Lawmakers Still Crafting Bill To Codify Bevin’s U of L Overhaul

Jan 4, 2017

Credit Jacob Ryan/WFPL, cropped

Lawmakers are still working to address Gov. Matt Bevin’s executive order that attempted to overhaul the University of Louisville’s governing board, though a scheduled hearing of the fix was delayed Wednesday afternoon.

Specifics of the legislation are still unclear as officials try to navigate how the General Assembly might codify the governor’s executive actions while not imperiling the university’s accreditation.

The organization that accredits U of L, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), put the university on probation last month, citing “undue political influence.”

Over the summer, a trial court blocked Bevin from abolishing the U of L board and installing a smaller panel made up of new appointees. Bevin appealed the ruling, but maintained that the case would be moot if the newly Republican-dominated legislature ratifies his executive order.

Such legislation was scheduled to be heard in the House State Government Committee on Wednesday afternoon, but chairman Jerry Miller postponed the discussion, saying the bill wasn’t ready yet.

The governor’s attorney Steve Pitt said SACS officials’ accreditation concerns would be appeased if the legislature passes a bill changing the number of people on the board, as Bevin attempted to do.

“We are convinced from our conversations, review of the law and conversations with SACS officials that legislative action changing the number of people on a board is not a violation of any SACS standard,” Pitt said.

Bevin’s office maintains that the governor has broad powers to temporarily reorganize university boards while the legislature isn’t in session. Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd disagreed last fall, saying that the governor’s abolishment of the U of L board amounted to a wholesale firing of the school’s trustees.

Pitt said the governor’s office and legislative leaders have been talking with SACS officials as lawmakers try and craft the bill.

Bevin abolished the 17-member U of L board in a surprise announcement in June, citing “dysfunction” and “enmity” between factions on the board. Over recent years, divisions had emerged on the board between supporters and detractors of former university president James Ramsey.

A letter from SACS last month said U of L was put on probation because the school was out of compliance with requirements dealing with the governing board, the evaluation and selection of the school’s president and the dismissal of the board.

House Speaker Jeff Hoover said on Wednesday that any legislative solution to the accreditation issue shouldn’t be done for solely political reasons.

“The goal is to do what’s best for the University of Louisville,” Hoover said. “To take a further step to take them off of the probation that has been assessed by SACS, that’s the number one goal.”

Bevin has refused to fill five vacancies on the board created by terms that have expired over recent months. The governor maintains that the board is illegally constituted because it doesn’t have the adequate number of racial minorities and Republican members.

Rep. Jim Wayne, a Democrat from Louisville, said the delay on the U of L bill shows that Republican leaders are in over their heads.

“It concerns me a lot that we have this leadership that appears initially to be incompetent,” Wayne said. “Why he’s playing this game, I don’t understand. Just leave things alone. Why stir up the worries of the faculty, all the athletes, all the students, all the researchers, why stir everything up? Leave it alone, governor.”

In a statement, U of L spokesman John Karman said that the school expects to receive a formal letter from SACS outlining concerns and expectations about the school’s accreditation.

“We appreciate the commitment by the governor and legislature to continue to work with SACS so that any legislation is consistent with SACS requirements,” he said. “The goal for all involved is for the university to be in full compliance and removed from probation as soon as possible.”