University of Louisville President James Ramsey’s announced departure on Friday means that half of Kentucky public university presidents have either announced their resignations or have already stepped down since January.
That’s the tumultuous state of higher education in Kentucky right now, an area of public policy that Gov. Matt Bevin has made clear he’s interested in changing.
Gary Ransdell of Western Kentucky University and Wayne Andrews of Morehead State University announced they will both retire next year; Kentucky State University President Raymond Burse stepped down earlier this month.
New leadership searches will be added to the to-do lists of schools that are reeling from a decade of budget cuts, with another 4.5 percent cut over the next two years. Those cuts are half as much as Bevin proposed in his initial budget.
Bevin has said taxpayer dollars should not support liberal arts majors and has put future funding in a possibly competitive rubric based on school performance, although that rubric has not yet been determined.
And Bevin has already taken aim at another president.
Earlier this month, after the Kentucky Community and Technical College System announced it would cut 500 positions because of budget cuts, the Bevin administration announced it would investigate the operations of President Jay Box and his central administration. Some have questioned if that move is retribution for Box supporting a community college scholarship program proposed by House Democrats.
Still, while governors and university presidents occasionally tussle, Bevin’s direct action against the entire leadership of UofL is unusual.
“It’s probably the most sweeping act by a governor in my memory as a reporter covering higher education,” said Richard Wilson, a retired reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
In 1986, then-Gov. Martha Layne Collins asked the eight appointed members of the Morehead Board of Regents to resign and seven of them did so.
In 1989, then-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson also asked several Kentucky State regents to resign.
The Postsecondary Nominating Committee was set up in 1992, legislation from former state representative Ernesto Scorsone to take some of the politics out of board picks after Wilkinson picked himself for the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees in the waning days of his administration. He also helped engineer the hiring of his home-town friend, Charles Wethington, to UK’s presidency.
A few years later, Wethington and former Gov. Paul Patton were at daggers over Patton’s higher education reform, which took the community college system out of UK’s control. Later, a pitched battle in the UK Board of Trustees over a proposed contract extension ended with Wethington’s resignation.
Gary Cox, president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities and a longtime education observer, called the Louisville situation “unprecedented on both sides,” both because of Bevin’s action and because of the severity of problems at UofL.
“I do not recall a situation where there has been the level of issues and type of issues in the public arena, nor did I remember a situation where a governor has taken this sort of action,” Cox said.