Before University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. announced the extension of Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's contract last week, the chairman of UK's board of trustees had a conversation with him.
At the time, Dr. Britt Brockman, a Louisville ophthalmologist, told Todd he had reservations about the timing of extending Barnhart's contract.
"The most pressing issue for our board is to find the best president we can find," Brockman said Tuesday about his concerns. "This action will play on the mind of the new president."
Todd plans to retire from UK in June. He said when he announced Barnhart's contract extension that it was a favor to his successor because of Barnhart's outstanding performance. Barnhart's base salary was boosted from $475,000 to $600,000 annually and he is now under contract until 2019.
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But several UK trustees said they believe Todd's action was not a favor and they should have had a say in it.
"I never heard a thing about it until I read it in your paper," said Carol Martin Gatton, the Tennessee businessman for whom the Gatton College of Business and Economics is named. "I would have appreciated knowing about it before the fact, but I also would have appreciated voting on it before it was done."
UK's administrative regulations require appointments at Barnhart's pay grade be approved by the board. However, Barbara Jones, UK's legal counsel, said that while the board approves the initial decision to hire an athletic director, subsequent actions such as pay raises and contract extensions do not need to go back to the trustees.
Todd said he has "the express authority and responsibility to set the salaries and the terms of employment for officials who report directly to me."
Even though Todd had the authority to make the call on Barnhart, Gatton said, the decision could hobble the next president. He believes the trustees should have been consulted under any circumstances, he said.
The regulations are confusing, said Sheila Brothers, the trustee who represents UK staff members. But, given that the trustees oversee Todd, they should have had a say in this decision.
"It's a bit like telling your boss what to do," she said.
Board members should know about such a high-profile decision before it's announced, said trustee and former board chairman Billy Joe Miles, an Owensboro businessman.
"Considering that Todd is leaving, I think the board should be involved in a decision like this," Miles said.
Said Dr. Charles Sachatello, a UK board member and retired surgeon: "It would seem to me it would be standard reporting procedure that the board of trustees would be involved" in such a decision.
Faculty trustee Joe Peek said Barnhart's contract seems to be a new contract, rather than an extension of his old contract.
"That's a high-level appointment, right? he asked. "The regulations seem to say to me that the high-level appointments have to be approved by the board."
In addition to Barnhart, Todd also recently extended the contract of Dr. Michael Karpf, UK's executive vice president for health affairs.
Both the athletics department and the health care system are sometimes referred to as "silos," because they operate more independently of UK than purely academic departments, and they also have their own cash flow.
Todd said he has no plans to change the contracts of any other employees who report directly to him before he leaves.
Ryan Smith, a graduate student and the student trustee, said he also sought clarification from the UK counsel's office about the regulations and thinks Todd had the authority to extend Barnhart's contract.
"I think it is a good practice to consult with the board and gather input, but I do not fault Dr. Todd," he said.
He said concern about Todd's decision boils down to how much latitude the retiring president wants to give the incoming president. UK's search committee is expected to narrow down applicants for the president's job shortly and make an offer to a new president by May 1.
Should the new president want to bring in his or her own athletics director, Barnhart's contract specifies that he would be paid $475,000 a year for up to five years, or up to $2.4 million.
Brothers, the staff trustee, questioned why the administration kept trustees up to date on most issues — such as an e-mail around Christmas alerting them to a water leak in the emergency department — but didn't advise them of the Barnhart decision.
"I don't understand how renewing someone's contract doesn't rise to the same level," she said.
But while the trustees can question the wisdom of Todd's decision, there appears to be little — if anything — they can do.
"I can't dispute what he felt and can't change what he's done, since he did it in a legal manner," Brockman said. "I think the timing can be debated, if it was the right or wrong thing to do, with the incoming president.
"We will move on and will not revisit ... his decision."