FRANKFORT, Ky. ― A state judge said it is “problematic” for Kentucky’s Republican governor to entirely replace the University of Louisville board of trustees, calling into question the new board’s authority on the day it was scheduled to meet to discuss its billion dollar budget and the fate of its embattled president.
Gov. Matt Bevin issued an executive order last month abolishing the university’s board of trustees and replacing it with a new board. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear sued Bevin, arguing his order was illegal. On Thursday, Beshear’s office asked Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd to temporarily block Bevin’s order, placing the university back under the authority of its previous leadership.
Shepherd did not rule on Beshear’s request following a four-hour hearing. But he did call Bevin’s order “problematic” because he said it puts the university’s independence in jeopardy.
“It is problematic to say one governor, any governor, regardless of their identity, regardless of their political party, has the unilateral power to abolish the board and to recreate it and to get rid of all the board members,” Shepherd said.
Meanwhile, the new board of trustees put in place by Bevin was meeting Thursday afternoon to discuss its budget and the future of President James Ramsey. The board took on action on its budget, which includes a proposal to raise tuition by 5 percent this year. A committee of the previous board had blocked that tuition increase.
In a meeting last week, Ramsey offered his resignation to the board but it didn’t act on it. Board members were meeting in a closed session Thursday afternoon.
It’s unclear how Shepherd’s pending rule would impact the decisions made by the current board, adding to the uncertainty surrounding the university’s leadership.
Steve Pitt, Bevin’s attorney, argued the state legislature passed a law that delegated its powers to abolish and create state boards and commissions to the governor. He cited a state Supreme Court decision from 1984 that upheld that law, which said once the legislature places that power in the hands of the governor such action is “purely an executive function.”
But the governor only has that power, Pitt said, when the legislature is not in session. Kentucky’s legislature typically meets from January to April each year.
“The governor can’t unilaterally abolish the U of L board. He can only propose it, and his proposal goes into effect temporarily,” Pitt said.
“So your position,” Shepherd replied, “Is that between sessions of the legislature the governor has unbridled discretion to affect what you call temporary changes.”
“Correct,” Pitt said, adding the state legislature could accept or reject those changes when it reconvenes in January.
Assistant Deputy Attorney General Mitchel Denham said state law only allows university board members to be removed for misconduct, and even then the board members have a chance to hire a lawyer and appeal the decision to the Council on Postsecondary Education.
“He removed them without cause, without a hearing and without afforded the right to counsel,” Denham said.
But Pitt argued none of the board members have been removed, just temporarily suspended.
Shepherd also had several questions about the University of Louisville’s accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The association notified university officials last month saying Bevin’s orders raise questions about the “external political influence” on the school.
But Connie Shumake, assistant provost for accreditation and academic programs, testified the school was not in any immediate danger of losing its accreditation.
Reporter Bruce Schreiner contributed reporting from Louisville, Kentucky.