A week after blaming Attorney General Andy Beshear and Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd for an accrediting agency placing the University of Louisville on probation, on Wednesday Gov. Matt Bevin shared a column on his official Facebook page that attacked the integrity of the accrediting agency itself. Specifically, the column called the accrediting body a “thuggish” arm of the Democratic Party that conspired with Beshear to target the university.
Insider Louisville spoke with Belle Wheelan — president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges — who had been unaware of Bevin sharing the column attacking her agency. Wheelen said she was not only highly offended by the column and perturbed that Bevin would promote it, but surprised, as she had spoken with Bevin over the phone that same day about UofL’s probation and he did not bring up any of those concerns.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Wheelan. “I’m probably more than that, but given that I’m talking to a reporter, I better not use any stronger language.”
SACS informed UofL on Dec. 6 that it was being placed on a one-year probation for being out of compliance with four of its standards and core requirements — the same ones SACS cited earlier this year when it informed the university that Bevin’s executive orders abolishing the UofL Board of Trustees and appointing a new one created “significant accreditation-related issues” and “the potential for undue political influence.”
Beshear filed a lawsuit challenging the legal authority of these executive orders, with Judge Shepherd ruling in his favor and reinstating the old board, noting the risk to UofL’s accreditation in his decision. Following SACS placing UofL on probation, Beshear said the governor had “inflicted great and substantial harm” on the university and should rescind his orders.
At the time, Bevin’s spokeswoman responded by claiming UofL’s accreditation “is not at risk, nor will it ever be at risk because of any action taken by Gov. Bevin.” In a radio interview with Terry Meiners on WHAS the next day, Bevin claimed that SACS might not have placed UofL on probation due to his own actions, but because of the actions of Beshear and Shepherd. He also expressed confidence that the state legislature would ratify his executive actions early next year, claiming SACS will no longer have any issues after that is passed.
The column that Bevin shared a few hours before calling Wheelan on Wednesday was written by Jim Paxton, the conservative publisher of the Paducah Sun. While Paxton also criticized Beshear and “a Democratic judge,” he called SACS hypocritical and “thuggish” in sanctioning UofL, accusing it of coordinating with Beshear for partisan purposes.
“What the SACS has really demonstrated is that — like much of the rest of academia these days — it is just another functionary of the Democratic Party, one willing to sacrifice its credibility to the cause,” wrote Paxton. “Fortunately the outcome of last month’s elections chopped the SACS off at the knees in its efforts to supplant the taxpayers in deciding who runs the state’s universities.”
Bevin’s spokeswoman Amanda Stamper has not returned emails from IL asking if the governor endorsed the message of the column he shared or had recently been in contact with SACS officials, but the post is still up on his official gubernatorial Facebook page.
According to Wheelan, Bevin never mentioned any of the criticisms laid out in the column when he called her later that day. During their conversation, she explained why the board of SACS chose to place UofL on probation due to the information they received.
“He thanked me for taking the time to explain things to him,” said Wheelan. “Based on the information the board had, the action that the governor took, it put the university out of compliance with our standards. And because it was done by the governor, it was perceived to be undue political influence. So I was trying to explain to him that this was not personal, and it certainly wasn’t political. It was the fact that based on the information the university had sent, they were out of compliance with our standards, so our board didn’t have any choice but to put them on sanctions.”
The board chair for SACS is Mark Keenum, the president of Mississippi State University and a longtime Republican donor.
After Wheelan told officials at UofL that she would be happy to explain the accreditation procedure to the governor, the university passed that information along to the governor’s office and Bevin made the call to her Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after he had posted the column.
Wheelan said she was aware of the war of words between Bevin and Beshear, adding, “Don’t put me in the middle of your spitting contest, fellas. It’s not my problem that you and the attorney general are in different political parties and have different political views on this. It has nothing to do with your politics, it has to do with our principles.”
Noting that UofL has been placed on probation not due to its own actions, but those of other political actors in state government, SACS chose to give the university a lengthy 12-month probationary period because “they were aware of the discourse within the commonwealth, and that gave them as much time as they thought they needed to be able to resolve this issue. So they know it’s not within (UofL’s) purview, it’s strictly a state thing, and the state’s got to get their act together.”
Wheelan said Bevin did mention that he expected the Kentucky General Assembly to ratify his orders or give him new legal authority when their session begins early next year, but she added that this doesn’t necessarily mean UofL would be back in compliance with the principles of SACS.
“It would mean that the university would have to send us documentation that the legislature had now ratified this new statute and they were responsible for living within it,” said Whelan. “And then our board would decide if that was sufficient. This is not the first time that our rules have been in direct opposition to some state rules. And sometimes the state has had to change their rules in order to not to jeopardize the federal financial aid of their institutions.”
That final decision would be up to the board, with Wheelan adding that “we greatly respect the commonwealth of Kentucky, but the institutions are living within our rules, too.”
UofL’s student government president Aaron Vance recently penned a column critical of Bevin placing the university’s accreditation at risk, claiming the governor is too prideful to admit he is wrong and does not have students’ best interests at heart. The UofL Faculty Senate passed a resolution last week stating they “emphatically oppose any action by Governor Bevin or the Kentucky Legislature that threatens the University’s accreditation with SACS or represents external influence of the Board of Trustees in violation of SACS standards.”
Asked about Bevin’s comments on UofL’s accreditation issues and the motives of SACS and the attorney general, Beshear sent IL a statement that once again blamed Bevin for UofL’s probation and called on him to rescind his executive orders.
“The governor is solely responsible for the unfortunate situation at the University of Louisville, and only he can fix it,” stated Beshear. “The governor’s comments to the contrary show he is either in denial or is being deliberately untruthful. Either way, the university needs him to wake up and do the right thing in rescinding his executive orders and dropping his appeal.”