Saturday, May 11, 2002

Pick-up games score points for Murray State president


Ky. university likes his style

By Kristin Hill
The Associated Press

        MURRAY, Ky. — Murray State University President F. King Alexander joins pick-up basketball games on campus about once a week and dines in the student cafeteria just as often.

        The single father of two also clears his schedule many afternoons at 2:30 to pick up his 5-year-old daughter, Savannah, at Murray Elementary. When time and weather allow, he'll then take her out for ice cream at Dairy Queen, just a few blocks from his on-campus home.

        “When I go over there, it reminds me what this is all about — all those little faces,” Mr. Alexander said of the elementary school students. “We cannot lose sight of that.”

        In his six months on the campus in far western Kentucky, Mr. Alexander has solicited student concerns at residence halls, eased some tension between the faculty and administration and supported a student campaign for a campus wellness center.

        That was in addition to frequent drives to Frankfort to discuss higher education budget and policy issues with legislators.

        The new president, age 38, has been refreshing for the western Kentucky campus, students and faculty say.

        History professor Terry Strieter, who cast the lone vote against hiring Mr. Alexander as the faculty member of the board of regents, has revised his thinking.

        “I've been pleasantly surprised,” Mr. Strieter said in a recent telephone interview. “I think he has really worked himself hard. I think this could just be the kind of person he is. He's open. He's willing to negotiate and not dictate from on high. That's been a breath of fresh air.”

        Murray officially became Mr. Alexander's home Nov. 1, 2001, when he became the 10th president of the 9,300-student university near the Tennessee border. But the Louisville native was familiar with the school and community because it is where his father, Kern Alexander, served as president from 1994-2001.

        The elder Mr. Alexander had sometimes rocky relations with the faculty at Murray State, as well as at Western Kentucky University, where he was president from 1986-88. The hint of nepotism also colored Mr. Alexander's hiring and early months on the job.

        “My father spent most of his time turning this university around, and we need to feed off that momentum,” King Alexander said in a recent interview.

        Faculty members objected to hiring King Alexander, then the non-tenured director of a University of Illinois graduate program.

        Mr. Alexander turned down tenure and canceled the inauguration ceremony — actions Mr. Strieter says illustrate the president is effectively managing university resources.

        “In the tight budget time, is it the time to spend thousands of dollars on an inauguration ceremony?” Mr. Strieter said. “With tenure, he said he didn't think he should get tenure without going through the process. He can be a more independent voice this way.”

        Mr. Alexander said he plans to address publishing student evaluations of faculty and minority hiring — both issues he says are important to faculty members. Of the nearly 400 faculty members, 7.2 percent are minorities, said Annazette Fields, director of the university's equal opportunity office.

        He wants to improve the university's image by promoting research, revamping the public relations and development office and bolstering ties to the region's communities.

        “Everybody says we're the best kept secret, and when I got there, that's what I found,” Mr. Alexander said. “Being the best kept secret isn't a good thing. It's good you have that kind of quality, but you need to market yourself and attract students.”

        He's trying to spread the secret. Since December 2001, Mr. Alexander has put 21,000 miles on his minivan, and the majority of those came from multiple trips to Frankfort, about 260 miles northeast of Murray. He's also traveled western Kentucky recruiting students and building relationships with high school principals and district superintendents.

        When Mr. Alexander travels, he tries to avoid political conversations involving one of his three brothers. Democrat Klint Alexander, 34, is running against incumbent Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., for the 1st District seat in the U.S. House.

        “I have to walk a thin line,” King Alexander said. “Certainly he's a great candidate and I support him, but as president of Murray State I am neutral. I have to bend over backward to show my nonpartisan stance.”

        The president's age — 38 — has been a topic of conversation across the campus.

        “I'm the only president you'll ever have who has significant student loan debt,” he said, laughing.

        Of all private and public university presidents, only 0.6 percent are 31-40 years old, according to The American College President, a 2000 report by the American Council in Education.

        Newly-elected Student Government Association president Jace Rabe said Mr. Alexander's age takes him off the administration pedestal.

        “I enjoy seeing a young president because he'll try new things,” said Mr. Rabe, a senior from Murray who also serves as the student representative on the board of regents. “He has energy; his enthusiasm is a big plus.”

       



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