Education Politics

Students at the University of Louisville could lose federal financial aid and the ability to transfer class credits if the school loses its accreditation. That’s what the attorney general and an expert witness warn will happen if Gov. Matt Bevin is allowed to unilaterally overhaul the school’s governing body.

The governor’s office argues that U of L is not immediately at risk of losing its accreditation and that a lawsuit over the matter will be settled by the time the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools could impose any sanctions, settling whether the governor has the authority to abolish and restructure a university board without legislative approval.

Steve Pitt, the governor’s general counsel, said there’s no legal reason the school has to be accredited, but he still downplayed worries that U of L could lose its accreditation

“There is no statute in Kentucky, oddly enough, that even requires public universities to even be accredited,” Pitt said. “I think you’ll see that there’s a lot more smoke here than there is fire.”

U of L is in the midst of reapplying for its accreditation to SACS, which it has to do every 10 years. The accreditation organization sent a letter to the school’s interim president, Neville Pinto, citing concerns with Bevin’s “alleged negotiation of the resignation of a university president” and “removal of board members without due process.”

At issue is whether the organization thinks there is “undue political influence” on the school’s governance, which is forbidden by SACS’ accreditation principles.

Patricia Cormier, a former SACS commissioner, testified as an expert for the attorney general’s office. She said Bevin “inserted himself in the process over which he does not have authority.”

“The board of trustees has the ability to hire and to evaluate and to fire a president. Only a board can do that, nobody else can do that,” Cormier said.

Cormier also said Bevin’s revamp of the institution’s governing board “interferes with academic freedom.”

Bevin abolished the U of L 17-member board in June, later creating a new panel and appointing 10 new members.

At the same time Bevin announced the reorganization, he distributed a letter from U of L President James Ramsey that revealed Ramsey would step down from his post.

In the letter to the governor, Ramsey stated that he “appreciated our recent conversation,” described a need for a “fresh start” and then declared that he would retire or resign.

“As a result, upon a legal restructure of the board of trustees at the University of Louisville, I will immediately offer, to the newly appointed board, my resignation/retirement as president of the University of Louisville,” Ramsey said.

The governor’s office has maintained that Bevin did not negotiate Ramsey’s retirement.

Franklin Circuit Court Judge Philip Shepherd temporarily blocked Bevin’s reorganization of the U of L board in late July, putting the former version of the board back in place. At the time, Shepherd said it was “significant” that Bevin overhauled the board without consulting the SACS.

On Thursday, Attorney General Andy Beshear said that loss of accreditation is a “death sentence” for a university.

“A loss of all the federal student aid going into the university would incredibly damage the university’s funding, would make it likely that it would be very difficult to operate at all,” Beshear said.

Both sides have until Wednesday to submit their final briefs in the case. Shepherd says he’ll rule soon after that. The case is expected to be appealed.

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