Op-Ed

Kentucky voices: Ramrodding UPike plan a bad move for Ky.

The audacity of rushing the University of Pikeville into the state higher education system, past every sensible objection, is breathtaking.

Yes, it would allow former Gov. Paul Patton to organize one final, open-ended money dump for his city, at taxpayer expense.

However, it also would dump decades worth of carefully considered, and presumably settled, strategic higher education policy, adopted to prevent costly duplication of services and programs.

Using coal severance tax money to lower UPike's tuition to public campus levels is nothing more than an opening ante. Patton, or one of his successors as the institution's president, will come to Frankfort every two years, demanding more cash for more people, programs and facilities, in order to achieve "parity" with the rest of the state system.

The argument will be that mountain kids deserve no less than students elsewhere. Never mind that every other institution in an already-underfunded state system will pay the bill for this budgetary blackjacking.

A few weeks of study is ludicrous, if the General Assembly really wants to understand UPike's fiscal and physical condition, before positioning it to demand the huge future outlays needed to remake it as a full-service four-year public campus.

No new data are needed to show that Kentucky — a state in deep financial trouble and chronically short of money — can't afford another such institution. If it could, Pikeville would have to get in line with other cities that have an equal or better case to make, including Owensboro, Paducah and Somerset.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Patton say the Eastern Kentucky coalfields deserve a four-year public university. They fail to mention that Pikeville is at one end of Southeastern Kentucky and not geographically situated to serve all three separate mountain coalfields in the Big Sandy, Kentucky and Cumberland river valleys.

UPike will end up primarily serving part of the Big Sandy Valley and a swath of southern West Virginia.

A more sensible approach would be to build on the public-private University of the Cumberlands Partnership, centrally based at Hazard, or to use any available state funds for scholarships coalfield student could use at any public or private school of their choice, including UPike.

Kentucky's state university presidents, who know what this educational Anschluss would mean, certainly oppose the UPike plan.

They haven't publicly railed against it, but their caution is understandable.

Stumbo is in a position to take legislative and budgetary umbrage at any dissent. For merely expressing itself, carefully and thoughtfully, the Morehead State University board was vilified as "petty" and "small."

I speak for myself — not for that board, on which I serve — when I say that Stumbo, whose skill and insight I long have admired and applauded, was unfair in his criticism.

I'm also disappointed that Patton's use of statistics to make the UPike case requires such close scrutiny, as Bell County Judge-Executive Albey Brock proved in a KET debate this week.

Stumbo and Patton are exceptional public servants, but, like all of us, they are capable of mistakes. That's what turning UPike into You Pay would be — a costly mistake with broad and enduring consequences.

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