First Meeting of UofL Board. Fresh Start or Not?

Old habits die hard.bevin-bridgemen-07132016

For those hoping for a “fresh start” at the University of Louisville, last Wednesday’s Board of Trustees meeting must have been more than a little disappointing. Earlier in the day, the Attorney General requested that the Board take no actions with long-term consequences until the matter of the legality of its appointment process is adjudicated by the courts. The day before the meeting, one of the newly appointed trustees resigned, presumably because his public statements about science, religion, and minorities generated too much public opposition – in my opinion a failure of the vetting process. He was replaced by another nominee from the list of 30 generated by the Governor’s Postsecondary Education Nominating Committee who also happens to be a partner in the law firm that handles the bulk of the University’s outsourced legal work. The replacement trustee is a well-respected and competent individual, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with attorneys serving on nonprofit boards. However, if I were an attorney seeking some of the University’s business, or a party in opposition to the University in some litigation, I would see such an appointment as more of the inside baseball that is often attributed to UofL.

Connection to the UofL Foundation still tight as a tick.
I have previously written about the fact that many of the new appointees are already well-connected with the University. Perhaps none so connected as Ulysses L. Bridgeman, Jr. who served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees a decade ago and who was recently appointed Chairman of the University of Louisville Foundation. Mr. Bridgeman is obviously a talented, articulate, and competent leader, but given all the controversy over the relationship of the University and the Foundation, surely the appointment of one of the other talented, articulate, and competent new board members might have been selected as Chairman Pro Tem. In the analogy to inside baseball, this appointment corresponds to a “huddle on the mound.” It was apparent that there had already been some (unannounced) pre-meeting discussion about who the new Chairman would be that may or may not have considered the advisability of the dual appointment. Mr. Bridgeman’s name was promptly nominated by a trustee supportive of Dr. Ramsey, and without other nomination or discussion, he was unanimously voted into office.

Private-Public Business Partnerships.
Emerging from the presentation (Video at 45:50) by President James Ramsey during the meeting was an example of a kind of private-public connectedness that has troubled me. In praising the immunology research of Prof. Suzanne Ildstad, one of the first Bucks for Brains faculty, Dr. Ramsey pointed out that a major deal had been signed with the pharmaceutical company Novartis – involving so much money that he could not disclose it – and he offered an offhand thanks to one of the Board members who “helped negotiate the deal.” The Board member thanked is a venture capitalist with past and current investment and leadership roles in several biotech companies, and is currently Chairman of Advanced Cancer Therapeutics, LLC, and the J. Graham Brown Cancer Center. No conflict of interest was disclosed and therefore all is most certainly well and good. However, lack of transparency in its profit-making ventures is exactly the kind of thing the University must be most careful about if it seeks to earn the trust and confidence of the community. I was personally left uncomfortable following Wednesday’s exchange.

Public comment or not.
I suppose that in the interest of getting on with business, many would overlook any or all of the above. What captured part of the headlines of the day was an disruptive protest by a former student who attended with a group of other students who had requested, but been denied an opportunity to address the new board as the Governor was permitted to do. What did not make the news was the more restrained presence of a group of faculty from the University’s Chapter of the American Association of University Professors who wanted to welcome and thank the Board, and to offer their cooperation to the new trustees but who were also ignored or denied the opportunity. The faculty group presented their welcome to the board in writing.

The most important matter actually dealt with publically by the Trustees in their official capacity was the granting all the academic degrees that had been conferred at recent graduations. What had been suggested might be brought before the Board was the budget containing a 5% tuition increase, and the making permanent of the appointment of Doctor and Professor Neville G. Pinto as the University’s Provost. The budget at least was not brought to the table but it has been put into effect anyway.

Did he or didn’t he. Mystery solved?
The hot-ticket item for the day that dominated the traditional news media was what happened or did not happen during the closed-door executive session of the meeting. I personally have never seen so many cameras or reporters in the room. When the Trustee’s open meeting resumed, the assembled were told that matters of personnel and litigation were discussed and that no action was taken and therefore there was nothing to report. Of course this revelation was insufficient for the experienced group of journalists who pressed Chairman Bridgeman both skillfully and hard as he left the meeting room about whether or not President Ramsey had tendered his resignation or how the Board responded. Mr. Bridgeman was maneuvered into a position where he denied that either the dismissal or any discipline of president Ramsey had been discussed, thus opening the door to a legitimate charge that the Trustees had misused the privilege of executive session. Given that both President Ramsey [Presentation here.] and University Counsel Leslie Strohm [Presentation here.]  had spent the previous hour and a half reminding the new Trustees what it means to be part of a public university – including the mandate for “transparency and accountability” – this was a bad beginning indeed.

Uh oh!
Apparently University leadership and counsel also recognized this fact and the next day issued a clarifying statement that President Ramsey had indeed presented his resignation, but that the trustees did not realize it at the time. President Ramsey was said to have “read” his letter to the Governor promising to present his resignation to the first legally constituted Board. This of course will seem like a feeble walk-back to some. You can read the letter yourself, or his email to the University Community and decide how you would have interpreted it.

I have much sympathy for the Board.
Frankly, I do not blame the new Board for wanting to take more time to get to know each other, to become more familiar with the issues and current leadership, and to prepare themselves to make very important decisions about the University’s future. Those considerations trump in my mind even concerns about how long they will individually be on the job or who might join them later. I am willing to cut a little slack to the new Trustees who have found themselves in the middle of a hornet’s nest. They will however have to work a lot harder to dispel any perception that is just business as usual at the University of Louisville. Headline after headline abundantly tell us that business is not good – including at the Medical Center, the connection that draws consideration of University leadership into this Health Policy Blog. Alas, the next meeting of the Board for passage of official business is not until September. However, in August, at some as-yet undisclosed location, the trustees will have a retreat meeting. I assume that it will be open to the public because a quorum of the members will be present. That will be a good forum in which to begin to change public perceptions.

Peter Hasselbacher, MD
President, KHPI
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, UofL
15 July 2016

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