Union College alumni and some concerned community members are continuing into the third week of publicly pressing the administration and board of trustees for answers on the state of the institution that has been integral to so many since its doors opened in 1879.
The social media group called “I (heart) Union College,” that features a broken heart emoji between “I” and “Union,” sprang up after an outpouring of support for Union students hosting a revival-type prayer were ushered off college property.
Even after the administration, reacting to public scrutiny, welcomed the revival-prayer event back to campus for an event, the social media group, comprised of now almost 800 mainly alumni and a few community members, persists in its quest for answers about Union’s dramatic 27% drop in enrollment since 2018-2019, why the president received a raise from $158,000 to $207,000 in 2019 that was carried forward to 2020 (last available public documents) as 20 employees were laid off (nearly a quarter of the college’s workforce), and why the college is currently in “monitoring status” with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). The “I (heart) Union College” members who stay informed of legislative actions affecting higher education cite concerns over as a state-led feasibility study that is taking shape to determine the future of a possible four-year public University in Union’s vicinity.
In late February, a joint resolution sponsored by Senate President Robert Stivers (R – Clay County) directed Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education to explore changes to Kentucky’s public higher education that could include “acquiring an existing, private university in southeastern Kentucky to serve the region as a new regional, residential, four-year public university, as an alternative to establishing an entirely new four-year university.” There are only two private institutions of higher education in southeastern Kentucky: Union College and University of the Cumberlands. While Union’s issues with enrollment and SACS have been spotlighted as of late, U of C is continuing a growth pattern with both students and funding, both private and public.
“It is my hope that our community always has a residential college. It sets us apart and is significant to our rich history,” said former Union College Alumni President Ryan Yother.
On Feb. 22 college and university presidents and their vice presidents arrived in Frankfort to hear Stivers to read the resolution.
The Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities convened for their annual meeting the day following Stivers’ announcement of the joint resolution. Union is a long-standing member of this organization. President Hawkins did not attend the AIKCU meeting where the joint resolution was discussed among private colleges.
“AIKCU, the consortium of private colleges in Kentucky, keeps us apprised of legislative activities, and we were notified about this resolution in late February. I was not at the gathering on the 22nd, but I did reach out to Senator Stivers for clarification,” said Hawkins in a statement to The Mountain Advocate. “A review of student needs in southeastern and eastern Kentucky would be helpful to all the existing institutions. It might give us insight into better allocation of scarce resources and a glimpse of the kinds of programming needed. It could also show where increases in state and federal aid are needed to open access to more students. With on-campus enrollments down, and with the number of high school students declining, another bricks and mortar campus in this region seems redundant and would certainly take enrollment from the institutions that are currently serving our region.”
A staunch supporter of bringing higher education and jobs along with it to Knox County is Tom O’Dell Smith, State Representative for the 86th District representing Knox and part of Laurel Counties. Smith was integral in bringing the Knox Campus of Southeast Community and Technical College to fruition in Barbourville. “I support the efforts of President Stivers in studying the college system in Eastern Kentucky and finding the best solutions for the future of our students,” Smith said. “My goals have been to promote the vocational path and with this study, we can find out the best four-year higher education path for our young people.”
The findings and recommendations from CPE are due to be submitted to Kentucky’s Legislative Research Commission to be distributed to the Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment and the Interim Joint Committee on Education by December 1, 2023.
Charles is a native of Barbourville, Kentucky. He has worked with The Mountain Advocate in various capacities since 2003.
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