By Stephen Burnett
On a Thursday morning this past June, Dr. Mary Sias went to a restaurant for breakfast. While standing at the counter, someone asked if she was the president of Kentucky State University. Immediately, she wondered what criticism she would need to hear out.
Instead, the man had only good things to say about KSU. He had lived in the Frankfort area for 32 years, he told her, and he’d recently discovered that the city’s and school’s relationship was the strongest ever.
After many years in academia and management positions, Dr. Mary Sias hoped to work at a historically black institution, and in 2004 moved to Kentucky to be president of Kentucky State University. Since then the school has increased its enrollment, added new programs such as engineering and aquatics, and gained greater recognition around the nation
Upon hearing that, Sias breathed a relieved sigh, similar to her feelings after another completed semester this past May. But challenges are ahead for the school — more so than when she first came to KSU from the University of Texas at Dallas on April 28, 2004.
“Last semester was pretty good,” Sias said. “The next two years are going to be extremely more difficult than the last two.”
But despite those challenges, mostly to keep combating the persistent economic recession, the school has made strides under Sias’s leadership. Enrollment is up, students are in community-service projects that help pay bills and tuition, and the school is adding programs in new fields.
It’s all familiar territory for Sias, who has spent most of her life in academia, either as a student or leader. As a Jackson, Miss., native, her first higher academic work was earning an undergraduate sociology degree at Tougaloo College. She then went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison and earned a master’s and a doctorate, also in sociology.
Then she left the college scene, and for 14 years she was CEO of Young Women’s Christian Association locations in the Dallas area. But college campuses called her back, in this case to University of Texas, Dallas.
There she spent 10 years as associate provost and then vice president of student affairs. That kind of work may seem like monotonous work when told to others, Sias said, but not to her. “I’ll tell you the truth, which you probably won’t believe: I enjoyed my job and what I was doing.”
She might have stayed, she continued, if not for her conversation one day with the college president. He asked for Sias’s opinion on a particular issue, and the president disagreed. Finally Sias told him she would comply with his directives, but wanted to give him her honest view. At that he looked at her and said, “‘OK, you’re ready. It’s time. You can be a college president.’
“He didn’t fire me,” Sias added, with a laugh. Instead the president, her own mentor, believed she had enough strength and sense of humor to succeed in a position similar to his own.
That led Sias to seek another type of institution, different from those at which she had usually attended and had always worked — a historically black college. About the same time, KSU was looking for a new leader and called Sias about the job.
“Before I knew it, the talk had led to an interview and then a second round of discussions,” she said. “When I interviewed, I fell in love with the students and with their dreams and what they wanted. Many of them chose to come to K State because it was a historically black college, and there was not one in their state.”
At KSU, the only historically black college in Kentucky, about 57 percent of students are from within the state, with others coming from out of state, perhaps because of a lack of a historically black institution in their own states. Of the student body, 54 percent are African-American students, 59 percent are women and 72 percent are classified traditional students, between ages 18 and 24.
Increasing the school’s diversity has been only one of her challenges. “I’ve enjoyed almost every day since I’ve come here — every day,” she said, though adding, “Not necessarily every hour.”
“Kentucky State University has been a good fit for me,” Sias continued. “We’ve done a lot of things to grow the institution, to grow enrollment, to fix some things, to strengthen community relationships. … One of the things I’m proudest of is how much the school and the community have connected and become more seamless.”
In the last eight years, the school has grown from 2,200 students to 2,800. Even more students — about 4,700 — are enrolled in the 275 courses offered online, 80 percent more courses than the 150 courses offered in 2009 and 2010, Sias said. The school has also added graduate programs, such as computer science and engineering, and will soon add a nursing doctorate.
All that is part of KSU’s mission to prepare students for roles in specific careers. That includes study-abroad work, such as the work done by a group that recently returned from Bogota, Colombia. The school is also focused on getting students into pre-professional programs, such as dentistry and law.
Already the school’s current nursing program produces graduates at the associate’s and four-year levels. And despite KSU’s small teacher-education program, Sias said, it yields about one-third of teachers for Kentucky’s colleges. Most students, however, opt for business and nursing degrees, but next to those, communications degrees, such as journalism, are the most popular.
Sias is particularly proud of the school’s aquaculture program. People may have laughed at that concept 15 years ago, but now they just might have sampled seafood that students helped put together, Sias said. “We grow tilapia, large-mouth bass, shrimp, and we cultivate caviar from the paddlefish.”
Students also work with local farmers to start catfish or tilapia farms, all for a program that’s become known worldwide and broadcasts programming to 16 countries.
“Surprise, surprise,” Sias remarked. “And we do have fish fries occasionally on campus.”
To take that program to new heights, the school is only waiting for a new aquatic vessel. KSU was recently given the go-ahead by the U.S. Coast Guard and may start building soon to get its research vessel out onto the Kentucky River. After that, the school may pursue building a Discovery Center with the goal of giving even more options for students in scientific fields.
Other building projects may include a museum centered on the lives of African-Americans in the state, new campus housing, and a pedestrian walkway over U.S. 60. “Our campus is kind of cut by that road, which separates some of our housing from the main campus,” Sias said.
Already the school has been able to garner more support from state and federal legislators. Obtaining funding may be more difficult given economic constraints, but as the school gains an even greater profile across the state and nation, increased support may come, she said.
“We just got a new million-dollar grant from the [state] ag development board to work with under-resourced farmers, and to look at what are called food-desert issues.” Food-desert issues mean urban areas in which people don’t get fresh foods and groceries, such as vegetables.
That’s a lot of credit and productivity for a school that uses only 400 of its 1,000 acres, she said, and which has about one faculty member per 15 students. That, by the way, makes it easier for college leaders such as Sias to know if someone is cutting class, she said with a laugh.
Sias’s and other leaders’ goal remains making KSU a campus no one can ignore or minimize.
“I think Kentucky State University is going to become even stronger, not only as a local college but also as a regional university,” she said. “We’re going to work hard to grow the enrollment … in the next four to five years. We are working very hard on improving the number of students of color graduating in STEM areas —”; that is, science, technology, engineering agriculture and math.
“I’m excited about that. … We’ve come up with some unique ways to help our students. We do have challenges, and our biggest challenge is that we have to improve our graduation rates,” she added. “The best day of my life is graduation day.”
And despite those challenges, Sias still loves her job and can’t see leaving it anytime soon. “It’s still exciting every day when I get out of bed, and [at a work day’s end] I have to remind myself to go home.”