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Feds call on state to address $172M underfunding of Kentucky State University

The U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture say they’ve found a “longstanding and ongoing underinvestment” in KSU compared to its predominantly white counterpart, the University of Kentucky.

In a letter to Gov. Andy Beshear, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vislack say “unequitable funding” of KSU has caused a “severe financial gap.”

“In the last 30 years alone, an additional $172,135,168 would have been available for [KSU],” Monday’s letterreads. “These funds could have supported infrastructure and student services and would have better positioned the university to compete for research grants.”

Predominantly white land-grant schools get more funding than land-grant HBCUs

Federal officials say they calculated the gap by comparing per-pupil funding between KSU and UK from 1987 to 2020. Both are land-grant institutions, meaning Congress gave states federal lands in 1862 and 1890, which states then sold and used the profits as seed funding to start colleges and universities.

Land-grant schools started or bolstered as a result of the 1862 Morrill Act, including UK, served predominantly white students and barred most students of color. Many schools helped by the 1890 Morrill Act, like KSU, were meant to serve Black students in a segregated society.

Federal lands granted to states were taken from indigenous tribes through treaties and force. Lands sold to support UK and KSU belonged to many tribes, including the Sioux, Kaw, Chippewa and Osage, according to reporting by High Country News.

Kentucky is among 16 states whose governors received letters Monday noting funding disparities between historically Black land-grant institutions and their predominantly white counterparts. All of the states implicated are in the U.S. South. The total disparity amounts to $12 billion.

The letter to Beshear says federal officials intend to work with the state’s budget office to close the gap.

“It is our hope that we can collaborate to avoid burdensome and costly litigation that has occurred in several states,” the letter reads, referring to lawsuits in Maryland and Florida alleging states provided inequitable resources to historically Black land-grant institutions.

Feds say $172 million owed to KSU

The secretaries say they are encouraged by recent state investments in KSU, evidenced by the 2020 per-pupil spending.

The study the secretaries referenced does not account for a $23 million loan the GOP-led Legislature gave KSU in 2022. The loan, given through 2022’s House Bill 250, was meant to help shore up a cash shortfall and pull the struggling school out of financial turmoil. KSU had to submit an improvement plan, which is being overseen by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. Payment on the loan is scheduled to begin in 2027.

KSU is still recovering from reports in 2021 of misconduct, financial mismanagement and sexual harassment by former leaders.

The Legislature overhauled KSU’s governing board in 2022, which recently brought in new leadership.

Later that year, KSU leaders pleaded for more help from legislators in addressing “atrocious” conditions in KSU facilities.

During that October 2022 committee meeting, Republican Sen. Christian McDaniel told KSU leaders the Legislature was “probably at the end of its financial patience with Kentucky State University” and blamed facilities concerns on a “bad culture.”

Federal officials acknowledge it would be “ambitious” for Kentucky to address the funding gap short-term, “given the large amount of state funding that is owed to [KSU].”

“It might very well be your desire to do so, which we wholeheartedly support. Yet, if an ambitious timetable is not a possibility, we suggest a combination of a substantial state allocation toward the 1890 deficit combined with a forward-looking budget commitment for a two-to-one match of federal land-grant funding for these institutions in order to bring parity to funding levels,” the letter reads.

The secretaries said they wanted to make it “abundantly clear” that the state should not reduce funding to other institutions to address the disparities.

KSU, state officials respond

In an emailed statement, KSU President Koffi Akakpo said he’s still reviewing the letter from Cardona and Vislack.

“The General Assembly demonstrated their support of KSU with House Bill 250 in 2022 and I look forward to partnering with the General Assembly and the Governor in the upcoming Legislative Session,” Akakpo’s statement reads in part.

In a statement sent after our deadline attributed to Senate President Pro Tempore David Givens, the Greensburg Republican said the GOP caucus “has proven our unwavering commitment to [KSU].”

“We realize the vital and unique role of KSU but also have witnessed firsthand the acknowledged financial mismanagement and drastic decline in enrollment. We chose to provide additional funds to relaunch this historic institution with substantial guardrails,” the statement reads, noting the $23 million loan and an additional $15 million tied to KSU meeting certain benchmarks.

“As we approach the 2024 budget session, the General Assembly will remain prepared to address challenges affecting post-secondary institutions, striving to create an environment where schools like KSU can regain financial stability and excel in their educational mission.”

Beshear’s office did not respond to a request for comment by our deadline.

This story has been updated.