptist. He continues to act as a mentor to black medical students at UK.

Gilliam said he was recruited personally by Carol Elam, UK's associate dean of admissions, while he was an undergraduate at Kentucky State University. Still, he isn't sure how well the college is achieving its goal of diversity.

"Some students left because once students feel they're not being supported, they leave," he said. "There needs to be some open honest discussion and listening if that's your true agenda."