Leadership & Governance

U. of Louisville’s Interim President: ‘Trying to Focus on the Positive’

Greg Postel, interim president, U. of Louisville

June 13, 2017

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Gregory C. Postel has spent 23 years at the University of Louisville and held numerous administrative positions at the institution’s School of Medicine. He had a front-row seat to the series of controversies that James R. Ramsey faced as Louisville’s president, including many FBI investigations involving campus officials, an embezzlement scandal, a National Collegiate Athletic Association inquiry, and scrutiny of the university’s foundation. Mr. Ramsey resigned last summer amid the turmoil, after 14 years as president.

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So why would Dr. Postel want the job of interim leader at such a difficult time? “When you work at an institution for 23 years,” he says, “your desire is to do anything that you need to do to help the organization.” He’s also serving as interim executive vice president for health affairs.

Since becoming interim president, in January, Dr. Postel has led the university through a continuing NCAA investigation examining whether the Louisville men’s basketball program should face additional sanctions after a former basketball official paid women thousands of dollars to entertain players and recruits. He has also worked with Louisville’s accreditor to respond to concerns about possible undue political interference by Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, and has overseen a series of changes made in the practices of the University of Louisville Foundation. An independent audit of the foundation was released last week.

Dr. Postel, who says he’s interested in the permanent Louisville job, spoke with The Chronicle about how he’s tried to help the university move past its controversies and its political and financial challenges.

TRANSCRIPT

SARAH BROWN: Hi, we're here today with Dr. Greg Postel. He's the interim president of the University of Louisville. Dr. Postel, welcome. Thanks so much for being here.

GREG POSTEL: Thanks for having me.

SARAH BROWN: So you've been at Louisville for 23 years, but you came to the interim president's role in January, is that right?

GREG POSTEL: That's exactly right.

SARAH BROWN: And you're also serving as interim executive vice president of health affairs at the moment.

GREG POSTEL: I am.

SARAH BROWN: So why did you decide to take the president's job? What led you to make that decision?

GREG POSTEL: Well, I think when you work at an institution for 23 years, your desire is to do anything that you need to do to help the organization. And we were in a period of transition. We had a couple of people in leadership roles step down, and there was a need. I was asked, and I said yes. And so, for the time being, I'm a very busy person trying to fill both jobs.

SARAH BROWN: So during your time at Louisville, the university has undergone a sort of transformation from a mostly commuter college to an urban research university. And a lot of that shift was led by Mr. Ramsey. And he resigned last year after a series of controversies, but I think it's fair to say that he had a lot of supporters on campus. So I wonder how you have tried to win the support of Mr. Ramsey's supporters?

GREG POSTEL: Well I think, you know, what shines through at the end of the day is people's love for the University of Louisville. And so we, as you've said, have seen an awful lot of changes over the last 20 years. More and more of our students living on campus now, about a third of all of our students on campus. Whereas 20 years ago that was not the case.

Living and learning communities, those types of environments where we know students perform a lot better when they live in dormitories, where their mentors and their peers are right there with them, helping them succeed. As you mentioned, our research enterprise has grown substantially during that same period of time. So I think we're trying to focus on the positive things that have happened and spend our time now looking forward to understand what our next agenda is.

SARAH BROWN: So as you're well aware during Mr. Ramsey's tenure, three campus officials came under FBI investigation. Another campus official pleaded guilty to embezzlement. There was an NCAA investigation that started. So there was a lot going on. I think some board members and others believed that that suggested that there was a culture that lacked oversight, that there was a culture that allowed such misconduct to take place. And I wonder how you might address that culture?

GREG POSTEL: Well universities are large complex places. We have 23,000 students and 12,000 faculty and staff. So it's a complex equation to get the oversight of an organization that size just right.

I'd like to say today we have a board that is very engaged and involved in making sure that we are looking at things the way we should. We're being very transparent about all of our decision making, both with the campus community and beyond. And it's unfortunate sometimes, that the actions of a small number of people can cause an image that's unfortunate for a larger group of people. And we're trying to put steps in place to make sure those things never happen again.

SARAH BROWN: So let's talk briefly about Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who has shown over the last couple of years that he clearly would like to reshape higher education to some extent in the state. He tried to overhaul the university's governing board and cut higher-education funding without legislative approval. He was also involved to some extent in asking for Mr. Ramsey's resignation. Your accreditor has expressed concerns about whether these activities qualify as undue political interference. Do you think that Governor Bevin's activities and actions are damaging to the university?

GREG POSTEL: So my interactions with Governor Bevin have been uniformly positive. I really believe that he has the best interests of the university in mind. That said, all politicians have their style, and so I guess people would go about trying to help an organization in ways different from one another. And that's how he chose to do it.

At the end of the day, as I said, we have a board that is very engaged and working closely with us. We have worked closely with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is our accrediting organization, to answer their questions and concerns about the amount of influence the state has over the affairs at the university. And we believe we've made very good progress with them.

They're coming to visit us in September. We have a site visit planned. And then if all goes well in December, that's the date when our probation would be lifted. So we're very encouraged by the dialogue we've had with SACS so far, and we're satisfying their requests to the best of our ability.

SARAH BROWN: Now, are you interested in the permanent job as Louisville's president?

GREG POSTEL: Well despite all the challenges you've mentioned, yes. I actually like what I'm doing very much. I've been at the university as you said, for a long time. I care about it, I want to make sure the university continues to do well, and its next chapter is a very bright one. So I think if asked, I would be honored and very pleased to do that.

SARAH BROWN: Do you have any sense of how long you'll be serving in the interim role?

GREG POSTEL: Well interim roles are not short, and I think anyone who ever accepts one needs to know that. We have named a search committee, but that's really about all that has happened because of course, it's summertime now, and so on the main campus the students and the faculty are all gone for the summer, and not much happens. And so I think it'll probably be the fall before the search for the next president really begins in earnest, and searches take about a year. So I suspect that at minimum I'll be in this job until the fall of '18.

SARAH BROWN: So you came into this role at a time when the university was just moving forward after a period of turmoil. The board had just gotten stability, really, by the time that you came into this role. Now that it's been a few months, what are sort of your priorities moving forward?

GREG POSTEL: Well, so we've had a very good two weeks at Louisville. We had graduation last Saturday. The largest graduating class ever in the history of the university, 3,154 for the spring semester, which included 18 percent minorities and 14.5 percent first-generation grads. So that was some much needed good news for the university. And then just two days ago, we were able to present to the board for their consideration a balanced budget for next year, which was a real challenge for us, because we did that and we held tuition flat. So in a year when we had a lot of financial challenges, we still managed to find a way to not increase the tuition for 2017-2018 for our students.

So we're very pleased about the ability to do those kinds of things, because I think they make a strong statement about the future that we see for the university.

SARAH BROWN: And the last thing I'll ask is in your bio, you are self-described as a soccer dad. How might that have influenced your leadership so far at the University of Louisville?

GREG POSTEL: Well I have twin 6-year-old boys. Actually, there'll be 7 in July. And they are children, not grandchildren. I need to clarify that because I'm asked at least once a week. And I call them my life coaches because they help keep me balanced: When I come home from a crazy day at work, they remind me what's really important. And so that's a very important part of my life.

SARAH BROWN: Well Dr. Postel, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate you speaking with us today

GREG POSTEL: Happy to be here.

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.