3 Questions About the U. of Louisville’s Immediate Future

January 25, 2017

Timothy D. Easley, AP Images
The U. of Louisville's accreditor has laid the blame for the institution's probation at the feet of Kentucky's Republican governor, Matt Bevin. But it's unclear whether his actions on higher education still pose a risk to the university's accreditation.
The leadership situation at the University of Louisville is fluid, to say the least.

This past weekend the university got a new interim president — its vice president for health affairs, Greg Postel. The appointment was among the first acts by a new Board of Trustees appointed just last week by Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin.

But those who have been following the complex situation at Louisville will recognize that Governor Bevin’s new board isn’t really new at all. Nine out of 10 of the "new" trustees were previously named to a board the governor sought to create last summer, when he used an executive order to dissolve the university’s old board and replace it with a smaller one.

Governor Bevin’s first effort is the subject of a continuing court challenge, but his recent appointment of a new board has been cleared by a new law passed this month that makes explicit his legal authority to appoint Louisville’s board.

Meanwhile, the university has been left in the uncertain position of proving to its accreditor that it has not been subject to undue political interference. As the university navigates these competing concerns, here are three questions about what comes next:

1. Who’s in charge?

The governor has said his efforts to reshape the University of Louisville are driven by concerns about dysfunction there. But constant disruptions to the composition of the governing board have meant that it has not met regularly for any length of time since March 2016.

In June, Kentucky’s attorney general, Andy Beshear, a Democrat, sued Mr. Bevin, contending that the governor had overstepped his authority in dissolving the old, 17-member board and appointing a new one of 10 members. Then, in September, a state judge ruled that the governor had improperly acted as "judge, jury, and executioner" in abolishing the board, and the original board was reinstated.

After the governor appealed, the case now stands before the Kentucky Supreme Court. But the passage this month of Senate Bill 12 by the General Assembly appears to make the challenge moot, as Governor Bevin’s authority to replace the Louisville board is now enshrined in state law.

In addition to disturbances to the board, Louisville has not had a permanent president since James Ramsey resigned amid a litany of controversies in July.

The provost, Neville Pinto, led the university as interim president following Mr. Ramsey’s departure, but he is leaving in February to become president of the University of Cincinnati.

Dr. Postel, the new interim president, has worked at the university for 22 years and is expected to keep his role as interim executive vice president for health affairs in addition to his interim presidency, which will begin on January 30. Reached by email, a university spokesman said Dr. Postel was not available for interviews this week.

2. Is the university’s accreditation at risk?

Amid concerns that the University of Louisville had failed to safeguard against undue external influence, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges put the university on a yearlong probation in December.

The publication last week of the accreditor’s official probation letter confirmed that the agency believes the actions of Governor Bevin to be in opposition to its standards.

Given that the accreditor lays the blame squarely at the door of the governor, and not the university, the question of what the university can do to respond is a tricky one.

“The university is still accredited. Everybody needs to take a chill pill and exhale.”
The university is required to provide a response to the accreditor by September. Then, the agency meets in December to consider whether the probation should be cleared or extended, or, ultimately, whether the institution’s accreditation should be revoked altogether.

While the threat of losing accreditation is real, it would be extraordinary for a public university of Louisville’s size to have its recognition pulled. On January 12, the president of the accrediting commission, Belle S. Wheelan was quoted as saying that there was "no reason for people to panic," adding, "The university is still accredited. Everybody needs to take a chill pill and exhale."

It’s unknown whether the legislature’s recent action will assuage the accreditor’s concern. Patricia L. Donat, the commission’s vice president said in an interview that it was "clear" that the legislature was responding to the accreditor’s decision to put Louisville on probation. But she noted that the commission’s board would not be making any assessments until its December meeting.

Dr. Postel told reporters on Saturday that he was confident the university would keep its accreditation.

3. What does the future hold?

While it is not unheard of for a governor to attempt to gain greater control of higher education in his or her state, Paul Gaston III, a professor at Kent State University who teaches about higher-education administration, said he thinks Governor Bevin’s actions are "unusual" in their aggressiveness.

A Senate bill due to be reviewed when lawmakers reconvene in February would take the powers afforded to Mr. Bevin at Louisville and extend them to every public college across the state.

Jay Todd Richey, a student at Western Kentucky University who is the chair of the Board of Student Body Presidents of Kentucky, said that he believed the new Senate bill would constitute "an undue burden on the institutional autonomy of universities, potentially jeopardizing accreditation for us all."

However, Aaron Vance, student body president of the University of Louisville’s Student Government Association, said he was hopeful that the governor would take time to listen to stakeholders before moving forward with the new bill. "That legislation was passed in the first week of the session is unnerving," he said. "I hope that moving forward, we will at least get the right people involved in the conversation."