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U of L Gripped By Uncertainty Following Board's Elimination

U of L

Gov. Matt Bevin’s disbanding of the University of Louisville’s governing board has cast a cloud of growing uncertainty over the institution.

While debate over the legality and wisdom of Bevin’s move continues, routine issues such as hiring deans and passing the budget remain undone on campus.

Among the most pressing questions is how U of L will enter a new fiscal year on July 1 without a board-approved budget. The school’s board of trustees was scheduled to vote on a budget Tuesday, but the group’s demise has thrown tradition and protocol on its head.

For months, the board has been unable to make any personnel moves as a result of a court settlement with Bevin over its racial makeup. Meanwhile, administrative issues pile up.

“The governor’s actions put everything deeper into limbo,” said David Owen, department chair of philosophy at U of L and a faculty senator.

Everything from the budget to faculty promotions, the hiring of new deans and granting tenure, goes through the board, Owen noted.

Questions about leadership also linger.

President James Ramsey issued a statement Tuesday evening, saying he respects and applauds Bevin's move. Ramsey reiterated his plans to step down, but didn't address whether he'd remain as president of the University of Louisville Foundation.

"As I previously told the Governor, I will offer my resignation to the newly constituted board," Ramsey said. "While I am happy to assist the new board in any way possible with the transition, I have no desire, and do not intend, to be President of the University of Louisville beyond the next academic year."

As the governor and the board battle, students await news on their tuition costs for the fall.

Earlier this month, Ramsey proposed raising tuition by 5 percent, the maximum allowed by the state legislature. But the board's finance committee shot that proposal down.

U of L spokesman John Karman said that university leaders are working on spending scenarios, including a budget that “could be enacted if a formal budget is not approved” before the new fiscal year.

Beyond budgets, some on campus worry that the political tussle may have a very real impact on academics.

The university faces a reaccreditation visit in January from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. U of L will have to prove it’s not subject to “undue influence” from the governor or anyone else.

Owen cited his concern about accreditation in a letter he sent to trustees on behalf of 47 faculty members. Owen asked the board to file a court injunction and ask a judge to undo Bevin's move.

Several trustees have said they are looking into legal action, but nothing has been filed in court as of Tuesday evening.

Avery Kolers, a U of L philosophy professor, said he fears the governor’s actions are hurting the university’s reputation.

“[Bevin] talked about high-profile incidents that have cast the institution in a negative light, but he’s the author of a high-profile incident casting the university in a negative light,” Kolers said.

Bevin’s spokeswoman, Jessica Ditto, said in an emailed statement that “there is no doubt” that the governor has the power to reorganize U of L’s board.

“The governor’s legal counsel are confident of his statutory power to reorganize all boards, commissions and agencies that fall under the executive branch, subject to approval or disapproval by the General Assembly at its next regular session,” Ditto said.

The state legislature isn’t scheduled to return for its next regular session until January.

Meantime, the school may have to start a presidential search.

Some faculty have expressed concern about academic freedom issues, considering a board potentially stacked with Bevin acolytes will hire and oversee the next president. In turn, that president determines who makes tenure and represents the school when controversies arise.

Jamie Ferrare, managing principal at executive search firm AGB Search, said Bevin’s move will undoubtedly impact the search for a new leader.

University boards are typically filled with volunteers who are passionate about an institution, Ferrare said. A president looks for a board that will serve as an ally and fight for resources and the university’s best interest. Occasionally, political appointees have stronger ties to politicians than to the institution, he said.

“These are challenging jobs anyway,” Ferrare said. “To have a political piece as well, some candidates may say, ‘I’ll sit this one out and wait for a less volatile political situation.”

Kate Howard can be reached at  khoward@kycir.org and (502) 814.6546. 

This story was reported by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

Kate Howard is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.