- Born in a sharecropper’s cabin in Clay County, Aaron Thompson was the first person in his family to graduate high school, go to college and earn a graduate degree.
- Thompson said he wants to tackle achievement gaps, a persistent issue in Kentucky and the nation, while he is serving on the state board.
By Jennifer Ginn
Aaron Thompson knows the power of a good education. His life is a testament to education’s value and he’s lived in service of it most of his adult life.
“I was born in a three-room log cabin, it was a sharecropper’s log cabin,” said Thompson, a native of Clay County. “One of the floors hard a hard dirt floor. My father was illiterate, wrote his name with an X as a matter of fact. My mother had an 8th-grade education. I’m a first-generation high school student, first-generation college student and a first-generation graduate student.”
A graduate of Clay County High School, Thompson holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from Eastern Kentucky University and a master’s degree and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Kentucky.
He spent 21 years as a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, then served the school for four years as associate vice president for academic affairs. He also served as interim president of Kentucky State University for one year.
Thompson was named president of the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) in 2018 after serving for four years as senior vice president for academic affairs and for five years as executive vice president. He is serving in an ex officio capacity on the Kentucky Board of Education as a representative of CPE.
His dedication to education came, in part, from his parents.
“My father argued all the time that there’s two things worth fighting for, that’s your education and your family,” Thompson said. “He said, ‘If you get an education, you won’t have to break your back in the coal mines like I did.’ I interpreted that as education gives you options.
“My mother, she’s from Alabama, the deep south. She always said, ‘Boy, you get an education, then you’ll learn how to count your money and you can keep it.’ I interpreted that as education will give me some economic prosperity, and it does. She came from a deep Jim Crow place. She had a real strong philosophy about education. She even taught me how to read and write some before I went to an all-black school in Clay County at age 4.”
Thompson’s leadership experience spans 27 years across higher education, business and numerous nonprofit boards. He has researched, taught and consulted in areas of diversity, leadership, ethics, multicultural families, race and ethnic relations, student success, first-year students, retention, cultural competence and organizational design throughout his career.
Thompson said several educators have played a key role in his life, helping him to see what he could become.
“Along the way, I had educators who helped me,” he said. “Those that protected me from racism as much as they could, those that believed I could learn, those that gave me the opportunity to learn.”
Thompson said he wants to tackle achievement gaps, a persistent issue in Kentucky and the nation, while he is serving on the state board. The board needs to stop talking broadly about the issue and start focusing on one or two areas at time where real progress can be made, he said.
“I realize the problem is so big that we almost talk about it more than we really focus on what to do about it,” he said. “We will use data to identify the problem and not really use analytics to focus on the solution. We need to quit restating the problem and look together, in a very critical way and not just protect our territories.
“If the problem continues to persist, then we’re not doing what we need to do. We’ve got to quit saying we’re trying to solve it. Within our educational institutions in our state we have some of the brightest minds there are. We need to use that great brain of ours and cut down the silos we have.”
Thompson said he wants every child to have the opportunity to succeed and to know they can succeed regardless of where they start out in life.
“Everybody should have the opportunity to learn, but in many cases we haven’t provided them with the chance to know they have that opportunity,” Thompson said. “I feel very privileged to work with such an esteemed group. I may be here only a little while, but I’m going to take advantage of every day.”
Thompson’s term does not expire.