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Norm Wiener’s piece “Honors Is Elitist, and What’s Wrong with That?” couldn’t have come at more opportune moment for me. Having recently accepted the directorship of a well-respected program founded by the legendary Dr. Bonnie Gray and seated in one of the poorest regions of the nation—Appalachia where, as Philip Cohen sang in “No Christmas in Kentucky,” “the trees don’t twinkle when you’re hungry”—I’ve been thinking a lot about class and honors lately. Eastern Kentucky is a place marked by tobacco barns, mountaintop-removal coal mining, infamous mining strikes (Harlan County U.S.A., Barbara Kopple’s film about one of those, won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1977), and the “persistent poverty” that more than anything else has shaped the region.
All Kentucky state institutions of higher education are assigned a service region to further the mission of “regional stewardship,” an initiative to encourage socio-economic development in the state. Eastern Kentucky University’s service region includes 22 counties, many of which are the poorest in Kentucky. More than a few are among the poorest in the nation. In a recent piece on the need for environmental research and amplified educational outreach, Alice Jones writes that “Eastern Kentucky is an area of persistent poverty, and 18 counties in EKU’s 22-county service region meet the federal Appalachian Regional Commission’s definition as ‘distressed communities.’ ARC-defined ‘distressed communities’ are those with greater than 150% of the national average poverty and/or unemployment rate; and less than 67% of the US average market income per capita. In short, they are not just the poorest communities in Appalachia; they are the poorest communities in America.” According to the EKU Factbook, 2007–2008, over 25% of the population in our service area live in poverty.