The governing agency for Kentucky universities narrowly recommended Tuesday that Gov. Matt Bevin remove a long-time member and former chairwoman of the Kentucky State University Board of Regents.
It was the first time the Council on Postsecondary Education has ever taken that action. The CPE is recommending Bevin remove Karen Bearden, the former chairwoman of KSU’s board who sued the board, the university and numerous faculty and staff for defamation after a series of conflicts over the hiring of a new president in 2017.
In March 2017, the faculty senate took votes of no confidence in Bearden specifically and the entire board.
That lawsuit, filed in January, was dismissed in Franklin Circuit Court. Bearden chose not to appeal. But in June, the Board of Regents voted to ask the council to begin removal proceedings against her. The regents cited the conflict of interest presented by her lawsuit against them and the school.
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Council attorney Travis Powell also argued that Bearden violated her duties as a board member when she sued the university and asked for punitive damages from the university and affiliated people.
Bearden did not attend Wednesday’s meeting and was not immediately available for comment.
“She sought to punish the institution for its conduct,” Powell said. “She put herself personally at odds with Kentucky State . . . for her sole monetary benefit. It must be questioned if she has the best interests at heart of the institution.”
Not all council members agreed, with some saying the issue was irrelevant because the lawsuit was dismissed.
“The basis on which the board brought this to us no longer exists,” said council member Kristi Nelson. “I don’t see that as a violation of fiduciary duty.”
Nelson said she would prefer to send the issue back to Kentucky State, so the regents could further work on their relationship with Bearden. She has about a year left in her term.
The council voted twice. The first time, there were seven votes to recommend Bearden’s dismissal and two opposed, with one abstention, but eight votes are required for a measure to pass the 15-member council. (It has one vacancy and four members were absent. Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis is also a nonvoting ex-officio member.)
After a long discussion, during which one council members left, another vote was taken and there were eight yes votes and one abstention.
“We’re treading new ground here,” Powell said about Tuesday’s meeting.
The process was the result of 2017 legislation that changed a 1997 law allowing the council to overrule the governor on whether board members should stay or go, said Council President Bob King.
The issue came to a head in 2016, when Gov. Matt Bevin attempted to dismiss the entire University of Louisville board amid disagreements over the future of then-President Jim Ramsey. Attorney General Andy Beshear sued, saying Bevin had not followed the law.
King said council officials realized it was highly problematic to have council members overrule the governor who appointed them.
The 2017 legislation allows a university board to request an investigation by the council staff, which is then presented to the council. Their recommendation is then forwarded to the governor, who will make a final decision.
The council also used new legislation allowing university board members to attend the meeting via teleconference. On Wednesday, eight council members were on teleconference, with only two in actual attendance.
It’s not clear when Bevin will take up the council’s recommendation. Powell said the new legislation leaves an open time frame for him to make a decision.
Current Kentucky State Board of Regents Chairwoman Elaine Farris said the board remains committed to the work they have been assigned to do and that is supporting the collective vision of advancing the work and mission of Kentucky State University.”
Bevin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.