The controversy over the University of Louisville’s accreditation continued in Frankfort on Wednesday, as legislation was proposed to either ratify Gov. Matt Bevin’s executive orders abolishing and recreating UofL’s board of trustees, or create yet another board to be filled with Bevin appointees.
UofL’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SACS), placed the university on a one-year probation in December for being out of compliance with four of its standards and core requirements. Specifically, Bevin’s executive orders placed UofL in this situation, as the board of SACS was concerned they constituted “undue political influence” and removed every trustee without the required due process.
Though the board that Bevin dismissed was later reinstated by a court order, the governor has insisted that once the Kentucky General Assembly passes legislation ratifying his executive orders — reinstating the board he created and filled entirely with his own appointments — the situation will be resolved, both legally and in the eyes of SACS when it comes to accreditation. House Bill 10 was filed this week by Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, to do just that, but was pulled from consideration just before it was to be taken up by a House committee on Wednesday.
Citing concern over how potential legislation might affect UofL’s compliance with SACS principles, committee chairman Rep. Jerry Miller, R-Louisville, decided to push back discussion of the bill, saying “It’s better to go slow than to go fast and make a mistake.” While the original HB 10 ratified Bevin’s orders and changed state law to lower the number of board appointees to 10 — to match that of the UofL board created in Bevin’s orders — a committee substitute was planned Wednesday that made no mention of the governor’s orders. Instead, the bill would create yet another new UofL board made up of 10 trustees, to which the governor could appoint additional members.
Even if such legislation were to be taken up and passed later this session, the question remains whether this allays one of the main concerns of SACS: that all trustees in the original board still would be removed without cause and without due process, which is required by state law and SACS accreditation standards.
Steve Pitt, an attorney for the governor, said Wednesday that legislation changing the number of trustees on UofL’s board would appease SACS. Asked if that was in fact the case, SACS president Belle Wheelan issued an emailed statement to Insider Louisville emphasizing that a “fair process” for dismissing board members is needed to put UofL back into compliance.
“Once the institution can demonstrate that legislation, actions of the Governor, and the institution’s policies are in sync and that there is a fair process for dismissing board members, and that the reasons on which that dismissal occurs are identified, the institution would be back in compliance with SACSCOC Principles,” stated Wheelen, adding that “those are the same things I have said to the elected officials with whom I have spoken.”
Wheelan and Bevin have been in direct contact at least once over the past month: The two had a phone conversation that took place hours after the governor shared a newspaper column on his Facebook page portraying SACS as a conspiring arm of the Democratic Party and its move to place UofL on probation as “thuggish.”
Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, says HB 10 clearly would not satisfy SACS “because you’re still dismissing the board without cause, and that was one of the clear reasons why they were putting us on probation.”
Wayne noted that Bevin has failed to fill five open vacancies on the reinstated UofL board that has been meeting since September, and will have the opportunity to fill two more later this year — an opportunity to put the board in legal compliance with the required number of racial minorities and Republicans. For the good of the university, Wayne argued, Bevin should leave behind his current struggle to have legislation passed making the board comprised entirely of his own appointees, and just appoint trustees to the board meeting right now.
“The logic of passing any legislation just confounds me, because it’s threatening the accreditation of the university,” said Wayne. “Which in turn threatens the membership and participation in NCAA sports, you can’t get federal research grants, you can’t get federal student aid, to say nothing of your worthless degree when you get out… I’m just calling on the governor now to back off, forget the whole thing and move on. Just let the board as it exists now be and make his appointments of trustees.”
Asked if Bevin is reluctant to do that because it would be an admission of defeat or a mistake on his part, Wayne replied: “Well, we’re all wrong sometimes. And if he thinks he’s not, maybe he thinks he’s the fourth person in the blessed trinity, I’m not sure. But the reality is that it’s a mistake and he should just own up to it and move on.”
UofL spokesman John Karman issued a statement on HB 10, saying “we appreciate the commitment by the governor and legislature to continue to work with SACS so that any legislation is consistent with SACS requirements. The goal for all involved is for the university to be in full compliance and removed from probation as soon as possible.”