FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky Senate passed legislation Thursday that would set guidelines for the governor when replacing entire public university boards or individual members.
The measure that cleared the Senate on a 32-6 vote is a response to upheaval at the University of Louisville, which has had multiple governing boards since last year.
Overshadowing the debate was the potential impact the measure could have with an accrediting body that put UofL on probation last year. Senate President Robert Stivers, the bill’s sponsor, said he sought input from the group.
“Their comments were made and were incorporated into the bill,” he said.
Sen. Morgan McGarvey said his support for the legislation was based on his desire to get UofL “back on the right track as quickly as possible.” He said that outweighed his concerns the measure would give any governor “undue influence” over university boards.
“We have been told, in consultations with other people, that this will help the University of Louisville get its accreditation off of probation,” said McGarvey, D-Louisville.
Loss of accreditation would be devastating and would mean, among other things, that UofL students would not be eligible for state or federal financial aid.
After the Senate vote, state Attorney General Andy Beshear weighed in with his concerns.
Beshear said the measure “does nothing to truly limit the governor’s claim of absolute authority to dissolve a university board at any time and for any reason.”
Beshear, a Democrat, is embroiled in a legal fight with Republican Gov. Matt Bevin over the governor’s decision last year to abolish and replace UofL’s board of trustees. Beshear sued to block Bevin’s order, and the case is pending before the state Supreme Court.
The accrediting group – the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges – has said in a letter that it placed UofL on probation because Bevin interfered with the board of trustees’ decisions and did not use a “fair process for the dismissal of board members.”
The Senate-passed bill, which now goes to the House, would clarify when and how the governor can remove individual members or entire public university boards.
The governor could replace members when the board lacks required racial or political diversity but must first try to resolve the issue by letting terms expire and appointing new members. If that would take more than one year, the governor could replace other board members on a “last in, first out” basis.
The bill would let the governor remove members for cause, including incompetence and malfeasance. First, the state Council on Postsecondary Education would investigate and make a recommendation. The governor would not have to follow that recommendation, but the council’s advice would be public record.
The bill would set guidelines for the governor to replace an entire university governing board. Grounds for replacement would include “gross neglect of duty” or failing to meet statutory mandates.
The board would have seven days to resign or offer evidence to the postsecondary education council on why removal would be unwarranted. The council would investigate and make a nonbinding recommendation to the governor, who would then decide.
Gubernatorial appointments to university boards would be subject to Senate confirmation under the bill.
“This is the best solution I feel that we can come up with,” Stivers said.
In voting against the bill, Minority Floor Leader Ray S. Jones II said it offers “no system of checks and balances.” As a result, any governor could “arbitrarily remove a board member or an entire board if they were acting contrary to the governor’s wishes,” said Jones, D-Pikeville.
The bill is a follow-up to action taken by lawmakers in January, during the opening week of this year’s session. They passed a bill that gave UofL its third board of trustees in the past seven months after lawmakers agreed to abolish and replace its governing body at Bevin’s behest.