VERSAILLES — Jay Box, chancellor of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, was named the system's president Wednesday, becoming the second person to lead Kentucky's largest higher education institution since it was formed in 1997.
The KCTCS Board of Regents announced the decision after an hour-long meeting behind closed doors. There was little surprise, because the board had named Box its preferred and only candidate last week.
Box will take the reins Jan. 16 from Michael McCall. Negotiations over Box's contract and pay continue but should be completed in December, board of regents chairman P.G. Peeples said.
As chancellor, Box makes $250,155 a year.
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McCall makes about $328,325 a year in base pay, plus numerous bonuses, and he receives a $90,000-a-year housing allowance and $43,000 a year for a car. Before he announced his retirement, the KCTCS board agreed to pay McCall a year's salary as president emeritus after he leaves the system. He has been the highest-paid community college system president in the country.
A Texas native, Box came to Kentucky in 2002 to be president of Hazard Community and Technical College. He worked there until 2007, when he was named a KCTCS vice president for administrative systems and, in 2009, chancellor.
Peeples cited Box's knowledge of the system, and of education statewide. "He understands and has worked with the Legislature. That's going to be very critical to persuade the Legislature to raise our funding up," Peeples said. "He's been an administrator, he's been a president, he's been in the system, and as chancellor he was really involved day to day with the various colleges. I think he brings the full package."
At the announcement, Box thanked the board for the honor, and he thanked the 16 campus presidents who showed up to congratulate him.
"Our efforts and what KCTCS has achieved wouldn't be possible without them," he said.
Augusta Julian, president of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, said the decision to hire Box "says really good things about where we are. We've made tremendous progress, and he's been a big part of that."
On Tuesday, Box answered a series of questions from faculty, staff and students in an hour-long online forum.
Box said his first three priorities will be improving the system's financial aid program so more students can get the help they need to go to school; working with the state's high schools to improve students' readiness for college work; and improving student completion rates.
"One of the things we've done well is to provide access," he said Wednesday. "Where we have not done as well is the success of those students."
The system — made up of 72 campuses and 92,000 students — was formed in 1997 as part of the Higher Education Reform Act. A controversial portion of the law took all of the state's community colleges, which were run by the University of Kentucky, and merged them with the state's technical schools to create the new system.
McCall has been credited with forging a strong system that quickly grew in size and quality. The system is meeting state goals for total degrees and the number of students who transfer to four-year schools — more than 10,000 students last year.
KCTCS is considered a crucial access point to higher education. About half of its students are ages 18 to 24, and about half are older than 25. Students come for degrees but also to enhance or get new career training.
At the same time, KCTCS faces unprecedented challenges amid state funding cuts. Total enrollment has fallen to 92,000 from a high of 108,000 students in 2011. The number of credentials awarded has stayed steady at about 28,000 for the past two years.
Affordability also is a significant problem. KCTCS has lost $38 million since 2008 in state funding, so like all schools in Kentucky, it is more reliant on tuition to pay the bills, and that puts more strain on students.
Melissa Thomas, for example, has been working on her engineering degree at BCTC while working full-time. She gets financial aid for most of her classes, but she has to find the money for books and a parking pass, which cost her $270 this past year.
"By the time they tack on all the little fees, I think college in general is getting too expensive to afford," Thomas said. "If you're trying to work enough to support yourself and go to school, it's almost undoable."
KCTCS also relies heavily on part-time faculty. On Tuesday, Jay Box said he supported tenure protections for faculty, but according to a 2013 Southern Regional Education Board report, part-time faculty make up 62 percent of the system's teaching force, up from 56 percent in 2007.
In 2009, the KCTCS Board of Regents voted to stop hiring people for tenure-track positions, although that decision was overruled by the attorney general.
"Morale is low, salaries are low, we've had hardly any raises," said Jake Gibbs, a BCTC professor who has tenure. Gibbs said he didn't know much about Box, but that people were surprised "they did a national search and he was the only finalist."
Gibbs also said there has been outrage about McCall's emeritus contract, in which he will be paid more than $300,000 to advise the man who has been his second in command for the past five years.
On Wednesday, Box insisted that McCall's 16 years as president will provide good guidance. "That value is so important for a new president," he said.