‘The most terrible, horrible thing I have ever known’: Resignation of Kentucky State University president opens wounds, calls for change

Published 5:05 am Friday, July 23, 2021

Shortly after news broke of Kentucky State University President Dr. M. Christopher Brown II’s resignation amid questions about the school’s finances and several lawsuits against the university, people involved with the university began talking.

Some publicly.

Two former administrators spoke of their time in Brown’s KSU administration with The State Journal, both calling it the most stressful and toxic time of their lives. One professor, under the condition of anonymity, raised concerns about the remaining leadership.

One alumnus, in an Instagram post to his more than 17,000 followers, threatened to release a salacious documentary about financial and sexual wrongdoing at KSU unless the school terminates “anybody that was working in the president’s office.”

Politically prominent alumni have expressed optimism for the future of the university, and former KSU interim President Aaron Thompson — who is leading a review of KSU as president of the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) — said he hopes the probe leads the university toward a thriving future.

‘The most terrible, horrible thing I have ever known’

Crystal deGregory, a research fellow at Middle Tennessee State University, was one of the more high-profile staff members at KSU.

She served as the inaugural director of the Atwood Institute for the Democratic Ideal, a brainchild of Brown’s. The institute is meant to advance research and dialogue about democracy’s role in solving entrenched socioeconomic problems such as racism or the plight of Appalachian Kentucky.

In her role, deGregory spoke at Carnegie Hall and Harvard; she was quoted as an expert in TIME Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education and several other prominent publications.

It was an ideal job for deGregory, who studies historically black colleges and universities, until it wasn’t.

“I cannot put into words how terrible, how horrible that place was,” deGregory said.

She was removed from her post at the institute after a year and a half with no publicly stated reason. She resigned from her associate professor role six months later because of what she called a “toxic work environment” created by administrators beyond Brown.

“It was somehow the worst assemblage of bad people that I have ever encountered in my whole life,” deGregory said. “And I’m not alone in feeling that.”

Qiana Hall, the former director of student financial aid and 12-year employee at KSU, called the months she worked there before being fired the “most stressful” of her life.

Hall says that the administration told her that she got fired in September 2017, just four months after Brown took the helm, because of “budget cuts and consolidations.”

“I would say those few months I was there under him and his team was the most stressful time of my life,” Hall said. “It became very toxic, very unprofessional. If you did not say yes, if you were not a ‘yes’ person, you were out. I saw this going on and really from day one, so I wasn’t shocked when I left.”

deGregory said that the focus on the fiscal health of the university at this point in time belies the problems with poor leadership she experienced during her time at KSU.

Speaking as a historian that studies HBCUs, deGregory noted that pointing out bad leadership is something of a taboo for those institutions because of the racial dynamics at play.

“There is a persistent fear among constituents at HBCUs in general and at Kentucky State in particular that the historically black identity of these institutions is particularly vulnerable and therefore calling into question bad leadership at the institution makes them vulnerable to those that perceive that the school can be acquired and folded into a larger and overwhelmingly white university system,” deGregory said. “Whether that threat is real or imagined, it is real to and for them.”

Moreover, she said that she believed Brown is not solely responsible for issues at the university.

“Brown was a puppeteer, but he was not the only person pulling strings,” deGregory said. “I think there’s a messaging around his departure which would have the public believe that because he’s gone all things are well. It is not my experience that that would likely be true.”

Hall concurred, stating that she believes the board is complicit.

“I think the Board of Regents needs to be held responsible for any financial issues that have happened under Brown’s tenure,” Hall said. “As members of the board, they had full access to the finances of the university, and this isn’t something that happened overnight. As much as I don’t care for him, I’m a fair person and this wasn’t a one-man job.”

One current faculty member, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, told The State Journal that she and others are concerned about Stamps taking over as acting president because of her affiliation with Brown.

“I hope she does well, but I have concerns and other people I’ve talked to have concerns because she’s been part of the inner circle there,” the faculty member said.

Stamps’ base salary as of April was just under $200,000 when she was serving as senior vice president for brand identity and university relations. Stamps did not comment Tuesday when asked what her salary would be as acting president.

Stamps was vice president for marketing and communications during Brown’s tenure at Alcorn State, remaining there after his departure until Brown’s tenure began at KSU in summer 2017.

deGregory compared her tenure at KSU to natural disasters — shortly after her departure, she experienced the Category 5 Hurricane Dorian firsthand — and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I lived through Hurricane Dorian, the Nashville tornados and COVID-19,” deGregory said. “… But for the loss of life, I could live through all of them all over again; I could not live through my tenure at Kentucky State or a place like it ever again.

“It was the most terrible, horrible thing I have ever known.”

Brown spoke on the HBCU Digest podcast, published late Thursday night, in a wide-ranging interview about his tenure at Kentucky State and the state of HBCUs.

In that interview, Brown downplayed the lawsuits recently faced by the university and suggested that the financial concerns raised by regents to Gov. Andy Beshear were a cash flow problem that the university as a whole had, and not malfeasance on his part.

He said financial oversight was a weakness of his targeted by “the parties that be” because of past media reports of his time at Alcorn State.

“The parties that be knew that this was a weak area,” Brown said. “They can’t say academics aren’t up, ratings aren’t up, enrollment isn’t up. The only area that’s not fully defended is this area of fiscal oversight.”

Brown and the interviewer at HBCU Digest noted that KSU has not been the subject of accreditation review or a formal state audit due to financial questions.

He added that he hopes people will remember his tenure there fondly.

“I knew that there were 17 people before me and reminded people all the time that there would be a 19th that would come after me,” Brown said. “… I hope and pray that people will always remember that I left Kentucky State University better than I found it.”

Officials express hope

Two local lawmakers sounded off on the state of the university, waxing optimistic about the future.

Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, said that he couldn’t comment on the current state of the university as he was “still learning about the issues,” but said he would work with CPE and Beshear to improve the school.

“As the university’s state representative and as a proud KSU graduate… I am committed to doing all I can to help the university regain its footing so that students and staff alike have what they need to thrive,” Graham said. “That has to be our paramount goal, and I am ready to work with school administrators, the Council on Postsecondary Education and Governor Beshear to make it a reality.”

City Commissioner Katrisha Waldridge, a graduate and former employee of KSU, said that it saddens her to see KSU at an “oh so familiar juncture,” but that she expects it will rise “from the ashes” stronger than before.

“However, I am comforted in knowing Governor Beshear truly supports and acknowledges our HBCU’s strength and legacy of educational greatness that stretches far and wide as a catalyst for many in our state and surrounding states,” Waldridge said. “In my experience as a student, employee, and now City Official, I value KSU and hold strong to the richness of our school on the hill.”

Thompson told WDRB News that his organization’s probe into KSU would be about more than finances, and that the aim is to help the university thrive in the future.

“We want to look to see exactly how we’re spending money, how we’re paying bills,” Thompson told the station. “… We feel like we got them on a pretty good base by the time I left. So, we want to look at how we can do that again but even much more.”