Who Will Defend Kentucky’s Academic Institutions Against Political Capture?

[Below is the full text of my shortened Op-Ed piece published on-line by the Courier Journal on Aug 8, and in the print edition of Aug 9.  The complaint by Dr. Mullins and links to background and documentation are also available.]

I submit this as an open letter to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) and to the Louisville community. On August 2, the Courier-Journal reported extensively on a lawsuit brought against senior members of the University of Kentucky’s administration and the administration of Governor Matthew Bevin by Dr. Raynor Mullins, a distinguished senior member of the faculty of the School of Dentistry at UK. The lawsuit alleges that Dr. Mullins was fired from his non-tenured faculty position in retaliation for comments that were critical of Gov. Bevin’s plans to reshape Kentucky Medicaid– a plan intended to considerably reduce the number of Medicaid beneficiaries and cut back on benefits, including dental services. The lawsuit names as defendants “Mark Birdwhistell, UK’s Vice President of Administration for UK HealthCare; Dr. Stephanos Kyrkanides, Dean of the UK College of Dentistry; and ‘John Doe,’ described as an official in the Bevin administration.” (Dr. Birdwhistell is a major architect of Gov. Benin’s healthcare plan.) The story was picked up by the Associated Press and is appearing across the country. What is happening in Lexington is relevant to the accreditation status of the University of Louisville and the reputation of our Commonwealth.

It is claimed that the dismissal resulted from considerable pressure from the Governor’s office where someone was “pissed off” by the criticism. A statement from the Governor’s office seems to deny any role or knowledge of matters mentioned in the lawsuit, but then again that office denied any role in the cancellation of the patient transfer agreement between University of Louisville Hospital and women’s healthcare facilities in Louisville that provide reproductive services including abortion.

The accounts presented in the lawsuit appear credible, refer to seemingly frank admissions from UK officials of where the ‘pressure’ was coming from, imply many witnesses, and are consistent with what in my opinion is the authoritative management style of the Governor’s office. It is highly likely that the truth will eventually emerge when people are questioned under oath. I urge people to read the complaint and previous reporting available at the  Courier-Journal, as well future formal responses coming from UK and Frankfort. This is serious business.

[Addendum Sept 5:  Debby Yetter of the Courier-Journal recently reported on Governor Bevin’s alleged involvement in bullying the University of Louisville and its Hospital to withdraw their transfer agreements with clinics that perform abortions or make referrals for abortion.  Once again the Governor’s office denies any involvement, but in my opinion, the testimony of those being leaned on belies such deniability. Is this a pattern we can expect? ]

The University of Louisville, its community, and the SACS accreditation organization that placed the University of Louisville on probation last December because of concerns largely related to the independence of University governance from political interference, should be concerned. Faculty at all of Kentucky’s state universities should be feeling a chilly breeze emanating from this lawsuit. To whom are they accountable? Are they not able to express their professional opinions in a respectful way without fear of retaliation?

There will be more to be said about this matter in the coming weeks but the facts are not likely to be settled for months if not for a year or more. My recommendation to SACS is not to rush its final decision about releasing the University of Louisville from probation until this and the increasing concerns it has raised are clarified and resolved to its independent satisfaction. The position of SACS on this and other recent manipulations of University governance, independence, and accountability will ultimately have the largest effect on the outcome of ongoing political capture of our state Universities. My guess is that UofL authorities will ask SACS to release it from probation now. In my opinion, to approve the current situation by withdrawing probation at this time gives tacit approval to the status quo, and will expose University governance to inappropriate increasing political manipulation for many years to come.

When I was a designated lobbyist for the University of Louisville, it was made clear to me by more than one government official or legislator that they considered the University of Louisville to be a state agency subject to full-cooperation if not obedience to their demands. This is the crucial issue in this matter. In my opinion and that of others who have followed the matter closely, Gov. Bevin has manipulated his Postsecondary (Trustee) Nominating Committee, the governance structure of Kentucky’s state universities, and more specifically the UofL Board of Trustees to bring them more directly under his personal control to advance his political and religious agendas. Because of fear of retaliation, it appears to me that he has cowed the administrations of both our flagship Universities which reasonably might fear retaliation. Universities do not “protect themselves” in either the short or long terms by rolling over to political pressure. In the short term they lose their credibility, and in the long term they invite further political intervention.

The fundamental question that will be raised in judicial and other public consideration of the firing of Dr. Mullins is: “Who do our Universities and their faculties work for? From whom do they take their orders? Who decides on what they are allowed to say?” I believe Kentucky’s Universities need some help to stand up against this assault on longstanding academic values that have served higher education well. SACS may be Kentucky’s best hope to bring both truth and accountability into this and more general discussion about the role of our public universities in Kentucky.

Peter Hasselbacher, MD
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, UofL
Kentucky Health Policy Institute
August 6, 2017

Addendum 8-26-17:  Lest there be any doubt about the intrusion of politics and the degree of control of the composition of the Boards of Trustees of all Kentucky’s state universities by Governor Bevin, I attach the two statutes signed into law by the Governor earlier this year.  Senate Bill 107 which replaces the former UofL Board, and Senate Bill 12 which describes the new appointment and removal processes for all state universities, the Community and Technical College System, and the Council on Postsecondary Education.

The explicit language of these bills renders illusory the promise of trustee or board dismissal based on cause, due process, appeal and hearing. In fact,  Governor Bevin and future governors personally control all the actors and steps involved in a dismissal process and can act as accuser, judge, jury, and executioner all in one. Furthermore, one of the factors that can be cited to allow a governor to remove a trustee is lack of board balance in the categories of location, political party, minority race, gender,  duration of terms, or other statutory requirement that may be impossible to meet simultaneously in a given year, or which can be manipulated as was done by Governor Bevin in his dismissal of the UofL Board of Trustees.

Senate Bill 12 is currently under appeal in the Kentucky Supreme Court. If it is allowed to stand, UofL will likely not object for fear of retaliation or the simple fact that there is nothing it can do about it!  In my opinion, it will take the threat of loss of athletic conference eligibility to get the mountains to move, not any threat to academic integrity.  We in Louisville and Kentucky need SACS to hold up a mirror to our respective consciences.