Commentary

James Ramsey’s departure as president of the University of Louisville and its foundation should have been an occasion for bittersweet celebration. As one of the longest-serving leaders of Kentucky’s urban university, Ramsey enjoyed many years of achievement, leading the effort to make U of L the incubator for academic accomplishment, sports prowess and record-setting fundraising.

But sadly, for all of his potential and achievements, Ramsey was a failure as U of L’s leader. As he leaves office, his trail is fouled by a string of embarrassments at best, crimes at worst. That failed leadership includes bad judgement hiring deans (one of whom went to prison), a misbegotten hospital merger that defied the medical school’s years of cooperation with the city and its other medical centers, an erratic, sometimes petulant leadership style, and a political controversy that threatens the university’s accreditation.

Oh, yes, and there’s a sex scandal in the basketball program that the NCAA is still investigating.

Ramsey and his shrinking claque of supporters will disagree with this assessment, but I feel comfortable making it. I’ve known every president of the university since Philip Davidson, who took office in 1951 and served until 1968. I have not had the pleasure of meeting Neville Pinto, the acting president, but he has my great good wishes. He needs all the success he can muster.

Ramsey’s failure as president was his single-minded goal of raising money; he became a one-trick pony. I fear Ramsey thought that the endowment he built would cover all mistakes. And he did raise a lot of money.

Sadly, that is what university presidents have to do these days, and because of the price of tuition, students mired in debt look at the size of foundations and wonder why their burden feels so great.

Ramsey’s foibles may have been symbolized most clearly last fall, when he, his wife and members of his staff were photographed in stereotypical Mexican attire. They were celebrating Halloween on the steps of Amelia Place, a stately home in the Highlands that philanthropist David Jones Sr. bought for university presidents in the 1980s. The image became a national symbol of racial insensitivity and for a time appeared on the homepage of The New York Times. Ramsey apologized but the damage was done.

Having written about higher education at every level for nearly 50 years, my feeling is that public universities require very special leaders. It’s not an impossible job. But nimble, sensitive and thick-skinned men and women are the best candidates. Scholars need to be treasured. And those who crave wealth and power should not be.

During his 43 years at The Courier-Journal, Keith Runyon reported and wrote editorials about the University of Louisville from 1973 to 2012. He holds degrees from the College of Arts and Sciences and the law school. In 2012, he received the Society of Professional Journalists’ national award in editorial writing for his commentary on the proposed merger of the University of Louisville Hospital and Catholic Health Initiatives.

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