When M. Christopher Brown II became the 18th president of Kentucky State University, he knew the job would be a challenge.
In recent years the land grant, historically black college in Frankfort accrued a $7 million deficit, endured declining enrollments and graduation rates, and dropped 645 students for unpaid bills. With state budget cuts to higher education, KSU even faced the possibility of closing its doors.
Brown, who became president in 2017, says he hopes to lead a renaissance at the school.
“Kentucky State’s an exceptional institution,” says Brown. “One hundred and thirty-two years of history and progress, but the last decade has not been the kindest for us for lots of reasons, and so this is an opportunity to revitalize.”
Brown appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss his plans for the school, efforts to improve student retention and graduation rates, and state funding concerns.
The KSU post actually marks Brown’s return to the commonwealth. The South Carolina native and former elementary school teacher got his master’s degree in education at the University of Kentucky. He says he arrived in Lexington by Greyhound bus and carting all of his belongings in 11 boxes.
“I lived in a one-room efficiency off of Versailles Road and had a wonderful time at UK,” Brown says.
After earning a doctorate degree at Pennsylvania State University, Brown served as president of Alcorn State University in Mississippi and provost at Southern University and A&M College System in Louisiana. He has also held executive positions at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the United Negro College Fund.
One of the problems that Brown says he found upon his arrival at KSU was that the school lacked a clear path to success.
“There’s scripture that says ‘Write the vision, make it plain, that he that readeth it may run,'” says Brown, who is also an ordained Baptist minister. “So I think we may have been asking people to run without having a written vision of where they were going… but now we’ve got a good roadmap.”
Addressing Student Retention
The first step, says Brown, is to recruit students who want a college degree and are academically prepared to attain one. He says in the past, KSU accepted students who had one of those factors and not enough young people who had both. Once those students are on campus, he says KSU must be equipped to help them graduate in four years and prepare them for gainful employment in today’s job marketplace.
“Four-year institutions are relatively expensive for the average family, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s money,” Brown says. “[I want] to make sure that their learner, their son, daughter, niece, nephew has a positive and successful experience, and graduates on time.”
In the past, KSU’s four-year graduation rate was as low as 6 percent, according to Brown. This year, he says he hopes that it will be at least 20 percent. Ultimately he’d like to see the school’s four- and six-year graduation rates rise to at least 70 percent.
Brown says research shows that students who leave KSU don’t drop out of college altogether, but go to other institutions and complete their degrees. He says that shows that KSU needs to improve the student experience for its enrollees.
“We’ve changed campus climate and culture to make the students want to stay,” he says. But he adds there are “still miles to go before we sleep.”
On the academic side, Brown says KSU needs to offer better cooperative and internship opportunities so students can get more on-the-job experience. As for the campus environment, Brown has plans for a new academic quadrangle as well as a clock and bell tower in front of its main library. He also hopes to put a new sculpture at the campus entrance and build new residence halls.
“When I went to college as a freshman, I went down the hall to a community shower,” says Brown. “No student is preferencing that now… They want the suites, they want the flat screens.”
To fund these projects, Brown hopes to increase charitable giving to the school and promote public-private partnerships for some campus operations like dining services and security. He also wants to boost public confidence in KSU as an institution so that more businesses will be inspired to partner with the school.
“Having more people have a vested interest in the success and the entrepreneurial profitability of the campus leads to better outcomes,” Brown says.
State Funding Concerns
Like Kentucky’s other public universities, KSU has endured dramatic cuts in recent years to the funding it receives from state government. Brown says the school is also struggling under the new performance-based funding model.
Adopted by the General Assembly in 2017, performance-based or outcomes-based funding allocates state dollars to colleges and universities based on the institution’s performance relating to key metrics of student success, course completion, and campus operations.
“I have no problems with performance funding or accountability metrics,” says Brown. “When institutions are given clear intentions on expectations and outcomes, they work to meet those, and I love an environment where that was the case.”
But most states that have performance-based funding apply the model to increases in higher education appropriations. Kentucky is applying the formula to all state funding for public universities and community colleges.
“It’s really not a performance system we’re operating. We’re operating an equilibrium redistribution system” says Brown. “That’s a little challenging, but it’s the reality in which we have to live.”
This year, KSU ranked sixth out of the eight public institutions on performance measures, according to Brown. But he says KSU got no money, while the schools in the seventh and eighth positions got millions. Over the long term, Brown fears KSU’s revitalization efforts could be hurt without changes to the funding formula.
“If we’re not careful, the progress that we have made shifting and turning the corner can be undone by an erosion of the base funding,” he says.
Promoting Student Diversity
Historically black colleges and universities were founded before the 1964 Civil Rights Act to primarily serve African American students. Brown says some HBCUs like Morehouse College in Atlanta are nearly 100 percent black, while other schools like West Virginia State University are 87 percent white.
KSU now has a near 50-50 split between students, faculty, and staff of color and those who are not. Brown says exposing students to that kind of diversity will benefit them later in their careers.
“Our students live in classrooms on a daily basis and residence halls that really prepare them for life in a global workplace,” he says.
This year Kentuckians comprise just over 70 percent of the student population at KSU. That’s up from previous years when the school attracted more students from larger urban areas in other states. Brown says KSU has a responsibility to serve students from all parts of the commonwealth, but he admits that demographic shifts make that a challenge.
“Kentucky is one of the five lowest birth-rate states in our nation,” Brown says. “Fewer children means fewer high school graduates. Fewer high school graduates means fewer college-age eligible students.”
So KSU has plans to reach beyond the traditional 18 to 24 year-olds to boost enrollment. Brown says the school will launch a “completer program” in 2019 to encourage those who dropped out of college to return to KSU and finish their degrees. The program will target adults who earned at least 90 credit hours before leaving school. Brown says those returning students will be able to earn up to nine credit hours for professional work experience.