Accrediting agency puts U of L on probation
The University of Louisville’s accrediting agency Tuesday placed the school on probation, saying Gov. Matt Bevin’s attempt to abolish its board of trustees and other interference violated rules that require that universities be independent.
Acting President Neville Pinto assured students and faculty that U of L is still accredited and that the sanction doesn’t affect the value of degrees or the school’s ability to get federal funding. He also said the issues will be resolved by the fall of 2017.
But he acknowledged at a hastily called news conference that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ decision to place U of L on probation for one year — which could be extended by another year — is “very disappointing. Probation is not a good place to be,” he said.
The sanction comes as the university seeks to recover from other, self-inflicted scandals and is about to embark on a search for a new president to replace Dr. James Ramsey, who was forced to resign last summer.
Attorney General Andy Beshear, who won a circuit court ruling blocking Bevin from dismantling U of L’s board and appointing his own, blasted the governor for ignoring warnings that he was putting the university’s accreditation at risk.
“In his pursuit of absolute authority, Gov. Bevin has inflicted great and substantial harm to one of our public universities,” Beshear said in a statement.
He added that Bevin now “has only one choice — to rescind his executive order, dismiss his appeal and announce he will not support legislation that would impact the university’s governance.”
But in a tweet, Bevin’s office said: “U o f L’s accreditation is not at risk, nor will it ever be at risk because of any action taken by Gov. Bevin. Anyone who argues otherwise does not have U of L’s best interest at heart.”
In legal papers in September, Bevin's general counsel, Steve Pitt, had ridiculed the accreditation issue, comparing Beshear's warnings at the time to "Chicken Little," saying he was running around "trying to instigate as much fear and controversy" as possible.
Pinto told reporters that he talked to Bevin on Tuesday morning and that the governor reiterated the importance of U of L to the city and state.
Pinto said they didn’t discuss what specific steps the university or the governor will take to respond to the concerns of the accrediting agency, which is known as SACS, in part because details of its findings won’t be provided until next month.
The university said in a news release that SACS found U of L was not in compliance with rules requiring that trustees be dismissed only for cause; that university boards alone select their president; and that boards be free from undue political or other external influence.
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Ruling in September, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd held that the governor had acted illegally as "judge, jury and executioner" in abolishing the U of L board and appointing his own, saying the governor's actions were "entirely without precedent."
Shepherd also found Bevin broke the law by firing trustees with"no recourse whatsoever" to contest his "unilateral fiat” and Bevin improperly agreed to fire and replace the board as a condition of getting President James Ramsey's agreement to resign.
Bevin, who has contended he has the right to reorganize state boards while the General Assembly is not in session, has appealed Shepherd’s ruling.
In a statement, Pinto said SACS' decision to put the university on probation "does not reflect on the quality of our curriculum or our core academic strengths" and is "focused entirely on issues related to governance of the institution."
He told reporters that “probation is just a period when we have to address an issue” and would have no impact on research funding or hiring.
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SACS says on its website that probation is usually the last step before an institution’s accreditation is revoked. Pinto said that is not going to happen, but he was unable to tell reporters exactly how the university will avoid it, given that the sanction was imposed for actions by the governor.
“We will do all in our power to address the concerns that have been raised,” he said.
The agency began reviewing U of L's governance after Bevin abolished the board of trustees last spring, claiming it was "dysfunctional" and appointed a new board of his choosing. Bevin also announced that Ramsey would resign or retire as president once the new board was in place.
The agency began investigating whether Bevin's moves violated standards that require public universities be independent from political interference to ensure academic freedom.
The Republicans won a majority in the state's House of Representatives in November, which means the GOP will control Kentucky's legislature next year and lawmakers could end up approving Bevin's changes to the U of L board after they convene in January, even if the governor ultimately loses his appeal of the lawsuit.
Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at (502) 582-7189 or firstname.lastname@example.org