Commentary

There was a time, 40 or more years ago, when higher education in Kentucky was ruled by political pooh-bahs who knew how to coax favors and funding from Frankfort. The state colleges and universities depended more on the political wiles of their presidents than their academic credentials.

One of the treasured photos in my collection was taken in the state House of Representatives some years ago, when three of those power brokers: President Adron Doran of Morehead State University, President Bob Martin of Eastern Kentucky University and Harry Sparks, President of Murray State University.

All three had held political office – Doran as Speaker of the State House of Representatives, Martin and Sparks as the Superintendent of Public Instruction (then a statewide elective office), and Martin also as a powerful state senator. There they are, starting down at the floor of the legislature, reminding any doubtful representative where the power truly resided.

Times have changed since the days when politicians ran universities: From left: Bob Martin of Eastern, Adron Doran of Morehead and Harry Sparks of Murray. Collection of Keith Runyon

Times have changed since the days when politicians ran universities: From left: Bob Martin of Eastern, Adron Doran of Morehead and Harry Sparks of Murray.

However impressive the men who ran state universities may have been (and no matter how much the campuses they guided grew and flourished), their influence needed to be reduced if the Bluegrass State had any hope achieving anything more than mediocrity when compared with institutions in other states.

The state’s Council on Higher Education, a blue ribbon panel with a planning staff, was created to discourage unnecessary duplication in facilities and programs, and to encourage professional governance and independence from politics.

In my early days as a reporter, I was assigned to cover that panel with my focus on the University of Louisville, which had entered the state system in 1970. Over the years, the council’s name changed, and so did its members, but as the Council for Postsecondary Education it has continued to be a place where top civic leaders made important decisions.

What happens when political leaders like Gov. Matt Bevin act to thwart that professional decision-making process and take things into their own hands? You can see an excellent example at the University of Louisville, which has recently been put on academic probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

The decision to do this resulted, in large measure from Bevin’s ham-handed interference last summer. He removed the board of trustees, installed his own board and brokered a departure for scandal-scarred former President James Ramsey.

A lawsuit that followed has resulted in removal of the new board. That suit is on appeal. And the circuit judge who ruled against Bevin warned that the governor’s effort to run U of L could result in accreditation problems.

And so it has.

The university, now led by Acting President Neville Pinto, has a year to clean up its act, but presumably Bevin must remove himself from active involvement in the university’s management. Losing accreditation would be devastating: It means loss of respect for those with U of L degrees, and it can mean an end to federal funding, scholarship aid and other penalties.

Given the university’s other problems – an NCAA investigation, woes related to its tenancy at the KFC Yum Center, problems with University Hospital and an ongoing crisis involving the U of L Foundation – accreditation concerns from a meddlesome governor are the last thing this city or its university needs.