CPE’s Aaron Thompson receives 2023 Smith-Wilson Award for Civil and Human Rights in Education


Photo L to R: CPE President Aaron Thompson accepts the the 2023 Lucy Harth Smith-Atwood S. Wilson Award for Civil and Human Rights in Education from KEA President Eddie Campbell.

FRANKFORT, KY -- The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education is pleased to announce that President Aaron Thompson received the 2023 Lucy Harth Smith-Atwood S. Wilson Award for Civil and Human Rights in Education. The award was presented at the 151st Kentucky Education Association (KEA) Delegate Assembly.

The Smith-Wilson Award is given annually to a person or organization that has made notable contributions in any of the following areas:

  • Encouraging and supporting minorities to enter the teaching profession.
  • Advancing opportunities, especially educational opportunities, for youth of color.
  • Initiating or continuing impactful work in the areas of human and civil rights.
  • Leading in the field of innovative, creative and equitable education for all students.

Thompson, the first Black, native-born Kentuckian to hold the position of Council president, was a first-generation high school and college graduate. His career has been dedicated to the belief that quality education not only provides a path to personal prosperity, but also has the power to break cycles of poverty in families and communities. 

“My father said there’s two things worth fighting for, that’s your education and your family,” Thompson said. “I’ve always considered my life’s work to be transforming the education ‘fight’ to ‘opportunity’ for Kentucky’s minority and low-income populations. To have that work recognized by fellow educators is a great honor.”

Under Thompson, CPE developed a strategic agenda for higher education that places equity at the core of the agency’s work. Thompson also helped establish the state’s diversity, equity and inclusion plan and performance funding model for higher education that incentivizes campus progress in equity metrics. Highlights of the changes these efforts have made over five years include:

  • 15% increase in underrepresented minority student enrollment in undergraduate programs.
  • 61% increase in underrepresented minority graduate student enrollment.
  • 110% increase in dual credit participation by underrepresented minority students.
  • 31% increase in the number of undergraduate degrees and credentials earned by underrepresented minority students.
  • 83% increase in the number of graduate degrees and credentials earned by underrepresented minority students.

Thompson has also prioritized expanding Kentucky’s teaching cadre to include more underrepresented minorities. He was instrumental in the establishment of CPE’s Academic Leadership Development Institute (ALDI) program, which aims to prepare minority faculty and staff members for leadership roles in Kentucky higher education. Thompson also helped establish the Commonwealth Educator Diversity Grant Program to promote innovative strategies for recruiting and retaining teacher candidates to increase the diversity of the K12 teacher workforce.

In addition to his work at the Council, Thompson 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. During his time as board chair at Baptist Health, Thompson led efforts to improve diversity and cultural competence in healthcare as well as to support nursing and physician education.

Thompson’s recent awards include induction into Kentucky’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame and the Health Care Governance Leadership Award from the Kentucky Hospital Association, among others.


The Council on Postsecondary Education is leading transformation in our workforce, economy and quality of life by advancing progress in educational attainment across Kentucky. As the state’s higher education coordinating agency, we champion high-quality, inclusive and affordable postsecondary opportunities that prepare students for civic engagement and sustainable careers. That’s why we are undertaking the 60x30 goal, an ambitious effort to raise the percentage of working-age Kentuckians with a postsecondary degree or certificate to 60% by the year 2030. At CPE, we believe that higher education matters – for everyone.


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