Key Republican lawmakers offered a critical assessment of Kentucky State University but acknowledged its historic role in higher education as they grapple with requests from the turmoil-ridden campus for help in shoring up the school's precarious finances.
Senate President Pro Tem David Givens signaled this week that the historically Black university — situated a few miles from the state Capitol in Frankfort — has work to do to win over some of his Republican colleagues, as the school struggles to overcome its self-inflicted problems.
“There are real concerns in our caucus about continuing to fund an institution that hasn’t taken care of itself,” Givens said at a news conference Monday in Bowling Green.
Senate President Robert Stivers bemoaned the school's low graduation rate, referring to it as “selling a false hope” to students who amass education debt without the reward of gaining a diploma.
KSU faces a potentially defining stretch in the coming months as lawmakers scrutinize management of the university, which is saddled with debt and finds itself in transition after a shakeup among top leadership. The university’s former president, M. Christopher Brown, left in July amid concerns about the school’s finances and lawsuits alleging misconduct by campus officials.
The school has high-ranking supporters, including Gov. Andy Beshear. The state's Democratic governor recently reaffirmed his commitment to KSU, saying it “must be put on a path to stability.”
The school's future ultimately will be in the hands of the state's Republican-dominated legislature next year when it crafts the state's budget.
Despite the school's turmoil, Givens acknowledged its historic role within the state's university system. Lawmakers haven't concluded “what the KSU solution looks like,” he said Monday.
“We are very, very attuned to the KSU concerns," Givens said. “We also start with great appreciation for the role that KSU plays in educating our young people. A historically Black college is a vital, vital part in our fabric of post-secondary education in Kentucky.”
KSU said in a statement late Monday that it looks forward to working with legislators to “achieve the best outcome possible to ensure KSU is viable and thriving for another 135 years.”
"Kentucky State University is committed to doing what is necessary to continue its long legacy of providing access to education and advancing the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” the school said.
The university has said it's taken steps to stabilize its finances, and a top KSU executive gave lawmakers an update at a budget hearing in September.
In recent state budget requests for the coming two years, Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education included $23 million in special appropriations for the current fiscal year to cover KSU’s budget shortfall. The council is the state’s coordinating agency for higher education.
KSU was placed under state oversight after its financial woes emerged. The postsecondary education council found that poor management by KSU leadership in recent years resulted in significant financial losses, said Beshear, who ordered the review.
Stivers, the Senate's top leader, on Monday pointed to one key standard that Kentucky State will be expected to achieve as part of any potential solution.
“Whatever happens, if there is a path forward, they’re going to have to develop a way to compete” with other state universities by significantly increasing KSU's graduation rate, he said.
KSU had a four-year graduation rate of 15.5%, while its six-year graduation rate was 30.3%, according to the council’s most recent statistics.
Stivers and Givens spoke during a gathering of GOP Senate leaders in Bowling Green ahead of an annual retreat by Republican senators. They are planning to discuss issues pending in the next regular legislative session.
Lawmakers head into their 2022 session, starting in January, without “a preordained answer” to KSU's problems, Givens said. He told reporters to “stay tuned” for the legislature's ultimate answer to what he called the apparent “significant mismanagement” of state funds at the Frankfort campus. Whatever the outcome, it won't be business as usual at KSU, he said.
“Whatever resolution we come to will have significant impact on KSU going forward,” he said. "And it will not continue in the model that we’ve seen ... for the last few years.”