U of L Put On Probation After Governor’s Trustee Changes

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University of Louisville

J. Tyler Franklin / KyCIR

University of Louisville

An accreditation agency has placed the University of Louisville on probation, citing political influence with its board of trustees. But U of L leaders and Gov. Matt Bevin minimized the sanction Tuesday, saying the crucial stamp of respectability is not really at risk.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges notified U of L Tuesday of a one-year probation that could extend to two years while the school addresses governance problems. The association cited Bevin’s use of “undue political influence” when he sought to restructure U of L’s leadership this year.

Bevin disbanded and reconstituted the school’s board of trustees in June and at the same time announced President James Ramsey would resign. A judge — tasked with weighing the legality of Bevin’s move — restored the old board in September.

Probation is uncommon — according to the accrediting association’s website, it appears seven out of 800 institutions are currently under this sanction. The association defines probation as a sanction that is “usually, but not necessarily” the last step before an institution is removed from membership.

Losing accreditation is even rarer, and almost unheard of for large public universities. But probation is the step that precedes that loss.

Bevin spokeswoman Amanda Stamper downplayed the sanction Tuesday, saying U of L’s accreditation is not at risk.

“Nor will it ever be at risk because of any action taken by Gov. Bevin,” Stamper said. “Anyone who argues otherwise does not have U of L’s best interest at heart.”

Interim U of L President Neville Pinto said the university will work hard to get the sanction removed, although it’s too soon to know what improvements the agency will demand. Pinto was confident that U of L would implement reforms by the time commission members return to campus next fall to assess the school.

“Legislators and the governor’s office want a strong university in Louisville,” Pinto said. “They will work with us to remove that sanction.”

Students on the University of Louisville's main campus.

Eleanor Hasken / Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

Students on the University of Louisville\’s main campus.

If U of L lost accreditation, access to federal funding and student aid would go with it. Pinto wasn’t even willing to speculate about the impact because, he said, it won’t happen.

“Accreditation is vitally important to university functioning,” Pinto said. “That’s all I’ll say.”

The announcement follows months of speculation over the school’s accreditation status, and comes on the heels of changes that faculty members feared would be viewed as a loss of independence. The accrediting body requires that university boards are “free from undue influence from political, religious, or other external bodies, and protects the institution from such influence.”

The governing board also requires that universities ensure board members are dismissed fairly, and that only the board of trustees has power to hire, evaluate and fire presidents.

Attorney General Andy Beshear went to court with Bevin over his U of L actions. Following news of the probation Tuesday, Beshear said Bevin had “inflicted great and substantial harm” to U of L in his quest for absolute authority.

“The governor has dug a very big hole and has only one choice – rescind his executive order, dismiss his appeal and announce he will not support legislation that would impact the university’s governance,” Beshear said in a statement. “Otherwise, he will bury the University of Louisville in that hole.”

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd rejected Bevin’s actions and restored the old board. Bevin appealed the ruling.

Meanwhile, the state legislature, which is now majority Republican, could ratify Bevin’s plan to restructure the board during its January session.

U of L hoped to renew its accreditation following a site visit in April. Instead, that visit is postponed while the agency works with U of L to fix the problems.

A special agency committee will review U of L’s progress prior to a campus visit now tentatively scheduled for next fall.

On Tuesday, Pinto said he spoke directly to Bevin and that the governor vowed to work with U of L. Bevin also reiterated that U of L is very important to Louisville and the state, Pinto said.

The accreditation probation comes at a trying time for the major public institution. Last month, the credit ratings service Moody’s downgraded the university’s rating, citing instability, a shrinking endowment and reputation risks. (Read “University of Louisville, Foundation Credit Ratings Take A Big Hit”) The University of Louisville Foundation, which manages a nearly $700 million endowment for U of L, also suffered a downgrade.

Pinto noted that student aid, federal funding and the quality of U of L degrees have not changed. Functionally, nothing is different for students and faculty at U of L while the probation is underway, he added.

Kate Howard can be reached at khoward@kycir.org and (502) 814.6546. 

Disclosures: In 2015, the University of Louisville, which for years has donated to Louisville Public Media, earmarked $3,000 to KyCIR as part of a larger LPM donation. University board member Stephen Campbell and former member Sandra Frazier have donated.

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