The idea of a new state university in Eastern Kentucky is an idea whose time has come! Unfortunately, it may be an idea whose time has come and gone.
It is not a stretch to say that Gov. Paul Patton is a visionary. As governor he had a great understanding of what government could do to help society and he understood how industry, government and finance all come together. He is the last governor that has had any success in working with the legislature.
His view that the University of Pikeville should become the regional state university, and a fine one, is a very timely idea. Bill Beam, longtime staffer for Patton and presently director of the Kentucky Board of Tax Appeals is a direct descendant of Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor. He is also a direct descendant of Jim Beam, who needs no introduction. Bill has held several high profile jobs in government. At the Kentucky Derby just this past month, Beam recalled to me a conversation he had with Patton early in Patton’s first term.
Beam had attended perhaps the finest private prep school in the whole state of Kentucky. He went to college at Tulane. He and Patton discussed why no one from these prestigious prep schools wanted to go to even the better state universities of Kentucky. Patton, a UK product, was surprised that none of Beam’s schoolmates went to any state schools.
To the Governor’s credit, he quickly grasped that some schools are better than others and some are much, much better. That was the impetus for Patton’s separation of the community college system from the University of Kentucky. He wanted the University of Kentucky to rise as a flagship research university and not be Mother Goose for people like me who graduated from a community college.
This is the logic behind his trying, during the last legislature, to get passed legislation to make Pikeville University a state university. The logic goes that if we can educate Eastern Kentucky students better in Eastern Kentucky than at the other state schools then we can keep them there after graduation and raise the overall IQ of the region.
This idea has several caveats but the basic idea is what I have said. There is also the underlying hope that a fine local education will help Eastern Kentucky students be admitted to professional schools, especially medical schools.
A public school kid from the smallest Kentucky school that plays football, I had read about private high schools. But I had never really been exposed to the kind of intense private education that the children of the wealthy and powerful of this nation actually receive.
No, it was only when I got to law school that I actually met people who had gone to Harvard, Cornell, University of Virginia, and all the special small private colleges that there are. But it is enough to say that both Transylvania University of Lexington and Centre College of Danville placed over a dozen students each into my small UK Law class. UK and Western, with many more students who aspired to be lawyers than those two, had fewer representatives at UK’s own law school. The other state schools had even fewer. What is wrong with this picture is that the state universities were not turning out graduates who could pass the examination to get into law school at a level to get into their own state law school. And UK is not even a top fifty law school, by the way.
When the late Chad Perry and others founded the School of Osteopathic Medicine at UPIKE, they were addressing these problems from the top down. Patton, in seeking to establish a good state university at Pikeville was trying to do it from the bottom up.
But since the medical schools at UPIKE and just over the Tennessee line at Lincoln Memorial University were founded, the main industry of Appalachia, coal, has begun to falter. There was a time when coal was king. Then, they could have funded a Vanderbilt level school at Pikeville. But nobody in the coal business or the region saw the need for it or the possibility. Even less were they willing to pay for anything like that.
And now, that the need has been identified they may no longer have the power and money. A state university for Eastern Kentucky, better than anything that exists anywhere else in the state, is an idea whose time has come. Now we just have to hope it hasn’t already gone.