U of L board saga offers larger lessons

It's inevitable that gubernatorial appointments to the boards of public universities will always be political. They come with prestige and sports tickets, a potent blend to reward big contributors and the party faithful.

This isn't necessarily or always bad. Education, like the military, can benefit from civilian oversight. But there's a strong sense, and state law to back it up, that the oversight should be balanced among political parties and representatives of the public.

The balance was severely disrupted July 1 at the University of Louisville when Gov. Steve Beshear's three new appointments left its board with no black trustees for the first time in over four decades even though blacks make up about 13 percent of the student body and 20 percent of the population of Louisville. Beshear's sole minority appointee was Hispanic, representing a much smaller constituency. It was at best a tone deaf move, at worst outrageous.

This would have been news anytime, as it should be, but in a year with a hotly contested governor's race and the governor's son, a political newcomer, running for attorney general it also became fair game for political posturing.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin criticized his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway, for not taking Beshear to task for his failure to appoint minority members. Both Conway and Andy Beshear, the governor's son who is running for attorney general, need black support to win in November but neither necessarily wanted to distance himself from the popular governor. What to do? Two Louisville ministers asked Conway in July for a ruling on whether the appointments complied with Kentucky law requiring minority representation.

It wasn't until this week, two months later, that Conway ruled, saying state law requires two minority representatives on the board. With no board vacancies until next year, that could have left a big problem festering through Election Day. However, on the same day Steve Wilson, the member of the U of L board who with his wife has given the most money to the Beshears and their causes, tendered his resignation, asking the governor to appoint a black person to fill the vacancy.

So, soon U of L will have a black trustee and Conway and the Beshears hope to be off the hot seat with a vital constituency.

Problem solved except that Wilson has led the charge in questioning the extraordinarily generous compensation packages for U of L President James Ramsey and some of his top lieutenants.

This brings up two problems that can easily arise from the spoils system approach to university trustee appointments. Groups that don't have the financial capacity to ante up politically are at risk of being left behind, although that's less likely for future governors who will remember this controversy.

The other issue is that independent voices are at least as rare as minorities on public university boards. Despite the critical importance of these institutions and the enormous investment in both public monies and those of the families supporting the students, the controversy over Ramsey's pay was a glaring exception. For the most part, board members are content to remain silent, at least in public, rarely discussing, much less questioning, decisions brought to them by the cadre of higher education professionals who run the schools.

Though appointments to public university boards may always be political, those who accept these appointments are also accepting a trust that should go beyond cheering the home team.