Tighten conflict rules for trustees

There is every reason to believe that Claude “Skip” Berry III is an honorable person and businessman.

No doubt he has skills and knowledge that can benefit the University of Kentucky in his role as a trustee. Without question, he followed the existing rules on conflict of interest when his company, Wehr Constructors of Louisville, bid on and won a contract for work at UK’s Good Samaritan Hospital.

But the rules aren’t good enough. A trustee should not be doing business with the institution he or she is charged with overseeing. The General Assembly, which writes the rules, must review and improve them when it meets next year.

Ethical standards are about more than just doing the right thing, they are also about creating confidence in those an institution serves that the people in charge will always do the right thing. No matter how you slice it, a trustee doing business with the university can create the appearance of a conflict.

Rep. Chris Harris, D-Forest Hills, pointed out that it’s not only a question of whether the trustee is getting a sweetheart contract but also whether he or she might pull punches when it comes time to criticize the university administrators who approve the contracts. “Board members shouldn’t have to worry about being critical of an administration because of their own financial interest.”

Both Harris and Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, said the General Assembly needs to take a new look at the rules to clarify trustees’ ethical responsibilities.

“The universities are big business,” Wayne said, “and yet they are a public trust.” It’s important to guard that trust diligently.