Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Preserving the Legacy

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Preserving the Legacy

Article excerpt

AS KENTUCKY STATE PRESIDEI AND APLU CHAIR, DR. MARY SIAS AT VANGUARD OF EFFORTS TO ENSURE EILITY OF 1890S HBCUS.

DI: Why did you decide to become an educator?

MS: I grew up in Jackson, Miss., and at the time both my parents had only an eighthgrade education because Blacks couldn't go on to finish high school and there were no public high schools for them. But my mother would sit at the table every night and go over the things she had learned. So I got educated [at] the kitchen table and thought I wanted to be a teacher. When I got to junior high, I was in a college preparatory track. My teacher, Mable Pittman, was the first person I knew who had a master's degree. I would help her grade papers and stay after school every day to talk to her and listen to her. And she was the first person who talked to me about the possibility of getting a Ph.D. So I understood that a master's degree wasn't going to be my stopping place. Those two women were my source of inspiration.

DI: What should aspiring college presidents do to prepare for the daily challenges you face?

MS: One of the most important things to do is to make sure you have good budgeting skills. You have to understand fiindraising and have improved skills in those areas because we're going to be relying much more heavily on external funds. We're becoming a more state-assisted institution as opposed to state-supported. You must have strong communication and interpersonal skills. You must be able to work with people of diverse backgrounds. You have to understand the legislative process. And you must work with faculty in order to meet the needs of the students we're educating. You must also be well-schooled in technology and student characteristics because they're different from when we were in school.

DI: Many public institutions have struggled to cope with deep cuts in state funding. Has Kentucky State been affected by the state budget turmoil buffeting many public institutions?

MS: We have probably lost 25 percent of our appropriations over the last seven years. We've had to learn to operate more efficiently and effectively and be able to address some of these issues. We do need to improve our fiscal plan and that's particularly difficult in times like these - we have an $800 million-plus shortfall In the commonwealth, the legislature really has been a strong advocate. A new study indicates that Kentucky has been leading the nation in finding new ways to improve graduation and retention rates. They've tried to keep these cuts to a minimum. Unlike in California, where they've lost 40 or 50 percent of funding, they've been very helpful in giving us resources so we can do our work. We've recognized that times have changed, and we're never going to go back to the way it was, but you can have lemons, or you can have lemonade. We choose to have lemonade.

DI: Why are the 1890s, and HBCUs as a whole, still relevant?

MS: I think that it's sometimes very easy to overlook the influence that land-grant institutions have. When you think about what those missions are - those missions are as relevant today as they ever were. And teaching our students is only part of what the land-grant institution does. We are committed to agriculture in the life science fields, and it's very relevant today. We have one of the highest obesity and high blood pressure levels in the country in Kentucky, and they affect African-Americans more than other segments of the society. We're looking at food and nutrition, we're looking at how we change the diets of elementary school students. …

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