Citing the “immediate diminishment of the academic legitimacy and reputation of the University of Louisville,” a group of 47 faculty members Tuesday morning asked the members of the Board of Trustees to seek an immediate injunction blocking their removal by Gov. Matt Bevin.
Saying that state law allows trustees to only be removed for cause, the professors also say the trustees fired by Bevin Friday “remain the duly appointed trustees,” therefore they “retain your full powers and duties as the Board of Trustees.”
The email was sent by David Owens, a philosophy professor, to every trustee at 7:42 a.m. on behalf of an ad hoc group of 47 faculty members.
It says that there is no Kentucky law allowing the “wholesale dissolution” of the board nor have there been any findings allowing the removal of any trustees for cause.
Bevin has said he didn’t remove trustees but instead abolished the board. And he insisted Tuesday that he has the “absolute authority, both constitutionally and legislatively-statutorily, to disband any board in this state” and that it has been done “time and time and time and time and time again by every governor that has ever preceded me.”
The faculty group says Bevin’s move, which came as embattled President James Ramsey offered to retire or resign once the new board is legally in place, creates a “governance crisis” at the university that jeopardizes its accreditation.
The group’s email notes that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools mandates that university boards be “free from undue influence from political … bodies” and have policies that permit members to be dismissed only for “appropriate reasons and by a fair process.”
Pamela Cravey, spokeswoman for the association, said the university has informed it of the governor’s actions. “We are watching to see what happens,” including whether the Kentucky attorney general’s office tries to block the move, she said.
Former trustee Emily Bingham, who sought Ramsey’s ouster, said the accreditation body is best suited to respond to questions raised in the faculty email, while Dr. Bob Hughes, a trustee who supported Ramsey, said: “The previous Trustees, which was a politically appointed body, is not in power. There is no need to further the turmoil at the expense of the greater good of the University of Louisville by anyone. It is time for the university to put their focus back on education and research not the Board of Trustees.”
Another former trustee who supported Ramsey, Bruce Henderson, said he has no intention of “becoming a part of any type of lawsuit” and supports Bevin’s move to “rebuild the Board of Trustees and eliminate the dysfunctional board members that had personal agendas that were not in the best interest of UL and the Commonwealth of KY.”
Ramsey opponents on the former board might be reluctant to join in a suit against Bevin because if plaintiffs win a stay, it would delay the departure of the president, who has said he’ll submit his resignation only when a new board is legally empaneled.
Bevin’s announcement that he has dismantled the entire board and will replace it with 10 members of his own choosing has captured national attention, including a Chronicle for Higher Education story that reported the governor’s move has thrown “leadership and governance of the University of Louisville into chaos.”
Inside Higher Ed, another education publication, said the developments “could create a new set of problems” at “an institution already facing an overwhelming set” of them.
The Chronicle quoted U of L Professor Ricky Jones, chair of Pan-African Studies, who called Bevin’s move “political gangsterism” and attacked his explanation that it was done because the existing board was “operationally dysfunctional.”
“Does this mean he will see the board as functional if they agree with him wholeheartedly?” Jones asked in a follow-up interview.
Professors, including Jones, say they see Bevin’s move as particularly dangerous because of his comment in January that he favored more incentives for electrical engineers than French literature majors and Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton’s comment in April that colleges and students should focus on programs that produce jobs.
“They have a very narrow view of education that can be destructive,” Jones told the Courier-Journal.
Kolers, who heads who heads the university’s program on social change, said allowing a single governor to appoint the entire board of trustees is a “disaster” would discourage “any qualified, independently-minded academic” from accepting a job as president if Ramsey leaves.
He also said trustees on a future board could not function independently “knowing they could be summarily dismissed by the governor,” he said.
Bevin announced Friday that he was firing 17 trustees appointed by previous governors and would replace them with 10 of 30 candidates recommended to him by a nominating committee under his control. Ramsey said in a letter to Bevin that he would submit his resignation or retirement when the new board is legally constituted.
University spokesman John Karman said Monday that Ramsey would not answer questions about whether he would stay on if the new board wants him to, or whether or not he will step down as president of the U of L Foundation if he retires or resigns as head of the university.
“As of right now, he’s not doing any interviews,” Karman said in an email.
Karman sent out another email to news outlets saying the Board of Trustees meeting scheduled for Tuesday has been canceled and, in an understatement, that “dates and times for the meeting are uncertain.”
A spokesman for the accreditation organization has said it’s too early to know the impact of Bevin’s move.
The Chronicle reported that Bevin’s announcement, along with Ramsey’s offer, to quit are “a surprising twist in a lengthy dispute over Ramsey’s leadership” and questions over whether he could lead the university “past a host of scandals and allegations of misconduct.”
Insider Higher Ed said that replacing all appointees to a public body has the potential to result in that body being packed for political motives.
It quoted Phil Bredesen, a former Tennessee governor who chairs the Association of Governing Boards’ National Commission on College and University Board Governance, and who said that while many governors appoint trustees, they are usually appointed on a staggered basis, with terms expiring at different times — preventing a board from being completely stacked by one politician overnight.
“You need some good long-term board members who have the interest of the university — who know how to serve on a board,” Bredesen said, according to the publication. “They don’t come to the board with an agenda.”
Ordering the termination of trustees and explaining Ramsey’s departure, Bevin cited news stories in recent months “and frankly years” that have “shed less than the best light on the university and the commonwealth as a whole.” He also said the current board, which has feuded over Ramsey and other issues, is “operationally dysfunctional.”
Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at (502) 582-7189 or email@example.com