University of Louisville President James Ramsey sounded much more like a petulant child than the exemplar of the values of academia — free and open debate, questioning assumptions, digging deeper, relentless inquiry — in his response to trustee requests for more information about his pay and that of his top lieutenants.
Ramsey responded with an angry, two-pronged diversionary attack.
He said that under his leadership the university "had done pretty damn well," and charged those asking questions of challenging his integrity.
Essentially the response sums up to: If things are going well you shouldn't ask any questions, and if you do it means you don't like or trust me.
The questions, mostly aimed at the University of Louisville Foundation, which provides a significant portion of the compensation, are reasonable and well founded.
As trustee Steve Wilson said, it's "embarrassing" to be asked to approve Ramsey's compensation when he doesn't know about all of it.
After the fact reports have shown that Ramsey received $2.7 million from the foundation in 2013, and two of his top aides received $1.9 million and $1.4 million.
The compensation included investment returns on deferred compensation, aimed at retaining each at U of L, payments to cover taxes for the compensation, and other benefits.
Trustees have asked to see a list of all university employees whose salaries are enriched through the foundation, and the amounts. In addition, they also asked for an outside audit of the foundation, which has over $1 billion in assets and controls 10 corporations. Some trustees also said the U of L board should have more control over the foundation, on which Ramsey also serves as president.
This is by no means the first time questions have arisen about the secretive foundation. News organizations have had to sue to gain access to its donors, a no-bid contract awarded to a member of its own board caused a stir, and the lack of transparency regarding the foundation's large subsidies for Ramsey's salary has been an ongoing controversy.
So, no wonder trustees want to know more.
In any organization it would be troubling for an executive to take reasonable questions so personally and respond so viscerally.
It's doubly troubling at an institution of higher education, one that is arguably based on the premise that questioning is not just good but essential. And it is inexcusable for the chief executive of a public institution to dismiss the need for transparency.
Ramsey is a smart guy who has been an effective advocate for higher education. An economist, he's spent most of his professional life in the public sector,
In addition to finance and teaching positions at public universities, he's worked as budget director under Gov. Paul Patton.
He should know better.