Universities, lawmakers must stand up to Bevin’s power grab

Michael A. Lindenberger
Michael A. Lindenberger

When Gov. Matt Bevin announced Friday that he had dissolved the board of trustees at the University of Louisville, Kentuckians everywhere should have reacted with outrage and defiance.

Instead, we’ve seen only nervous passivity and short-sighted accommodation.

Leaders in Louisville and across Kentucky — on campuses, at city halls and in the statehouse — must shake off that timidity, and soon. Bevin’s actions imperil the academic integrity of every university, including the flagship University of Kentucky.

I’m a two-time graduate of Louisville, and I’ve watched Bevin’s first six months in office with growing discomfort. But this isn’t a UK-U of L issue, and it’s not a partisan one either. Bevin’s actions should gnaw at liberals and conservatives, just as they should rile rural Kentuckians and those living in cities.

It should bother everyone, just as it would have if any of Bevin’s Democratic predecessors ever tried to sweep the universities under such direct control.

Look, governors have always tried to influence university boards by their appointments. They sometimes reward supporters with the plum spots. But this is different. Very different.

Gov. Paul Patton’s fights with UK president Charles Wethington over the future of Kentucky’s community colleges were epic. And jaws hit the floor when Gov. Wallace Wilkinson appointed himself to UK’s board on his way out of office. But even those assertive governors never had the gumption to do what Bevin is trying to do here.

This is different because university boards are designed to be insulated from the direct influence of the governor. That’s why state law says governors appoint trustees for six years. Once appointed, trustees can be removed only for cause, and after a hearing.

Those are slender protections in the face of the power a governor can wield from the bully pulpit. And they can’t stop a governor from stacking a board over time. But slender or no, they are vital safeguards.

If he succeeds in dismissing every trustee and appointing a new board at Louisville, what’s to stop him from doing the same in Lexington? Or Bowling Green? Or anywhere? And for any reason.

In Louisville’s case, he says merely that the board is no longer effective. The board fight over whether to push President James Ramsey out and differences over the role the U of L Foundation should play, have embroiled it in conflict, he said.

He’s right — but so what? The board is split. Ramsey’s ridiculous compensation and a long list of scandals have cost him dearly. And yes, the foundation, which pays Ramsey and other officials millions, should be reined in. That should have been done long ago. But those issues are for the trustees, not the governor, to work out.

Any governor is free to push and persuade board members to see things his or her way. If that doesn’t work, a governor can put allies on the board as terms expire or trustees retire. Had Bevin’s interest been in moving the board past its gridlock, all he needed to do was fill the vacancies that already exist on the board.

Clearly he has other intentions.

So what to do about it?

Supporters of academic integrity must be heard. It’s not enough to simply wait on Attorney General Andy Beshear to decide to file suit to seek an injunction. Court cases are never certain and always slow.

So other voices must be heard, too, and right away.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer should find his voice and use it. The threat to his city’s major research university is more important than the issue of how much longer Ramsey is president.

U of L trustees must find their courage, as well. Ramsey fans or foes, they all should tell Bevin they will not step down until the legal questions about their ouster are resolved. They may fear being seen as self-centered by trying to retain their seats, but stepping down now means abdicating their responsibility.

Faculty at U of L and at every campus should speak up, too. Thankfully, some already have.

And Ramsey? He should go, but not yet. He owes it to U of L to stand up to the governor and insist that the board be reconstituted. After all, Ramsey is no longer the issue. Bevin saw to that.

Louisville native Michael A. Lindenberger, former state correspondent and bureau chief for The Courier-Journal, earned bachelor's and law degrees at the University of Louisville.