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Committee Passes Bill Giving Governor More Power Over University Boards

A state Senate committee has advanced a bill that would give the governor of Kentucky broad powers to reorganize university boards or remove board members if he or she believes there's cause to do so.

The legislation would also allow the governor to replace the most recent members appointed to university boards in order to make the panels compliant with racial and political requirements also mandated by the legislation.

Last year, Gov. Matt Bevin claimed he had “absolute authority” to overhaul the University of Louisville board of trustees, citing “dysfunction” and “enmity” in the group. He abolished the school’s board and replaced it with a smaller one, though a court later blocked the move and reinstated the banished board.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools then placed U of L on probation in response to Bevin’s attempt and his apparent negotiation for the retirement of U of L President James Ramsey.

Senate President Robert Stivers, author of the bill that would expand the governor’s power over university boards, said the legislation clarifies issues raised by SACS.

“Our statutes never envisioned a situation in which the potential of a board may be removed for cause, individuals be removed in the process or individuals who did not qualify to be on the board were to be removed,” Stivers said.

With Republicans in control of the legislature and governor’s office for the first time in state history, lawmakers earlier this year passed a bill mimicking much of Bevin’s U of L reorganization. That legislation precipitated Bevin’s appointment of a new set of trustees in January.

The new measure would apply to all state university boards, allowing the governor to remove individual board members or abolish an entire board in cases of "misfeasance, malfeasance, gross neglect or incompetence," according to Stivers.

“It could be something as simple as maybe they are not attending or participating, they fail to get training, or it can be to the extent that they are trying to use their position to influence improperly contracts or anything of that nature with the university, or failing to do the appropriate oversight,” hesaid.

The governor would refer the allegations to the state's Council on Postsecondary Education, which would then conduct an investigation and make a recommendation to the governor within 30 days.

"The governor has the ability to act on those recommendations as he sees fit. Follow them or disregard them," Stivers said.

In addition to “dysfunction” on the U of L board, Bevin’s office argued that an overhaul was necessary because the board had too few minorities and too many Democrats — making it noncompliant with rules requiring it to reflect Kentucky’s racial and political proportions.

Though that rule currently only applies to U of L, the bill would expand the policy to all state university boards and allow the governor to bring boards into compliance by replacing members on a “last in, first out” basis.

“This provision should not be invoked if the governor — and this is part of the input process — can cure the imbalance with one set of appointments,” Stivers said.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, worked with Stivers on the bill and said the bill is a “step in the right direction” to get the U of L’s accreditation off probation.

“There are parts of this bill with which I don’t necessarily agree on a policy level as the best way to go forward,” McGarvey said. “But I do think it addresses SACS’ concerns. And I think the immediate concern — especially as a member of the Jefferson County delegation — is to get the accreditation of the University of Louisville off probation as quickly as possible.”

The bill will now be considered by the full Senate.

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