By Bill Ellis
The opportunity of choosing the next president of Eastern Kentucky University comes at a crucial time in the history of this community. I consider myself as one the many stakeholders, both locally and elsewhere, in what occurs.
I was given the opportunity to attend Eastern when it first became a university in 1966 and was granted an M.A. in History in 1967.
Later, I taught at EKU for 29 years, retiring in 1999.
Eastern quite literally changed my life. Both of my children attended EKU. I also wrote “A History of Eastern Kentucky University: The School of Opportunity,” published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2005.
So, I think my bona fides quality me to offer some advice about the ongoing process of selecting a new leader.
I want to see Eastern grow and prosper in the future. Successive presidents from 1998 to 2007 did little to aid the development of the university. The campus and community was divided during these years.
The presidency of Doug Whitlock has had a soothing effect on the campus. He should be congratulated for shepherding the university through tough economic times. Many good things have happened on the campus, but it is not enough to be satisfied with what has been accomplished in the last six years.
Alarmingly, the university is not growing in enrollment. Eastern faces the same problems as other schools of higher education. Tuition costs keep rising each year, and many potential students are being priced out of attending Eastern.
Moreover, EKU has a high “dropout” rate of its students, and retention of students must be made a priority.
So, what does Eastern need, short of finding a new president “who can walk on water.”
First, the school needs the “headhunting” group it has hired to earn its money and do a true national search. It is hoped that the forum sessions set for Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 12 and 13, will draw large crowds.
Additionally, the board of regents should hold several open forums offering students, faculty and the community input into the process of deciding what kind of president EKU needs.
The faculty, past and present, should have input. Although I have been removed from campus life for over 13 years, it is a truism that “if the faculty ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” (pardon my syntax and slang) on a college campus.
Faculty satisfaction makes for successful students and administrative peace. And, if the faculty of Eastern does not have high participation into who becomes the next president, there will be more years of inertia and failure to fulfill the promise of “A School of Opportunity” and expanding student enrollments and success.
Eastern is like many schools in that inertia carries it along with ongoing building programs and projects. Moreover, the academic side is, like many other facets of the school, controlled by mandates by the General Assembly and the Council on Postsecondary Education.
Eastern must find a new president who can lead a vigorous and successful capital campaign. I only half-jokingly tell friends that EKU needs a clone of WKU’s Gary Ransdell, who has proven time and again to be a fundraiser par excellence. EKU’s next president must be a young, vigorous leader who is on the road raising funds among alumni, friends, corporations, and seeking state and federal funds with abandon. Internationally, Eastern must also increase it reach.
Dr. William E. Ellis retired from Eastern Kentucky University as a foundation professor and history professor emeritus. He also is the university historian and author of “A History of Education in Kentucky.