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So, Is U of L's President Ramsey Actually Resigning?

james ramsey university
J. Tyler Franklin
James Ramsey

Within hours of Gov. Matt Bevin's June 17 announcement that he would dissolve the University of Louisville's Board of Trustees and that university President James Ramsey would resign, theories began to arise that the embattled head of U of L would not actually leave.

In a letter released by Bevin that day, Ramsey wrote that he would "immediately" submit his resignation to the new board once it had been legally constituted.

On Wednesday afternoon, hours after Bevin announced his picks for the new board, Ramsey finally confirmed when he would submit his resignation: at the first meeting of the new board.

It's not clear when that meeting might happen. It's also not clear whether the new board would accept Ramsey's resignation. And it's still miles away from clear whether a "legal restructure" — the parlance lifted from Ramsey's letter to Bevin — of the U of L board has actually occurred.

With uncertainty the only constant at U of L in recent weeks, it looks like Ramsey's seemingly imminent departure isn't so imminent after all.

“Our legal challenge is not about who will or will not serve on a board of trustees," said Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "It is to prevent Gov. Matt Bevin from asserting ‘absolute authority’ to control the board and the university by simply dissolving the board anytime he disagrees with it. Such power would threaten the independence and possibly the accreditation of the university.”

Beshear is currently suing Bevin over his makeovers of the U of L board and that of the Kentucky Retirement Systems, which manages pensions for state workers.

Joe Dunman, a Louisville attorney who has followed the case and the issues it has raised, said Bevin seems to be on questionable legal ground.

"I would say that the new board does not appear to be consistent with the statute that governs the composition of the U of L Board of Trustees," he said in an email Wednesday. "That law requires the governor to appoint 17 members (along with three chosen by the university from the staff, faculty and student body)."

Dunman also points out that state law doesn't offer a governor any option aside from "cause" to remove individual board members.

"The law does not include any option for the governor to fire everyone at his discretion and then appoint new members and start from scratch," Dunman said.

Bevin's administration has argued it has the authority to do just that under a different provision in state law that allows governors to reorganize boards and commissions temporarily while the General Assembly is in recess.

At this point, a court will decide who's right. Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd held the first hearing in the case last week.

Meanwhile, on campus, U of L doesn't have a budget in place as the new fiscal year looms on Friday, and administrators are expected to rely on a temporary spending plan. And some faculty members are calling Bevin's actions illegal, saying they threaten the university's academic reputation.

"Not only do I believe the governor’s actions to be illegal, but the removal of the legally appointed trustees and replacing them with these individuals presents a threat to the university’s accreditation and to academic freedom, of both U of L and all public universities in Kentucky," said David Owen, chair of the philosophy department.

For Ramsey, the legal uncertainty will almost certainly prolong his tenure at U of L, where he's been president for 14 years.

In his letter to Bevin, Ramsey left himself plenty of wiggle room — perhaps to outlast the inevitable legal challenges to Bevin's restructuring of the board, or maybe to outwit the group of former trustees who'd attempted to force a vote of no confidence in his leadership.

In any event, Dunman said, Ramsey didn't make any promises to get out immediately.

"So, should the legal process take months or years, conceivably Ramsey's continued presence would not be contrary to the terms in his letter," he said.

Ramsey has said he doesn't expect to be at U of L past next school year. He issued a brief written statement Wednesday in response to Bevin's announcement of the new board.

"We appreciate Gov. Bevin's appointment of the new board," Ramsey said. "I have met with the three interim board members as well as the faculty, student and staff representatives, and I plan to meet with the additional board members soon. I look forward to working with this new board as we move the university forward."

It was that last line that prompted a new round of speculation Wednesday about whether Ramsey still actually intends to step down — and if so, when.

Stephen George is President and CEO of Louisville Public Media. Email Stephen at sgeorge@lpm.org.