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Senate committee votes to replace board of KSU, citing financial woes

A man in graduation robes and a mortarboard stands and poses, smiling, for a seated woman in graduation garb taking a photo.
Courtesy of KSU
Students gather at Kentucky State University's 2016 graduation.

A senate committee moved forward a bill Monday night to overhaul the governing board of Kentucky State University — the state’s only public historically Black university.

“The General Assembly finds and declares that the Kentucky State University board of regents has a current membership that has a history of failing to function and is no longer functioning according to its statutory mandate,” the bill reads.

The measure, which passed unanimously, would require Gov. Andy Beshear to replace all eight governor’s appointees to the board by April 1. Under the bill, current KSU board members may be considered.

KSU’s financial troubles came to light last year when former university president M. Christopher Brown II resigned abruptly in July. Beshear ordered a financial audit by the Kentucky Council of Postsecondary Education, which found the school’s finances in disarray. Its cash flow started to tank in the 2018-2019 school year, eventually leaving the university with a budget shortfall of $23 million.

The audit found this was the result of “poor leadership over the financial management of the institution.” Auditors also found KSU’s “production of bachelor’s degrees” was the lowest among its peers and that its overall degree productivity “has exhibited precipitous decline in recent years.”

“All of us in the room are aware of the vital role that KSU plays in our postsecondary landscape,” bill sponsor and Senate president Pro Tempore David Givens told the committee. 

“In addition, all of us in the room are well aware of the challenges that have come to light in the fiscal management and the challenges in producing graduates that KSU has faced,” Givens said.

Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE), didn’t take a position on the proposed overhaul of the board.

But, he told the committee, “if we're gonna do it, we probably want to do it fast.”

In its November audit, the CPE recommended the legislature provide $23 million to cover the shortfall. A bill providing a $23 million interest-free loan has passed the House and is assigned to a Senate committee. The bill also includes a three-year “improvement plan” to be overseen by the CPE. Under the measure, if KSU meets the provisions in the improvement plan, the General Assembly may forgive the loan.

Givens, a Greensburg Republican, said the Senate would take up the funding bill in the next 10 days.

In committee, Sen. Gerald Neal, a Louisville Democrat, questioned Givens and seemed skeptical of Republicans’ commitment to providing adequate support. 

Neal told the committee he’s heard from people who are “concerned that the moves that the General Assembly is making are moves to set up the university to fail, not to succeed.”

Neal pointed to what he called a historic lack of support for the HBU from the  General Assembly.

Givens said funding was among “five or six things” KSU needed to succeed.

Neal asked Givens if he would commit to doing everything in his power to help the university face the current and future challenges.

“A solid ‘yes,’” Givens said. “But if I do everything within my power, and that institution still continues to fail students, after three to five years of time, effort and money, the institution will deserve to close.”

In a written statement, Elaine Farris, chairperson of the board of regents, said the board was “saddened that SB 265 was filed.”

“We recognize the challenges of this moment in history but know that through our actions we have served with dignity and honor, helping transform an institution in crisis. We conducted our business professionally and in accordance with the bylaws and statutes as authorized and we made decisions based on information that was presented to us,” Farris wrote.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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