Power limits basis of good government

There’s been a lot of moaning and groaning about the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and whether it has legitimate reason to threaten to yank the University of Louisville’s accreditation over Gov. Matt Bevin’s heavy-handed meddling — a move that would cripple U of L’s ability to function in both the academic and athletic arenas.

But SACS is only acknowledging a long-honored truth: Governments always govern best when no one body or individual controls the whole game.

“Power must never be trusted without a check,” John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson — long before Bevin became governor of Kentucky or disputes among the trustees on the U of L board burst into public view.

The Kentucky General Assembly must take this to heart as it considers bills that could enable any governor to wield single-handed control over the boards that govern public higher education.

That concept of separation of powers compelled our Founding Fathers to set up three co-equal branches of government, each able to check the others. The same rationale applies to the principle, enshrined in Kentucky law since 1992, that limits the power of any one governor over public university boards.

The 1992 reforms were spurred by the overreach of Gov. Wallace Wilkinson who — in an era when a governor could appoint every member to every board during one four-year term — rewarded political cronies with appointments and finally appointed himself to the University of Kentucky board on his way out of office.

Among the reforms were: six-year, staggered terms to assure continuity on the boards extending beyond one gubernatorial electoral cycle; a requirement that the boards be balanced racially and politically; and a provision that sitting board members could be removed for cause, but only after a hearing and finding of fact by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

Senate Bill 107 would give the governor the power to remove all appointed members based on “a written finding of fact by the Governor that the board or council is no longer functioning” as it should.

That is essentially what Bevin did when he decided the U of L board was “dysfunctional” and the root cause of the university’s troubles. While we viewed the debate within the board over then-president James Ramsey’s pay and relationship with the rich and secretive U of L Foundation as a healthy thing, that’s not the issue.

The issue is that board members shouldn’t shy away from vigorous debate over legitimate governing issues for fear the governor might not like what he hears and toss them out.

Bevin and others have correctly pointed out that the U of L board was also out of compliance with the law’s demands for racial and political balance. There are now five vacancies on the board for Bevin to fill, with two more coming open later this year. He can rebalance the board and honor the law with those seven appointments.

That’s a much better solution than pushing through legislation that violates one of the most basic and longstanding governing principles of our republic.