U of L President James Ramsey escapes a blocked no-confidence vote by Board of Trustees

President James Ramsey and Board of Trustees Chair Larry Benz at Tuesday's meeting

President James Ramsey and Board of Trustees Chair Larry Benz at Tuesday’s meeting | Photos by Joe Sonka

A motion calling for a vote of no confidence against President James Ramsey at Tuesday’s University of Louisville Board of Trustees meeting was blocked, but not before board members aired a number of grievances that have been building up behind the scenes over the past year.

After meeting in closed session for an hour and a half, Trustee Jody Prather immediately made a motion for a vote of members who no longer have confidence in the leadership of Ramsey and his administration.

“What I’ve noticed and witnessed is a near-complete collapse of any semblance of a meaningful working relationship between this board and the president — this, along with multiple incidences over the last many months that in my opinion have both embarrassed and harmed the university irrevocably,” Prather said. “I also have serious concerns over a lack of transparency from the administration in general, but in regard to this board specifically. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’m concerned with the president’s current decision-making approach, which I and others have found to be both non-collaborative and unilateral in nature.”

Board member Larry Hayes seconded the motion, but fellow Trustee Marie Abrams immediately called the motion out of order, saying that since this was a special meeting, the board cannot vote on motions not already on the agenda. Ramsey’s general counsel Leslie Strohm agreed, saying state law would not allow a vote on the motion to go forward.

Trustee Craig Greenberg argued the chair has the prerogative to allow a vote, but fellow board member Robert Benson claimed this also would be illegal and called for the meeting to be adjourned, saying “this ‘gotcha’ stuff has got to stop.”

Trustee Bob Hughes — perhaps Ramsey’s strongest ally on the board — then spoke up to also call the motion a “gotcha moment,” and said the board is the entity that is dysfunctional due to its criticism of Ramsey. He also suggested Gov. Matt Bevin should ask all the trustees to resign so he could appoint an entirely new board, a point that he re-emphasized after the meeting.

“What’s fractured here is not the president and his relationship with the board, it’s the board and the faction within the board that is the problem,” said Hughes. “We are a broken board, and I think the governor should ask for every one of our resignations.”

In response, Prather said it was the right time to bring some of these issues to the forefront and that he is not alone in his concerns. “I won’t apologize, and I kind of resent the ‘gotcha’ thing, because it’s been in my conscience the whole time,” he said, adding that it weighed on him even more after a whistleblower lawsuit was filed against Ramsey and his administration on Monday.

Trustee Larry Hayes

Trustee Larry Hayes

Speaking in favor of the motion, Trustee Larry Hayes said, “This is not a coordinating board, this is not an advisory board. This is a governing board… I do have a crisis of confidence in the leadership in shared governance as it relates to this board.”

Trustee Bruce Henderson — a Ramsey defender — said he was “tired of all the things happening behind the scenes” among Ramsey’s critics, saying they should be brought before the entire board.

“Bring it before the board, Craig,” Henderson said to Greenberg, who, referring to the no-confidence motion, replied: “It’s brought.”

Trustee William Summer said criticism of Ramsey’s administration is continually squelched and board members are not given the opportunity to discuss them. Emily Bingham also spoke in favor of the motion, detailing a long list of black eyes that have plagued the university, including the board being “lied to” about Ramsey’s multi-million dollar compensation from the U of L Foundation, thefts and conflicts of interest of employees, and the men’s basketball program’s escort scandal. She said the board’s work has “been made nearly impossible by a series of crises, either caused by or made worse by the current administration.”

“At every turn President Ramsey tells us that his authority and his pioneering leadership require our unquestioning defense,” said Bingham. “When we ask questions, we get temper tantrums. We cannot move forward with a first-class public institution with a form of leadership and a leader who does not understand what good governance requires. Students, alumni, faculty, staff, community leaders and the commonwealth deserve better.”

Board of Trustees member and chief Ramsey defender Bob Hughes

Board of Trustees member and chief Ramsey defender Bob Hughes

In a bizarre twist, Trustee Ron Butt then stated he has heard a rumor that “some family member of somebody wants the job of president of the university, and that all this stuff has been orchestrated to try to remove Jim Ramsey so that that person be put in. Now I don’t know if there’s any truth or anything in that, but…”

Hughes repeated the rumor and directed it at Greenberg; Hughes later hinted that he and Butt were referring to local businessman Matthew Barzun, who is ambassador to the United Kingdom.

The no-confidence motion ultimately was tabled and will be on the agenda for the next Board of Trustees meeting.

After the meeting, Ramsey was asked if he would stay at his job, to which he responded, “I don’t know.” Asked if that meant he was considering resigning, he replied, “I wouldn’t say that,” then noted that the board gave him a good annual job evaluation last summer.

Ramsey implied that he knew the no-confidence motion was coming, saying, “We were told there would be a second nuclear bomb.” Asked if he thought the motion would have passed if it had been allowed to come up for a vote, Ramsey said he didn’t know and that the media “would know better than me.”

As for the trustees who expressed support for the no-confidence vote, Ramsey said, “I don’t believe they have put the welfare of the university and students first,” though he wouldn’t speculate on their motive. Asked if that means trustees should not ever raise dissent, Ramsey said it should only be done “in professional ways.”

Talking to reporters, Hughes echoed Ramsey’s thoughts about those trustees who supported the no-confidence vote, saying those members don’t care about U of L, did not go to the university, and would never let their children go to the university. He added that he was not sure if the motion would have passed.

Trustees Craig Greenberg, Emily Bingham, Steve Campbell and Douglas Hall defend their no confidence vote for Ramsey

Trustees Craig Greenberg, Emily Bingham, Steve Campbell and Douglas Hall defend their no-confidence vote for Ramsey.

Board members Greenberg, Bingham, Steve Campbell and Douglas Hall also spoke to reporters after the meeting, defending the no-confidence vote they supported. Greenberg said he is sure it would have passed, and he blasted Hughes’ rumor about a plot to install a friend to replace Ramsey.

“This isn’t about the next president of the university,” said Greenberg. “This is the crises, the embarrassments, the scandals, the investigations, the indictments that are occurring at the university today. And for months the Board of Trustees has been prevented from having meaningful discussion about those topics. It’s time that changes, it’s time that the Board of Trustees does its job in governing this university, and that’s what today’s discussion was all about.”

Bingham said trustees are getting pressure from the public to take action against Ramsey “every single day.”

“That is a regular part of representing the public here as a board member,” said Bingham. “But it’s gotten louder, more frequent, and the pressures are mounting. The voices are everywhere.”

Campbell — the treasurer of the board who joined Greenberg in withdrawing his name from a letter of support for Ramsey in January’s meeting — said that “we’re at a point where you have to ask ‘when is enough enough?'”

“I think we should be fact-based and data-based, rather than focus on ad hominem attacks, as we get from Dr. Hughes,” said Campbell, who also handed out documents showing that U of L’s academic metrics are the lowest among ACC schools and have begun to recently flatline.

Board Chair Larry Benz said he would have voted for the no-confidence motion, saying, “I look at data points, because data by its nature is unemotional. I look at events, I look at a culture, I look at leadership, and I look at behavior. I listen to reasonable people in the community. There are stakeholders that have a strong interest in this university. And it appears to be an overwhelming outcry of a need for change in leadership.”

U of L President James Ramsey (left) and Board of Trustees Chair Larry Benz outside January's board meeting

U of L President James Ramsey (left) and Board of Trustees Chair Larry Benz outside January’s board meeting.

Benz also told IL that the theories of Hughes and Butt about the dissident faction of trustees wanting to replace Ramsey with Barzun was “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” saying it is false and that individual would not even make any sense.

“That whole thing is just generated for acrimony’s sake,” said Benz.

Speaking of those who claimed supporters of the no-confidence vote don’t really care about U of L, Benz said they should look at the facts.

“Our graduation rate and our retention rate went backwards,” said Benz. “We go into the ACC and our academics have gone down. We have a lot of positive things to point to, but our U.S. News & World Report and Forbes rating went down. All the data points you pointed out in that article – versus what he presented at the Rotary Club. All these whistleblower lawsuits, the culture of non-conflict of interest and nondisclosure. We’ve got a federal investigation, an NCAA investigation, three whistleblower suits filed. I mean, what more of a laundry list do you need to question and lose confidence? I’m not going to get into personal attacks on (Ramsey), that’s not my style – or Bob Hughes or anyone else. But you don’t have a straw man or an ad hominem argument about matters that are public record and facts. Data, by it’s nature, is unemotional.”