Administration

It’s Been a Terrible 2 Years for the University of Louisville

September 27, 2017

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Rick Pitino, men's basketball coach at the U. of Louisville, was placed on administrative leave on Wednesday after news broke of a scandal involving coaches on the team.

Almost exactly two years ago, an escort published a book in which she asserted that the University of Louisville had plied men’s basketball recruits and their fathers with alcohol and prostitutes over several years. The explosive allegations shocked observers, and prompted the university to open an internal investigation.

For most campuses, that would have been a month’s worst headline. But Louisville is not just any campus.

A few weeks after the escort’s book was published, the university’s president, James R. Ramsey, donned a sombrero and posed for a group photo with members of his staff, some of whom also wore fake mustaches and carried maracas. They said the stereotypical costumes were part of a Halloween party, but the ensuing outrage over the racial insensitivity prompted Mr. Ramsey to apologize. The editor of the university’s student newspaper observed that if fraternity members had been caught doing what Mr. Ramsey and his staff had done, “they would be in huge trouble.”

The last 24 months have seen a seemingly nonstop flood of abysmal headlines for the University of Louisville. It’s endured multiple investigations of several stripes, it’s faced an intense vacuum of leadership, and its very accreditation seems under threat. The news on Wednesday — that the basketball coach, Rick Pitino, and the athletic director, Tom Jurich, had been placed on administrative leave after another high-profile scandal — was just the cherry on top.

A steady drumbeat of scandal has pursued the university and its leaders.
A steady drumbeat of controversy followed Mr. Ramsey around shortly after he apologized for the sombrero photo. The very next month, the university’s director of alumni relations resigned after an internal audit at her previous job found she had taken publicly funded trips to run marathons. The month after that, it was reported that the FBI was investigating whether three university leaders had misused federal grant money. Louisville later paid one of them $1.15 million to retire, and the FBI later announced that it would close the case without bringing charges.

Months later, a compliance officer filed a whistle-blower complaint against the university’s administration, asserting that it had enforced conflict-of-interest rules laxly, including in the case of one of the officials who had been investigated by the FBI.

Meanwhile, the National Collegiate Athletic Association placed Louisville under investigation for the prostitution allegations, and in early 2016 the university imposed on itself athletic penalties, including a postseason ban for the men’s basketball team. The NCAA later imposed additional sanctions.

In March of that year, critics of Mr. Ramsey tried but failed at a meeting of the governing board to force a no-confidence vote in the president. Mr. Ramsey didn’t take that criticism lying down, writing in an open letter to the campus that members of the board should be blamed for “discord, anger, and tension.” He added that he was “disappointed” in them.

Large Controversies and Small

But Mr. Ramsey, a Louisville native whose leadership was largely credited for the astronomical growth of the institution, was not long in his post. In June 2016, Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin, announced that Mr. Ramsey would resign and, extraordinarily, that the entire governing board would be dissolved. Governor Bevin blamed it for the university’s dysfunction.

But a legal battle broke out over the governor’s ability to do what he said he’d done. The state’s Democratic attorney general sued over Mr. Bevin’s move, and courts blocked it from taking effect. But this past January, the Kentucky legislature enacted a measure enshrining Mr. Bevin’s new board in law.

Mr. Ramsey may have been out of the presidency, but he retained his post as president of the university’s foundation. Amid larger infighting between the foundation and its trustees, one trustee demanded Mr. Ramsey be fired from that post, and two donors said they would not give money to the foundation until it was audited. Mr. Ramsey did resign from that presidency in September 2016, and outside consultants embarked on an audit of the foundation.

Those results came in this year, with the consultants finding a laundry list of improper practices by the foundation, including excessive spending and secrecy. For one, the consultants found that a hard drive belonging to Mr. Ramsey had been wiped clean before the audit.

It was amid those large controversies that smaller ones were able to fly under the radar. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found in October 2016 that, at the urging of a donor, the foundation had purchased a factory building in Oklahoma that seemed to serve no academic purpose.

Meanwhile, looming over the university hangs the prospect of a loss of its accreditation.
One of the biggest questions looming over the university for the past year is what would happen to its accreditation. The governor’s unilateral action, and the legislature’s subsequent move to legitimize it, posed possible questions about the university’s governance and autonomy. With that in mind, in December, the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, put it on probation. While the accreditor’s president, Belle S. Wheelan, said there was “no reason for people to panic,” in May she wrote in a letter to Louisville that there was “sufficient factual information” to indicate that the university was in violation of accreditation standards.

Meanwhile, a leadership vacuum has persisted. After Mr. Ramsey’s resignation, the provost, Neville G. Pinto, stepped in as interim president. But Mr. Pinto soon left to become president of the University of Cincinnati, and Gregory C. Postel, the interim executive vice president for health affairs, became interim president. Mr. Postel told The Chronicle in June that he was interested in taking the permanent job.

So Tuesday’s revelation — that two coaches in the basketball program had funneled money from Adidas, the sportswear giant, to recruits — and the subsequent discipline of Mr. Pitino and Mr. Jurich were just the latest in an incomprehensibly long string of scandals. (It was also revealed that Mr. Jurich’s daughter works for Adidas.)

“I’m more angry than embarrassed,” Mr. Postel said in a news conference. As to Mr. Pitino’s replacement, the interim president said: “We will be looking for someone with integrity.”

Andy Thomason oversees breaking-news coverage. Send him a tip at andy.thomason@chronicle.com. And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.