EKU president prepares to say goodbye

Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock, the school's 11th president, came to EKU as a first-generation freshman.
Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock, the school's 11th president, came to EKU as a first-generation freshman. Lexington Herald-Leader

RICHMOND — When Doug Whitlock first arrived on the Eastern Kentucky University campus, he was a wide-eyed freshman, a hometown boy and the first member of his family to attend college.

When he departs this summer, Whitlock will retire as Eastern's 11th president, ending an association with the school that lasted almost 50 years.

Whitlock, 69, said in a Herald-Leader interview Tuesday that he came to Eastern fitting a student profile that continues at the school even today, with first-generation students still making up more than half of new enrollees.

"For most of our students, attendance at Eastern Kentucky University is a truly life-changing event," he said. "It was for me. Had it not been for the opportunity to go to Eastern, my life would have been entirely different."

Whitlock wants to see that tradition continue. But now it will be up to someone else to keep it going.

Eastern's search for a new president is entering the final stages with the announcement of three finalists last month.

Tight budgets fueled by state funding cutbacks have dominated Whitlock's agenda almost since the day he became Eastern's president in fall 2007.

And he saids his successor probably can look forward to more of the same, at least in the short term.

"The year coming up will be the first since I've been on the job where we don't have a (state) budget cut impending," he said. "So, I do think that the decline in state support has stopped.

"But the only prospect I can see for any significant infusion of new state dollars would be through tax reform or expanded gambling. Otherwise I don't see anything except modest, incremental improvements in our future."

That means Eastern, under its new president, will have to continue efforts already under way to cut costs, including plans for voluntary job cuts and program reductions that EKU regents authorized last month.

The reductions, totaling about $23 million — 10 percent of Eastern's annual budget — will allow EKU to reallocate money to raises and new initiatives and stabilize the university's financial picture.

But involuntary layoffs could follow if reductions don't produce the needed savings, officials say.

Whitlock said that Kentucky is not funding higher education adequately, but "it could be a lot worse."

"Since the financial hard times began in late 2007, cumulative budgets for higher education in Kentucky have been cut about 16 percent," he said. "But if you look a states around us ... you'll find cuts ranging from 25 percent to almost 50 percent, in the case of Georgia."

'Tipping point' on tuition?

Reduced state funding has forced Eastern and other schools to steadily boost tuition over the past few years to make up the shortfall. Whitlock said Eastern has weathered the tight money "in pretty good fashion." But he warned that higher education could be nearing a "tipping point" if tuition keeps climbing.

"Despite the fact that tuition has gone up significantly, I still think college is affordable," he said. "But I do believe that there is a tipping point where we could price people out of the market."

That could be significant for Eastern, which, Whitlock said, includes several economically depressed counties in its primary service region.

Whitlock became president at Eastern after holding several staff positions at the university and serving as an executive assistant or vice president under four presidents. When he took the top job, it turned out to be rather like being given a new Cadillac only to find that the engine had a blown head gasket.

The bottom fell out of the U.S. economy soon after Whitlock was named, and higher education support nosedived.

Asked whether he ever asked himself "why me?", Whitlock said he is a country music fan.

"No matter how bad your day is, you can always turn on a country music station and hear a song about someone who's got it a whole lot worse than you," he said.

He said Eastern has accomplished much despite penny-pinching budgets. Among other things, he cited the university's new $64 million science building, positive accreditation results, strong student performance and good reviews by EKU employees.

Arts center problems

A trouble spot has been the EKU Center for the Arts, where financial irregularities surfaced soon after it opened last year. The center's executive director, Debra Hoskins, resigned after EKU tried to fire her.

Whitlock said the controversy apparently has not affected the center's success.

"I regret some of the aftermath, but that will heal," he said. "I don't think it has affected this season, and I understand that financially we're doing better than we did a year ago."

Through it all, Whitlock apparently has managed to maintain good relations with the university's students, staff and faculty.

Malcom Frisbie, faculty representative on EKU's board of regents, said the faculty senate voted to recommend that Whitlock be given the title of president emeritus when he retires.

"I think it was a heartfelt thing," Frisbie said. "He has had good relations with the faculty; faculty members feel comfortable with him and confident in his abilities.

"He has not had the luxury of ample financial resources during the six years he's been president, but he has managed to help us to move forward."

Whitlock also has earned the admiration of students, said Madelyn Street, an EKU senior who represents students on the board of regents.

"He has demonstrated throughout his presidency that he truly cares about students and wants them to succeed," Street said. "He's been very visible at athletic events and student activities. Probably every student has had a chance to meet him at some point."

With his days at Eastern winding down — he's scheduled to retire July 1 — Whitlock said he wants to do some traveling, perhaps get into consulting, perhaps even write a novel. But he promised that he will "stay out of the new president's way."

"The way this university is going to succeed is if the person who follows me succeeds," he said. "So whatever he asks me to do I will do. But the institution can have only one president, and whoever comes is going to have my full support."

Finalists for EKU president

■ Gregg Lassen, vice president for finance and operations at Lamar University in Texas.

■ Michael T. Benson, president of Southern Utah University.

■ Alan T. Shao, business school dean at the College of Charleston.

Benson and Lassen visited the EKU campus last week; Shao was in town Tuesday.

A decision by EKU's Board of Regents is expected soon.

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