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Another Scandal Looming, Where Does The University of Louisville Go From Here?

J. Tyler Franklin

The past year has damaged the University of Louisville's reputation.

There was the revelation of U of L President James Ramsey's oversized salary and the unusual process through which he is paid.

There is the NCAA's investigation of the basketball program after a former escort alleged an ex-coach paid for strippers and sex for players and recruits.

In October, Ramsey and his senior staff posed for a photograph at a university Halloween party wearing stereotypical Mexican garb, drawing charges of racial insensitivity on and off campus.

And last week, The Courier-Journal reported that the FBI is investigating top university officials for possible misuse of federal grant funds. The agency is reportedly looking at whether David Dunn, the university’s executive vice president for health affairs, and Priscilla Hancock, its chief information officer, used federal money for private purposes. Former U of L employee Dr. Russell Bessette has also been implicated.

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Dunn and Hancock were placed on leave last week. Larry Benz, the chair of the university's Board of Trustees, said the investigation had been ongoing for nearly 17 months.

All this comes after a handful of university officials landed in prison in 2014 for crimes related to fraud and embezzlement of more than $7 million in university funds.

The scandals and controversies have put U of L under the microscope of outside oversight agencies and invited public contempt. And each has occurred under Ramsey's watch, leading some to question whether stronger action should be taken against university leadership, including the university president himself.

"Traditionally, most organizations, if there is a scandal, will replace the person at the top of the organization," said David Margulies, a national expert in crisis communication consulting.

In doing so, Margulies said, an organization could find closure and move forward.

"Replacing the top person not only addresses some of the issues but allows the new person to be very open, very upfront, because they're not concerned that their reputation is being damaged," he said.

But replacing leadership is not the only option. And thus far, the university's Board of Trustees — who oversee Ramsey — have not only offered public support for him, but in July approved a $162,500 bonus and $20,000 raise for the U of L president. Ramsey's total compensation last year was more than $2.5 million.

Anthony D'Angelo, a professor of public relations at Syracuse University, said there are basic strategies that entities can follow during a crisis to return to the public's good graces. But they're easier said than implemented, he said.

Foremost, he said, the leader of the institution should seek — and tell — the truth. Next, he said, the leader should accept responsibility. And finally, very clear, specific discussions should be carried out about what is being done to address the problems and prevent similar occurrences in the future.

"Those three steps are, pretty much, what your mom would tell you," he said.

Actually implementing them, however, can take a "paradoxical mixture of humility and spine," D'Angelo said.

U of L Response

U of L leaders' response to scandal and controversy has been to keep a stiff upper lip.

The allegations against the basketball program remain under NCAA investigation, and the university has said it is cooperating while conducting its own examination. Head coach Rick Pitino said in a blog post shortly after the allegations surfaced that he would not resign. Pitino has the public support of Athletic Director Tom Jurich, who, in turn, has the public support of Ramsey.

The FBI will not divulge any details of its investigation, although university officials have acknowledged it. On Thursday, Benz told reporters after a meeting of the trustees that Ramsey has their full support and that the president would not resign. He also said the investigation was not a "scandal" and blamed the media for pressing the issue.

Ramsey has declined to comment on the inquiry so far.

In response to protests and outcry on campus over the photograph of Ramsey and his senior staff dressed in stereotypical Mexican garb for Halloween, the university president eventually issued a public apology and agreed to a series of campus conversations on racial sensitivity.

And after months of reporting from a variety of sources revealed Ramsey's annual compensation to be far out of scale with presidents at peer institutions, he remained defiant, saying the criticism was prompted by trustees seeking to agitate. Ramsey also reassigned his top spokesman, Mark Hebert, amid the public criticism.

D'Angelo said if Ramsey is seen as seeking the truth, taking responsibility and actively working to prevent future scandals, then he could stay. But if he fails in this capacity, or if he is complicit in any way in the scandals at the university, "of course, he has to go."

And if it becomes evident that the institution cannot right itself due to a lack of involvement from leadership from the outset, putting the entire organization in a defensive posture, replacing Ramsey or other top officials may be necessary, D'Angelo said.

Regardless of the details of individual events, if they stack up enough that they lead to questions about U of L's leadership, then Ramsey's job could be in danger, he said.

"They have to show the same sort of proactive response to all of them to start to get to a place of credibility, and it can be seen that they are part of the solution as opposed to part of the cause of problem," he said.

'New Vision' Needed

Controversies or not, some believe it's time to replace Ramsey.

Charlie Moyer is the former dean of the business school at U of L. He said most university presidents have a shelf life of about 10 years, after which their vision for the future lags and inspiration languishes. Ramsey has led U of L since 2002.

"We really need a new vision that's more aspirational than the current vision," Moyer said.

Despite that, he commended Ramsey for managing the university and finding success in an environment of state support that has been unfriendly to higher education institutions.

The state's decade-long disinvestment in higher education — which Ramsey frequently cites as putting pressure on the institution — could be a contributing factor to the current situation at U of L, said Avery Kolers, a professor of philosophy and director of the university's social change program.

Kolers said relentless cost-cutting has led administrators to take gambles in hopes of spurring growth. He said the scandals and controversies may be, in part, the result of those risks, and a change in leadership might not help if the underlying problems aren't addressed.

"As long as the political economy of higher ed is unchanged, I fear that any new boss would be same as the old boss," he said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.