In 2012, the University of Louisville was invited to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, a prestigious appointment that put the school in competition with athletic and academic powerhouses, such as Duke, the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. That school year, the men’s basketball team coached by Rick Pitino won the NCAA national championship, the football team won a BCS bowl, and the baseball team made the College World Series.
On the academic side of campus, President Jim Ramsey was riding a swelling endowment and building new academic buildings and student housing, completing U of L’s transformation from a small, private commuter school into Kentucky’s second major research university.
Five years later, there’s hardly a corner of that campus free from crisis.
There was this week’s revelation of a federal criminal investigation that left Athletics Director Tom Jurich and Pitino on administrative leave. And a $48 million deficit partially caused by financial mismanagement so severe that Gov. Matt Bevin dissolved the U of L Board of Trustees and ousted Ramsey. And the reconstitution of the once-powerful U of L Foundation, which Ramsey used to create lavish compensation packages and questionable real estate deals, according to a state audit. And dramatic drops in fundraising. And probation from its accrediting agency over numerous governance and financial issues as it begins the search for a new president. And there’s last year’s sports scandal, involving recruits and strippers, which led the NCAA to rule that Louisville should vacate the aforementioned national championship.
“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say this is devastating, devastating to the university, the community and the commonwealth,” said David Karem, a former state legislator who now leads Louisville’s Waterfront Development Corporation. “All the scandals, there’s just so much. I guess the upside may be that it will result in a total cleansing. Maybe that’s a possibility.”
The university’s troubles have a negative impact on the state’s entire higher education system, which has been struggling to improve amidst state budget cuts, said Adam Edelen, the former state auditor who began investigating the U of L Foundation in 2015.
“If the University of Louisville begins to develop a national reputation as a dumpster fire, it’s awful for all of Kentucky,” Edelen said. “You can’t overstate how important U of L is to the city of Louisville and the state. This isn’t the national news narrative you want coming out of Kentucky.”
Vishnu Tirumala, U of L’s student government president, said students are trying to move on from the most recent news, but it’s been a rough couple of years.
“It’s a perfect storm of all these things that hit at once,” Tirumala said. “But in a way, we’re used to it.”
It’s hard to even think of a comparable school with so many problems, said John Thelin, a higher education historian at the University of Kentucky and the author of “Games Colleges Play: Scandal and Reform in Intercollegiate Athletics.” Sports scandals have crippled athletic powerhouses — think Penn State, Baylor or UNC-Chapel Hill — but few schools have faced so many issues throughout campus at the same time.
“What seems fascinating to me is if we went back five or six years, it would be difficult to think of a university having such a convergence of good fortune,” Thelin said. “Ramsey had so much support in the legislature, he had held his own in funding with UK, everything seemed like it configured really well. I would not have predicted how this has all turned out.”
U of L Interim President Greg Postel presented an optimistic face to state legislators on Thursday, when he appeared at a long-scheduled budget meeting to discuss “The State of the University of Louisville.” He said internal budget cuts had closed the deficit, and enrollment appeared steady despite the probation. That status is expected to be lifted in December when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools holds its annual meeting because, Postel said, U of L has been able to resolve all the agency’s concerns (which do not include athletics).
But U of L faculty member Ricky Jones said the professors he knows are not optimistic.
“The University of Louisville has much more serious problems than what’s going on with basketball,” Jones said. “A lack of leadership, a lack of transparency and a lack of trust.”
Jones said he’s concerned about faculty and student recruitment in the face of the SACS probation, which was prompted by Bevin’s dissolution of the board.
“It’s a board populated solely by lawyers and business people, and now they want to appoint a new president without faculty and staff input,” Jones said. “Morale is low, but it has been low.”
The board of trustees recently announced it would present only one presidential finalist to the campus. On Thursday, the Kentucky Supreme Court declined to rule on the legality of Bevin’s action at U of L, saying the state legislature’s action this spring to revamp how university boards are appointed made the lawsuit moot.
UK’s Thelin said the presidential search is crucial for U of L, but he’s optimistic that quality candidates won’t be difficult to recruit. In addition, Postel has not taken himself out of consideration for the permanent job.
“There’s nowhere to go but up,” Thelin said. “Sometimes it’s almost better to inherit a bad situation rather than follow someone who’s been outstanding.”
If the university’s finances stabilize and probation is lifted, then faculty and students can get on with their teaching, researching and learning, said Tirumala.
“We’re shaken,” he said, “but we’re not depressed.”