In a presentation to trustees, U of L President James Ramsey shared a list of meetings he says he's had about executive compensation. | Photo by Stephen George

In a presentation to trustees, U of L President James Ramsey shared a list of meetings he says he’s had about executive compensation. | Photo by Stephen George

In a tense and sometimes confrontational meeting with the University of Louisville board of trustees Thursday morning, President James Ramsey defended the decision to provide millions of dollars in compensation to top university officials via the U of L Foundation, lashing out at the media over recent reports about the compensation and the trustees’ awareness of it.

The meeting also exposed a deepening rift between board members seeking to expand the group’s oversight role and those, including Chairman Robert Hughes, defending the status quo.

“I can’t let people attack my integrity,” a visibly frustrated Ramsey told the trustees. He lashed out at media coverage of his and other executives’ multimillion-dollar compensation packages from the Foundation. Ramsey specifically cited the work of WDRB reporter Chris Otts, who reported additional details of the deferred compensation packages.

According to tax documents filed by the Foundation, a separate $1 billion entity that raises private funds and is governed by its own 16-member board, Ramsey — who also sits on the Foundation board — was paid more than $2.4 million in deferred compensation last year, as part of a contract that extends to 2020. In addition, two of his top deputies — former Provost Shirley Willihnganz and chief of staff Kathleen Smith — received deferred compensation packages from the foundation totaling $1,879,462 and $1,334,402, respectively.

The compensation is in addition to what each earns directly from the university and is authorized by the Foundation. In his presentation to the trustees, Ramsey said in 2006, they approved a plan for him to work with the Foundation to determine additional compensation for “key individuals.”

During the hourlong meeting, Ramsey repeatedly sought to focus on his own compensation package, while trustees were more concerned with Foundation compensation for other U of L officials.

Trustee Steve Wilson and others have said they were unaware of the compensation packages. The trustees are required to review Ramsey’s annual pay, and Wilson said a review of compensation from the Foundation should be part of the trustees’ fiduciary oversight. He said it was “embarrassing” to be asked to provide financial oversight of university functions and to not be made aware of the outside compensation packages.

And in an especially tense exchange, trustee Stephen Campbell told Ramsey and Hughes that nearly a year ago, he requested a list of Foundation payments to university employees during the past five years, but he has yet to receive it. Ramsey responded that the records are public and available for anyone to see — a bit of a misnomer, as that information, while public, is often difficult to obtain.

“Life started before you all joined the board of trustees at the University of Louisville,” Ramsey said at one point amid questioning.

He also repeatedly characterized trustees’ inquiries into the Foundation as showing a lack of trust. Campbell told him his approach is to “trust but verify,” an approach Ramsey appeared to reject in this context.

Hughes also bemoaned recent leaks to the media about infighting among trustees over expanding the board’s oversight role, saying it undermines trust on the board and interferes with their ability to conduct business. He was referring to a recent Insider Louisville report on a request by Wilson and fellow trustees Emily Bingham and Craig Greenberg to review financial arrangements between U of L Hospital and KentuckyOne Health, as well as other activities on the health sciences campus.