Nomination and Board Appointment Process At UofL Is Broken.

The process of nominating and appointing members of the University of Louisville Board of Trustees has broken down, and– as seems to be the case for some other Kentucky universities– has been out of compliance with Kentucky law for some time. A system designed to prevent politicization of our Board and to foster gender and minority diversity has produced nothing of the kind. A major reassessment of the entire process is in order but it cannot be done behind closed doors in either Frankfort or Louisville.

When it rains on our parade, it pours.
On the same day I wrote about the statutorily impermissible imbalance of membership on the University of Louisville Board of Trustees with regard to sex and race, James McNair of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Journalism published an extensively researched article documenting the major tilt towards registered Democrats on the Boards of UofL, the University of Kentucky, and the Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS).  In a state with 53% registered Democrats, 39% Republicans, and 8% independents or other, the breakdown of appointees at the state’s three largest institutions of higher education are currently as follows:

               Dem        Rep      Other
UofL        12            3             2
UK           12            4             ?
KCTCS       7            1             –

One need not be a statistician to see that in this second term of a Democratic governor, that registered Democratic voters hold a large majority of the seats of these three boards. This is not the first time that the majority of appointees to various boards and commotions tracks the political party of the sitting governor. It was in large measure to prevent raw patronage that clauses requiring a balance of political parties on boards and commission were put into a host of statutes.  (I recall that the clauses requiring gender balance were similarly placed in an attempt to remedy obvious historical gender underrepresentation.)

Play for pay?
McNair’s article followed by only a few days one by Tom Loftus of the Courier Journal who tallied the political contributions by the 17 current gubernatorial appointees to UofL’s Board of Trustees to the the Governor’s political causes to the tune of at least $750,000.  Although there were the usual and predictable disclaimers all-around that no connections or expectations exits between the contributions and the appointments, only the most naive among us would not be highly skeptical.  McNair quotes a former gubernatorial appointments secretary who offers a perspective that is generous to Trustee candidates:

“I think a lot of people want to be on the boards of their alma mater, especially UK and U of L, which are prominent in the state and there’s a lot of prestige associated with it… I think people want to be with the president, they want to be involved in what’s going on at those institutions and they very much want to get access to the best seats for the sports programs.”

These are indeed plums worth improving one’s chances to obtain.  I have never met a lobbyist who would deny that political contributions markedly enhance the likelihood of getting what you want. This truism transcends political affiliation.

Why statewide and not more regional party representation?
The calculus for political party balance above is based on statewide voter registration of the two major parties. (Independants and others are disenfranchised in this regard.)  If we want a Board that looks like, walks like, and talks like its community, why is a statewide metric assumed to be the fairest?  UofL designates itself as an “Urban” institution.  UK stresses its “land-grant” and statewide responsibilities whenever it is convenient.  The ratio of Democrats to Republican voters is very different in Louisville than the rest of the state. Why not allow a few more Democrats at UofL?  Similar arguments might be made regarding some of the other state Universities.

What is an appropriate standard for minority racial balance?
Must the Board of Regents of Kentucky State University (also a land grant institution) with its large majority of African American students have the same racial composition as the Board of Trustees of the University of Kentucky?  Instead, should the minority racial balance of a given educational institution reflect that of of its student body? Its local community? Its county? Its Area Development District?  The Commonwealth?  The nation?  Why is a state-wide average necessarily the best?  Indeed, why does it make any difference at all what board members look like?  Of course, it does make a difference, because minority racial status is a proxy for a different set of life experiences, perspectives, and priorities in the same way that gender or socio-economic status is. Diversity is generally considered to be important in public life, is it not?  It is also a matter of fairness of access.

What does the law require with regards to racial balance?
It appears to me that the statutory requirement for racial balance on the UofL Board is ambiguous compared to the unambiguous statewide standard for political affiliation.

The Governor shall make his at-large appointments so as to divide the citizen representation upon the board to reflect proportional representation of the two (2) leading political parties in the Commonwealth based on the state’s voter registration and shall reflect no less than proportional representation [emphasis mine] of the minority racial composition of the Commonwealth.  Thus, having greater than the statewide proportion of minority members seems not to be ruled out!

According to the U.S. Census Bureau Jefferson County 2013, in 2013, the racial composition of Jefferson County was as follows (Jefferson Co. vs. Kentucky)

               Race                                          County  vs.  State
White alone, (a)                                                 73.7%     88.5%
Black or African American alone, (a)                  21.4%       8.2%
American Indian and Alaska Native alone, (a)       0.2%      0.3%
Asian alone, (a)                                                   2.4%       1.3%
Native Hawaiian & Pacific Island. alone,(a)           0.1%       0.1%
Two or More Races,                                            2.2%       1.7%
Hispanic or Latino, (b)                                         4.7%       3.3%
White alone, not Hispanic or Latino,                   69.7%    85.6%

a) Includes persons reporting only one race.
(b) Hispanics may be of any race, so also are included in applicable race categories.

The biologist and physician in me does not have much of a handle on what race means with respect to human beings.  As with gender, individuals can assign themselves one or more races that may not seem obvious to others. However, for the purpose of the census there are some standardized categories. Thus in Jefferson County, 21.4% of our citizens declared themselves to be Black or African American alone [not two or more races] compared to 8.2% in Kentucky. Additionally, 73.7% declared themselves to be white alone compared to 88.5% of Kentuckians. [Note that because Jefferson County has the greatest population density in the state, the non-Jefferson Counties are in aggregate less black and more white.]

Thus, ignoring individuals of mixed and other minority races, of 17 appointed board members we would expect 3 or 4 African Americans using a Jefferson County standard, and 1 or 2 using a Kentucky standard.  White members would number between 12 or 13 with a county standard and 15 with the statewide standard.  Hispanics or Latinos make up 4.7% of Jefferson County residents but they are of multiple races.  As a group they would require 0.8 Board members for proportional representation!  What we have today among the gubernatorial UofL appointees are 16 white people and one Hispanic.  This count is only one African American “off” by the Kentucky standard, but not very representative of UofL’s “urban” community at all.  (The undergraduate student body of UofL is 11% Black or African American, 76% white, and 4% Hispanic– intermediate between county and state proportions.)

Why does it matter?
Counting heads like this implies a zero-sum game– that one group’s “win” is at the expense of another.  I don’t like that game.  In the best of all possible worlds, participation in public life would be race-neutral– but we do not live in that world.  What is clear is that the laws in force intended to shape the Board– put into place with the best of intentions– are being ignored.  What we are left with at UofL is a Board of Trustees that for all of their positive qualifications for the job and their best intentions, are richer, whiter, more male, more Democratic, and better connected politically than other Kentuckians.  It doesn’t make them unqualified for the job, but they are most definitely a relatively homogeneous bunch. Can it be said that they look like, walk like, and talk like the constituencies they represent, or the students and patients served by the University? I don’t think so.

Where do we go from here?
One conclusion seems for sure.  Either enforce the existing laws, rewrite them, or take them off the books altogether. I would like to believe that given the emphasis most Universities place on inclusiveness and diversity, that the ethics and conscience of the academic and civil marketplaces would automatically yield both a diverse and a competent Board.  However, that is not happening now.  We have a system of nomination and appointment that allows the very thing it was supposed to prevent– a Board perceived as overly vulnerable to political influence.  Maybe that is what Kentucky wants. The old academic dinosaur in me hopes not.  I must assume that there are structural barriers to participation by all.   At the very least, it is time to reevaluate from scratch the way we appoint and evaluate the Board and executive leadership of our public universities. The public discussion required to bring the appointment system into compliance will not be easy, but it is necessary.

Peter Hasselbacher, MD
President, KHPI
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, UofL
August 12, 2015