Education

A judge has temporarily blocked Gov. Matt Bevin’s overhaul of the University of Louisville Board of Trustees. 

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd issued the ruling Friday morning. The effect of Shepherd’s ruling is to restore the version of the U of L board that Bevin abolished by executive order in June.

It also affirms that there was no conflict in the new board decision on Wednesday to accept President James Ramsey’s immediate resignation and provide him a $690,000 settlement.

Although the ruling is not a final judgment on the legality of Bevin’s reorganization of the board, it does show that the court is questioning the move.

“The record here is devoid of any legal or factual precedent for a Governor to abolish and recreate an entire board of trustees of a public university,” Shepherd wrote. “Such an action would seem to destroy statutory requirements for boards such as tenure of office, staggered terms, and institutional continuity.”

Shepherd also questioned the manner in which Ramsey apparently came to an agreement with Bevin to resign from his position. The judge wrote that powers like the “appointment, suspension or removal of the president” are reserved for the school’s board, not the governor.

“The actions of the Governor in connection with the submission of the ‘resignation/retirement’ of Dr. Ramsey … would also appear to have been inconsistent with those statutes,” Shepherd wrote.

According to a letter sent to the governor from Ramsey on June 16, the two had a “conversation” in which they discussed the “fresh start” for the university. Ramsey officially resigned in an agreement with the newly constituted board late Wednesday evening.

Over recent years, divisions had emerged on the board between supporters and detractors of Ramsey.

Ramsey has been under fire for numerous scandals over the past several years. The NCAA is investigating the basketball program after a former escort alleged an ex-coach paid for strippers and sex for players and recruits. Last October, Ramsey apologized after he and his senior staff posed for a photograph at a university Halloween party wearing stereotypical Mexican garb.

More recently, Ramsey has been criticized for his dual role as president of the University of Louisville Foundation, for which he received $2.8 million in compensation in 2014.

The order restores the previous version of the board, which was led by Chair Larry Benz. IN a statement Friday, Benz said the board would affirm Ramsey’s settlement.

“We respect Judge Shepherd’s ruling and also have a great deal of respect for Gov. Bevin,” he said. “I believe our current Board of Trustees will move to immediately ratify all actions taken in the past week by Gov. Bevin’s appointed Board of Trustees. I will be working with board members to schedule a meeting early next week. We will have further communication following that meeting.” 

The relationship between the foundation and the university is the subject of an ongoing investigation by state Auditor Mike Harmon.

In his ruling, Shepherd said that the governor’s accusations of “dysfunction” on the board need to be tried in a public hearing.

“The Governor’s charges of dysfunction were not tested before the Governor acted,” Shepherd wrote. “The fact that there is disagreement among board members is not necessarily a sign of dysfunction. To the contrary, a board that always is in agreement and acts as a rubber stamp may be dysfunctional.”

Shepherd also said that it was “significant” that Bevin overhauled the board without consulting the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The attorney general’s office argued that the organization could pull U of L’s accreditation for having “undue political influence” on the management of the school.

Shepherd said the legal issues in the case “go to the heart of the democratic process” and that the court had to intervene to “preserve the proper checks and balances governing executive action and legislative delegations of power.”

“While Governor Bevin’s motives here may be laudable, there is no guarantee that others would not wield such unilateral and unchecked power for improper motives, political advancement, or private economic benefit,” Shepherd wrote.

Amanda Stamper, press secretary for the governor’s office issued a written statement on Friday:

“The circuit court ignored binding precedent from the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the plain language of the statute at issue, and a recent opinion from the Office of the Attorney General, that the Governor has authority to propose and temporarily implement the reorganization of the University of Louisville Board of Trustees. The Court’s abrupt altering of the status quo, just as the newly constituted University Board has begun to take constructive steps to put the University on a solid path forward, is neither in the best interest of the University nor the public.

“We are very confident that this temporary injunction is just that – temporary – and will be reversed on appeal.”

Attorney General Andy Beshear challenged Bevin’s reorganization of the board, arguing that state law protected trustees from being fired without proper cause. Trustees serve for four-year terms; there were two vacancies on the board before Bevin’s executive order.

In a statement issued on Friday, Beshear called the ruling a “win” for Kentucky students, their families and the state’s public universities.

“The governor does not have ‘absolute authority’ to ignore the Constitution and Kentucky law,” Beshear said. “I will continue my job of enforcing our Constitution’s separation of powers so that no one branch of government, regardless of who leads it, has absolute power.”

Bevin’s office argued that the governor has authority to reorganize any state board while the legislature isn’t in session, and that General Assembly would have an opportunity to weigh in on the issue when it reconvenes in January.

During court proceedings, the governor’s office also argued that the overhaul was necessary to put the board back into alignment with state law that requires university boards to reflect the racial and political makeup in the state. The board had too many Democrats and too few racial minorities before the revamp. 

Junior Bridgeman, chairman of the board created by Bevin, said he doesn’t know what the implications of the ruling are. Bridgeman said he has not read the ruling and so far has only seen headlines.

“It’s not in our hands,” he said. “It’s in the governor’s or judges, or whoever. We’ll know when we know.”

Bob Hughes, a former board chair, said he is in “wait and see mode.”

“Legally this is going to have to play out as to which board is going to ultimately be the board of trustees,” said Hughes. “The main thing, regardless of which board, is that it needs to hopefully be expedited so there can be stability restored at the University of Louisville for the students, the faculty and the staff.”

Avery Kolers, U of L philosophy professor and president of the local American Association of University Professors chapter, said some faculty are looking for new jobs amid concerns that U of L will lose its reputation.

“People have lost faith that the university is going to be a major research institution or serve the community the way it’s supposed to,” Kolers said. “People who can leave, I think, many of them will.”

The decision Friday did bring hope, but Kolers said a lot of the university’s future will ride on the final outcome of the case, and whether U of L considers faculty, staff and student voices in its search for the next president.

Susan Jarosi, an associate professor of art history and vice president of the American Association of University Professors at U of L, said faculty are concerned that Bevin’s shrinking of the board of trustees will hurt its reputation, especially in relation to the University of Kentucky, the state’s other major research university.

The executive orders are also troubling because it could set a precedent that the governor could do this again or to other universities, Jarosi said.

“A lot of faculty just, including myself, just breathed a very deep side of relief that the statutory board will be back in place,” Jarosi said.

But Jarosi said she is hesitant to be too hopeful. The new board’s struggles over past few weeks have exemplified for her how hard it will be for them to transition into their new roles.

Kate Howard and Will Wright contributed to this story.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.