The University of Kentucky twitterverse briefly exploded on Tuesday night when the Southern Poverty Law Center dropped a story about the links between newly appointed UK trustee, Somerset lawyer A.C. Donahue, to various ultra right-wing groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel. The latter actually hired Donahue as one of the lawyers for Kim Davis when she refused to grant same-sex marriage licenses in Rowan County a few years back.
The law center calls ADF a hate group for its anti-LGBTQ stances; certainly it fights hard on any number of right-wing causes, especially those related to religious freedom for Christians. Donahue also has his own political ambitions, running and losing for the state Senate in 2012.
At the same time, UK was recognized nationally last year for its work on protecting LGBTQ students, one of only 25 to get five stars from Campus Pride Index in 2018.
Enter Gov. Matt Bevin, troller extraordinaire. I have no doubt that Bevin got a chuckle out of appointing Donahue, predicting correctly that he could own the libs with a sweep of his pen.
Elections have consequences. As governor, Bevin has the power to appoint university trustees, and typically, a UK trustee seat is a prime political reward for big fundraisers or allies. Trustees get perceived prestige, tickets to UK basketball and football and the opportunity to sit through some very dull meetings. According to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, Donahue has only given about $1,000 to Bevin’s current campaign, but they are true allies in the Kim Davis case, which brought them both short-lived ideological satisfaction and for Bevin and Davis, at least, national fame. Of course, Davis eventually lost the case and lawyers are still arguing over who needs to pay up.
In this case, Bevin sent a strong but ultimately pretty futile signal.
Trustees aren’t encouraged to micromanage university affairs; their only job is to hire and fire the president. As an individual trustee, Donahue will have very little power to influence places like the Office of LGBTQ affairs; the director, Lance Poston even issued a statement on Wednesday affirming UK’s dedication to these basic civil rights.
Poston pointed out that the Board of Trustees approved updated regulations in 2015 that included “sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as explicit identity categories that are named and supported in institution-wide policy and practice.
“This unwavering commitment and striving for inclusive excellence continues,” Poston said.
Also on Wednesday, UK President Eli Capilouto sent out one of his periodic campus messages entitled “What Do We Value?” (Answer: diversity.)
“Let us honor the uniqueness of this place, maintaining a campus of belonging for everyone,” he wrote. “This is our credo, from the prospective student and her family to the staff and faculty who conduct their essential work in classrooms and lab spaces to administrative offices and board rooms where decisions are made and policies are set.”
I called Donahue’s office to see what his thoughts were on UK’s inclusive policies but he did not return my call.
If Bevin wins a second term and appoints a lot more trustees like Donahue, I suppose it’s possible they could try to get rid of Capilouto and hire someone more conservative. But right now, Capilouto has the ardent support of the Board of Trustees, and with UK’s broad ambitions as a national research university, it would also be difficult to hire a president who’s so backwards as to be against LGBTQ rights.
Conservatives are winning in lots of arenas: tax cuts, charter schools, President Trump, environmental degradation and immigration travesties. Kentucky is a bright red state and will probably stay that way. But on LGBTQ rights in academia and the workplace, society is getting out in front of right-wing politics. That horse has left the barn, as they say, and the door has closed behind him.
Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.