U of L bill step in right direction, SACS says

Andrew Wolfson
The University of Louisville campus, 2001.

An executive at the agency that accredits the University of Louisville says “it appears” that Kentucky legislators “are working to address the concerns” that landed the university on probation.

In an email shared by the university, the vice president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities, said the legislation giving the governor the power to appoint a new U of L board of trustees “does appear to be moving in the direction of clarifying the process for reorganization.”

The Jan. 10 email from SACS' Patricia Donat, while vague, offers the agency's first public comment on the impact of the legislation.

Donat cautioned in the email to U of L Vice Provost Connie Shumake that she could not predict how SACS’ board would react to the law.

In an email to the Courier-Journal, Donot said, "The use of the word 'direction' is intended to be neutral, connoting neither a positive nor negative assessment."

She also said, "We will need to wait until December to see whether the actions taken (and to be taken) over the next nine months will satisfy the compliance requirements."

Bevin’s spokeswoman, Amanda Stamper, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Bevin has said the legislation will resolve the agency’s concerns that resulted in U of L being put on probation last month.

In an interview late Thursday, SACS President Belle Wheelan said she has “no idea if that legislation will make a difference.”

She said her agency’s board will not vote on U of L’s status until December and it will remain on probation until then.

Previous coverage

U of L board concedes its end is nigh

U of L reorganization plan nears final passage

Accrediting agency puts U of L on probation

“There is no reason for people to panic,” she said. “The university is still accredited. Everybody needs to take a chill pill and exhale.”

In a formal notice of probation Wednesday, SACS said Bevin’s actions last June, when he tried to abolish the existing board and appoint one of his own choosing, triggered the sanction against the university.

In an interview, Doug Whitlock, a former president of Eastern Kentucky University and an expert on accreditation issues, said that two elements of the legislation might be viewed favorably by SACS.

First is the provision that requires the governor’s appointees to the U of L board to be confirmed by the Senate. Whitlock said that reduces the political influence of the governor and assures that another branch of government is involved.

Whitlock, now the chancellor of Arkansas State University, said SACS also will like that the governor’s appointments are for staggered terms.

Bevin also is supporting another bill, SB 207, that appears to give the governor unilateral power to remove the entire board of trustees at all state universities.

Donat did not respond to Shumake’s request for her thoughts about that bill.

The proposed legislation would give the governor wide latitude to fire all trustees on a board “upon a written finding” by the governor that it is is “no longer functioning according to its statutory mandate” or its failure to “reach a consensus among its members in order to carry out its primary function.”

Bevin cited what he called “dysfunction” on U of L’s board last June when he abolished it and appointed 10 new members he chose himself.  A Franklin Circuit Court judge blocked Bevin’s orders, finding he acted illegally, and SACS placed U of L on probation in December, in part citing improper “external influence” by the governor.

SACS hasn’t weighed in yet on whether the proposed legislation would give the governor excessive influence on universities, which are supposed to operate independently to ensure academic freedom.


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Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at (502) 582-7189 or awolfson@courier-journal.com.