U of L reorganization plan nears final passage

Phillip M. Bailey

University of Louisville student Landon Lauder is beginning to draft letters that will explain to graduate schools why his schools’ accreditation is in the news.

Lauder, 21, who is majoring in political science and psychology, said many fellow students are worried their degrees won’t mean much if the state legislature makes good on a proposal that would reorganize the U of L board while creating a new appointment process.

“I have to prepare, and that’s an incredibly upsetting situation to be in that the legislature and the governor would play politics with my degree,” said Lauder, who serves on U of L's student body Senate.

After a two-hour hearing Friday, a House committee approved Senate Bill 12 in a party-line vote that would ditch the current board and give Gov. Matt Bevin the power to appoint a 10-member panel that would be subject to Senate confirmation.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, who introduced the bill, dismissed critics who have suggested that U of L’s accreditation could be jeopardized as a result. “This does not rise to the level of an accreditation problem, it’s not even close,” he said.

Rather, Stivers said, his measure seeks to end the months of dysfunction at the university and reset its leadership.

“Let’s take the chalkboard and wipe it clean,” he said. “No pointing the fingers or anything else.”

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House Democrats along with several university faculty and students, however, criticized Stivers’ plan for its speedy introduction, which surprised Frankfort observers when its language was inserted into a Senate measure Thursday that originally dealt with dog ownership. The bill passed the full Senate later that day.

Opponents urged patience as the university awaits a formal response from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools on its probation status.

“I don’t know why we’re playing this game of political chicken with SACS,” said state Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford.

“This bill is unnecessary in every regard,” said Susan Jarosi, a professor in the university’s Women & Gender Studies department. “It would be weighing into an issue that’s already begun to heal itself.”

Under the measure, the existing U of L board would be abolished as soon as the new members are in place. It allows for current members to be eligible to serve on the new board.

Stivers said state lawmakers must act quickly given the problems U of L is facing — including the lack of a permanent president — that need to be addressed immediately.

Stivers plans to file additional legislation on Saturday that would further clarify the removal process for a U of L board member. He said he is confident SACS will accept these changes as putting U of L on the right track.

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Asked if Stivers’ plan would appease the accrediting commission, SACS President Belle Wheelan told the CJ on Friday that remains unclear. She said its standards require an institution to have a process by which board members are dismissed as well as reasons for the dismissal.

“Whether that process comes from the governor, legislature or board itself, we do not direct,” Wheelan said. “So I guess my answer is, ‘perhaps.’ ”

U of L spokesman John Karman said in a statement Friday, “To retain its accreditation, the university must follow state law but also comply with the SACS principles. If any new legislation permits us to meet both sets of requirements, the university will benefit.”

The legislative questions stem from an ongoing legal and political joust over U of L’s board and its makeup.

Bevin abolished the current board through executive action last year, citing its dysfunction, and appointed a new group of trustees. That move was overturned by a Franklin Circuit Court judge, who called the governor’s orders and ruled that the original board was still in power.

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Bevin has appealed that decision. Meanwhile, he and other Republican leaders have pointed out that the U of L board of trustees was illegal under former Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, because of a lack of racial and political balance.

“Before Gov. Bevin got involved, that board was essentially illegal,” said state Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville.

But SACS said it put U of L on probation over concerns of undue political influence by Bevin and his attempt to remove the existing board without due process.

U of L student body President Aaron Vance told the House committee on Friday there’s no denying that the current board is out of compliance racially and politically. He urged Bevin to fill those vacancies to bring the board into compliance, saying fellow undergraduates are troubled by the state’s hasty maneuvers.

“It strikes me as odd we want to move so fast when SACS has offered to provide clarity,” he said. “I’m worried about my degree… it seems to me if we just slow down, we can handle this in a proper manner.”

The House is scheduled to convene at 10 a.m. Saturday. Stivers' bill has an emergency clause, which means it will go into effect immediately if Bevin signs it following passage.

Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at (502) 582-4475