Education Investigations

Nearly everyone in top leadership at the University of Louisville has the same prefix on their titles: interim. 

Four of U of L’s top five administrators are either serving temporarily or have a foot out the door for a new job. Acting president Neville Pinto is leaving for the presidency at the University of Cincinnati, and chief financial officer Harlan Sands is leaving, too.

The next acting president will likely be pulled from an interim role because university leaders say they’re legally barred from hiring externally. All those interim leaders haven’t been hired permanently for the same reason, said U of L board chair Larry Benz.

“That does not mean we can’t name an interim president, but we have to be mindful of what we can and can’t do,” Benz said.

The U of L board is still hamstrung by a legal settlement preventing board members from making “major personnel or structural changes” until the board has more minority members.

Former Gov. Steve Beshear was sued in 2015 by West Louisville-based Justice Resource Center for having only one racial minority on the U of L board. State law requires there to be at least three. Major personnel changes have been on hold since the lawsuit was settled in March, and several board members resigned to clear the way for minority appointments.

But Bevin hasn’t appointed any new members.

Instead, in June, he disbanded the board and replaced it with a smaller, new board that was in racial compliance. Bevin is appealing a judge’s ruling that overturned that action and restored the old board.

The university’s accrediting agency considers the upheaval “undue political influence” and placed U of L on probation this month. 

The board won’t have more minority members until Bevin appoints some. But Bevin’s spokeswoman, Amanda Stamper, didn’t answer a question about whether Bevin plans to fill the board vacancies.

“The Office of the Governor has no role in the selection of university officials, either on an interim or permanent basis,” Stamper said in an email.

Interims in Top Positions

The leadership vacuum started long before former president James Ramsey was forced out in July. Longtime provost Shirley Willihnganz retired last year and was replaced on an interim basis by Pinto, who was then called up to the president’s office.

The role of executive vice president for health affairs has been held by an interim since David Dunn was placed on administrative leave through an FBI investigation. Dunn was given a $1.15 million payout to leave last week. Sands, the chief financial and operations officer leaving next month, served in a newly created role. But he replaced Michael Curtin, who left U of L with an extra six months pay and a non-disparagement agreement.

A search for a permanent president can take up to a year, and the process to replace James Ramsey hasn’t yet begun almost five months after he was forced out. In a time of crisis and transition, many colleges look for a retired college president or local business leader to serve an open-ended term. The U of L Foundation this month hired an interim executive director on a one-year contract while it conducts a search for a permanent leader.

Benz said he is “seeking clarification” on whether the board can conduct an outside search for an interim president, but they likely won’t need to.

“I’m fairly confident we likely have a strong potential interim president right on our campus,” Benz said. 

Kate Howard is a veteran investigative reporter specializing in government accountability and higher education issues.