Editorials

House should kill higher-ed board bill

One of the most remarkable aspects of the approach to governing pursued by Gov. Matt Bevin, and now his Republican majorities in both houses, is taking a sledgehammer to issues that otherwise might require a gentle nudge.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the contortions they’re going through to justify Bevin’s god-like move to ignore Kentucky law and upend the University of Louisville board of trustees last June.

In this short session, Bevin’s enablers in the General Assembly have already passed a bill to retroactively fit the law to Bevin’s actions. Now, the Senate has given its blessing to Senate Bill 107 that would, essentially, give Bevin — or any other governor — the right to remove any public university board member, or an entire board, whenever he or she wanted.

It’s up to the Kentucky House of Representatives to stop this madness.

To back up a bit: In 1992, reacting to an abuse of gubernatorial power by Democratic Gov. Wallace Wilkinson — who appointed his cronies and, finally, himself to university boards — the General Assembly created a process to insulate university boards from undue political influence.

Board members are appointed to staggered six-year terms, so each governor gets to appoint a number of trustees during his or her four-year term, but the trustees can focus on what’s good for the institution in the long haul, not what makes the current governor happy, since their terms outlast the governor’s.

The 1992 legislation did make room for a governor to remove a board member “for cause” but only after that individual had the opportunity for a hearing, with legal counsel, before the Council for Postsecondary Education, which would report a finding of facts in the matter.

SB 107 pretends to retain some of these protections from political meddling, but it’s only window dressing.

Under the current version, the governor must give both the CPE and the targeted trustee notice, in writing, about the impending removal and “specify the conduct warranting removal.” The member has a week to resign or to explain why he shouldn’t be removed. If the latter, the CPE looks it all over and has 30 days to “make a nonbinding recommendation” to the governor.

After that, the governor can go ahead and do whatever he wants. So, it slows the governor down for, at most, a few weeks but does nothing to remove his heavy hand from control of university boards.

The governor can wipe out entire boards if they aren’t doing essential things like meeting regularly and passing budgets. But he can also abolish them if in his opinion they aren’t carrying out the obligation “to periodically evaluate the institution’s progress in implementing its mission, goals and objectives.”

Kentucky has had warnings from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting agency for Kentucky schools, that undue political influence could threaten the accreditation of U of L, which would be a near death blow to the school. Bevin and Republican legislators dismiss this worry and assert that SACS will approve the new scheme.

But even if this measure passes muster with SACS, it’s bad policy.

It empowers a governor to micromanage university boards and, by extension, the universities themselves.

It’s now a quarter century since Wilkinson’s overreach, but the General Assembly of 2017 should remember the lessons of 1992 and reject this bill.

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