Senate approves studying feasibility of four-year public university in Southeastern Kentucky

Coal’s decline spurs need for new approaches to economic development, says Senate president’s resolution

By: - March 8, 2023 7:45 pm

Illustration from Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education’s Facebook page.

FRANKFORT — Citing higher education’s potential for spurring economic development in the wake of the coal industry’s decline, a resolution calling for a comprehensive review of Kentucky’s higher education system received Senate approval Wednesday. 

The vote for Senate Joint Resolution 98 was 35-0. It now goes to the House for consideration. 

The resolution, sponsored by Senate President Robert Stivers, would direct the Council on Postsecondary Education to study the need for changes.

Two of the big questions its comprehensive review would consider are if technical education should remain with the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, while traditional academic subjects go to four-year public universities, and if a public four-year university would be feasible in Southeastern Kentucky. 

Stivers’ resolution cites coal’s decline forcing the region “to pursue new economic development and workforce strategies.” The conspicuous  absence of a four-year university hinders the region’s ability to make the same economic progress as other parts of Kentucky, the resolution states.

The resolution calls for studying three options: establishing a new four-year residential university in the region, establishing a residential satellite of an existing public university or acquiring an existing private university. 

Stivers, R-Manchester, has said he has no preconceived ideas about what changes should be made or what recommendations would come from the study. 

While discussing the bill Wednesday, Stivers again referenced changes that face the postsecondary education system, such as the rise of remote work and online learning. 

In his speech, he said he had received calls of concern about his intentions. After the Senate adjourned, Stivers said some of the questions were about if he wanted to take programs from institutions. 

“I basically tell them the intent is to try to have the best postsecondary education system we could have, and … beyond that, there was nothing,” he said. 

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, said on the Senate floor that he supports the resolution. He noted that Kentucky’s higher education system has faced problems and the state’s economy has evolved. He believed that it would be “good that we now take a look” at what changes could be possible. 

After voting in favor, Sen. Rick Girdler, R-Somerset, said that he hoped some higher education institutions outside of the public system would be acknowledged in the study, such as the University Center of the Mountains. 

The study would be due Dec. 1. Findings could be taken up in the next regular legislative session. 

KCTCS is supportive of the review and is “open to working” with the legislature and CPE, its  Acting President Larry Ferguson said in a statement to the Kentucky Lantern. He added that KCTCS contracted a firm to begin its own analysis in December 2022 to study areas such as space utilization and academic programming optimization. 

Ferguson noted “the world has changed considerably since” KCTCS was established by the legislature more than 25 years ago. 

Former Gov. Paul Patton signed the Kentucky Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997 into law after the special session in 1997. Stivers referenced the session in his comments on the floor Wednesday.

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McKenna Horsley
McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.