December 29, 2011 by Al
On the surface, the move to bring the University of Pikeville into the state university system in Kentucky looks like little more than a blatant political move by a few Eastern Kentucky politicians to help solve some financial problems at the school. The arguments being made have to do with economic development and enhancing the workforce in the region. In fact, Paul Powell, who is the chair of the Council on Postsecondary Education as well as the President of the University of Pikeville, claims that the move is not economically motivated. In Kentucky the CPE regulates the universities, and in this case it would be the body that would recommend to the state legislature a move to bring the University of Pikeville into the state system. Before it makes any such recommendation, however, an independent consultant will be hired to do a six to eight week long analysis of such a move to determine the feasibility. In the meantime, the Speaker of the House, Greg Stumbo, who is also from Eastern Kentucky, is busy writing up the legislation so he can present it in January and implement it in the Fall of 2012.
In the end, there is little doubt that politics will trump actual need.
Like many other states, Kentucky’s state universities are drastically underfunded, so having to carve out another slice of an already dwindling pie probably does not sit too well with the administrations of the eight state universities. All the presidents of those institutions have so far been politic enough not to raise any objections. I suppose when the consultant comes back with a recommendation to add the University of Pikeville to the mix then the objections will start flying.
Morehead State University would be the most likely of the state schools to feel any serious repercussions because it presently serves the region that would benefit from making the University of Pikeville a state university. In fact, Morehead has been offering graduate courses in Pikeville for many years. The argument being made by the Eastern Kentucky politicians, however, is that the entire state will benefit economically by adding the University of Pikeville to the state system. That argument needs some evidence to make anyone a believer in it, but the argument that it would help Pike County seems somewhat obvious and reasonable. What may seem neither obvious nor reasonable to others around the state is why Murray State University, Western Kentucky University, and the other six universities should take a cut in funding to help out one county. Any cuts these universities must endure will have corresponding negative impacts on the regions that they serve.
Kentucky is already saddled with more state universities than it needs and certainly more than it can fund. The responsible legislation would be to introduce a bill that consolidates some or all of the schools that already exist rather than add another one to the consortium of mediocre institutions. But we are talking about a state that has 120 counties, about forty more than it should have. The pettiness that has always constrained Kentucky in political divisions will no doubt persist and the state will soon have nine rather than eight mediocre universities, and they may even slip below mediocrity with the new addition. But such is the case when one allows people from Eastern Kentucky to dictate the educational policy.
That last comment may sound bigoted but the proof is in the pudding. Eastern Kentucky is a disaster when it comes to education. The politicians in that region have never been able to improve it in the past, so why would we believe they can improve it now? Let’s face it, the education in Kentucky isn’t all that great anywhere in the state, but the Eastern half of the state consistently shows up as the worst region in all the polls, tests, surveys, and any other measure one wishes to use. When I think of education in Eastern Kentucky the first thought that comes to mind is the two high school valedictorians from Eastern Kentucky high schools who had to take remedial mathematics when they attended the University of Kentucky. It might be better for the students of Eastern Kentucky to go elsewhere to get educated and then bring some fresh ways of thinking back to the mountains. But that is beside the point for now. The issue at hand is whether the state should listen to a couple of Eastern Kentucky politicians who think that all the citizens of Kentucky should pay to educate students at the University of Pikeville. Morehead State has many students from Pike County enrolled currently and there is no reason to believe that the instruction at the University of Pikeville is or will be any better than it is at Morehead even if the former is a private institution and the ladder public. The logical thing to do is let Morehead educate them the way it has been doing for more than 125 years.
Speaking of private institutions, there seems to be a preponderance of members (about half) of the Council of Postsecondary Education who graduated from small private colleges. Whereas in the normal flow of things a lopsided council may be of no consequence, when the issue is saving a small private institution from going out of business (Mr. Powell’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding) then there may be some undue sympathy on the council. This circumstance is probably more of a coincidence than a conspiracy but it may ultimately sway some of the members if things come down to a close vote.
Meanwhile, graduation rates at none of the state universities in Kentucky are very impressive, but both Eastern Kentucky schools — Morehead State University and Eastern Kentucky University — have rates under 40%. The sad thing is that they are not the worst rates. Both Kentucky State University and Northern Kentucky University lag behind Morehead and Eastern. Like I said, it is a state full of mediocre universities. It is also a state where silly political decisions are made as a matter of routine and given the role that education plays in the state — as a convenient bargaining chip for geocentric politicians — in the end the bogus economic development argument will probably win out and the educational hole that is Kentucky’s postsecondary education will become a little deeper and the education a little worse.
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