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Amid Controversies, U of L Foundation Paying PR Firms To Push Message

University of Louisville
University of Louisville

Facing growing scrutiny from donors and its own university, the University of Louisville Foundation is paying $11,500 a month in retainers alone for external public relations firms.

In contract proposals submitted in July, the firms shed light on strategies they intended to employ to combat rampant criticism of the Foundation.

The documents, obtained by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, suggest the Foundation is gearing up to try to counter negative stories in the press and highlight achievements of its president, James Ramsey, during his 14-year tenure.

Last month, Foundation staffers signed contract extensions for two Louisville firms: RunSwitch Public Relations, led by political strategist Scott Jennings, and Tandem Public Relations, led by Sandra Frazier. Both contracts were extended as of Sept. 1.

The Foundation issued the request for proposals in late June, shortly after Gov. Matt Bevin disbanded and recreated the university’s Board of Trustees. The same day, Bevin announced Ramsey’s intention to step down as U of L president, which he ultimately did via a $690,000 buyout in July. He remains president of the Foundation, although that could change at Friday’s board meeting.

The most detailed proposal came from Tandem, which named a number of challenges facing the Foundation -- such as the audit underway by state Auditor Mike Harmon.

“It is likely, based on the types of information auditors are requesting, that the state audit of the Foundation will be about much more than governance and could be a blistering indictment of our management practices,” the Tandem proposal said.

The Foundation manages the university's roughly $730 million endowment. It is also the potential target of a lawsuit from the university over its lack of transparency, which Board of Trustees Chair Larry Benz announced last week.

The July proposal noted also that the board of trustees is an unknown -- “leaving the possibility that the Foundation will be placed under a new level of scrutiny.”

Frazier, the Tandem CEO, was a member of the U of L Board of Trustees created by Bevin when the proposal was submitted, but a judge’s injunction put the old board back in place about a week later. (Frazier has donated to WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.)

Frazier referred questions to the firm’s chief operating officer, Michael Tierney, who was listed on the proposal as the agency’s contact.

In an email statement, Tierney wrote: “Happy to confirm that we have enjoyed providing strategic counsel to the Foundation to highlight the important work going on at the University of Louisville.”

With Ramsey’s role with the Foundation “under speculation,” the Tandem proposal read, “we need to be prepared to discuss the future of the Foundation in clear and certain terms.”

Among Tandem’s advice was to approach media outlets with “meaningful, heartfelt stories” about the Foundation’s partnerships with community nonprofits.

“Visible Foundation support of reputable causes in the media could help counter negative press surrounding the Foundation’s controversial support of Dr. Ramsey and select real estate investments,” the proposal said.

Tandem proposed a $5,500 retainer for 36 hours a month, while RunSwitch offered a $6,000 a month retainer without specifying the number of hours. Neither cost included business expenses. The actual costs would likely balloon with expenses and additional time spent working for the Foundation.

Jennings, of RunSwitch, said in an email that his agency participated in competitive bids twice and “in both cases and we were fortunate enough to win.”

In the RunSwitch proposal, the firm noted that it represented the Foundation during an “extremely high stress period” of 2015-16.

“Fortunately, the ULF is in a strong position following this period and is now positioned to move forward as a critical part of the overall success of the University of Louisville,” the proposal said.

“Whether it is touting the tremendous academic gains during President Ramsey’s tenure or highlighting the many innovative projects taking place at the university, we believe it is critical to always talk about your success,” it said. “This serves a dual purpose of setting the record straight with regard to the university’s true story of success while also broadening awareness of the many exciting and innovative things taking place on campus and beyond.”

The Foundation rejected a third proposal from Louisville firm Boxcar, which proposed a $20,000 monthly fee.

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

Disclosure: In 2015, the University of Louisville, which for years has donated to Louisville Public Media, earmarked $3,000 to KyCIR as part of a larger LPM donation. University board members Stephen Campbell and Sandra Frazier have donated to KyCIR.

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