Do things always have to get worse before they get better? When then can it ever end?
Yesterday was a busy news day for the University of Louisville. While I was writing my own article in the afternoon, every journalist in town who has been following the drama within UofL’s administration these past many months was publishing new material! I envy their information gathering network and their ability to publish something virtually every day. Nonetheless, it appears that I was prescient with my own comments. In truth, I would like to think I have been stirring the pot a little. I will take the liberty of stepping through some of the points I made yesterday as a framework for catching up.
Headlines in today’s issues of the Courier-Journal by Andrew Wolfson, Insider Louisville by Joe Sonka, and WDRB Television by Chris Otts include the following:
- The settlement between the Justice Resource Center and a variety of other parties over the statutory racial makeup of the Board of Trustees was made public. This appears to turn upside down the timetable of any discussion of a vote of no-confidence in President Ramsey for both the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees. The process of appointing new minority trustees has been initiated.
- The agenda of next Wednesday’s Faculty Senate meeting makes it official that the Senate leadership intends for its discussion of the no confidence vote to be held in secret. This has elicited criticism, including from me.
- Governor Bevin has unilaterally acted to decrease current state funding to universities by 4.5%. This move was followed immediately by a declaration from the Attorney General that such a move was illegal and that his office would file a lawsuit to reverse it.
- Acting University Provost Professor Neville Pinto was named as the permanent University Provost following a limited internal search, also drawing faculty criticism.
- President Ramsey’s crisis management team continues to put out puff-pieces in an effort to offset continuous bad press.
The downside of all the above is that the University will be drawn out further in its institutional agony. The upside is that additional time has become available for a systematic, transparent, and reliable survey of the faculty concerning their opinion of the leadership of President James Ramsey. I will elaborate on this new information below.
- Settlement on makeup of Board of Trustees. (15-CI-1146)
This item probably has the most impact on the timing of what will happen in the next few months, and especially on a vote of confidence in the President. The settlement document was made available by Chris Otts of WDRB. At the time of the aborted initial attempt at a no-confidence vote on March 1, the Board of Trustees knew that a settlement was in the works. Indeed, they must have discussed it in their closed executive session from which the President was excluded. An ultimate agreement was signed on March 18 by representatives of the Justice Resource Center, the University of Louisville, the Governor’s Post Secondary Education Nominating Committee, and the Governor himself.
As initially reported, its principal terms include that the number of racial minority representatives on the Board should be three, that the governor will fill the two open Trustee positions as soon as possible, that he will use the Nominating Committee as the means to identify candidates for appointment, that the Commonwealth will use the federal definition of “racial minority,“ which does not consider Hispanic or Latino to be a race, and perhaps most importantly with respect to a possible vote of no-confidence, that the “Board of Trustees agrees not to take, and will not take, any structural or other significant actions, including major personnel actions, or engage in any business regarding potential structure or other significant actions, including major personnel actions, until the Board of Trustees is properly constituted with the appropriate racial minority representatives in compliance with KRS 164.821 (5).”
Since a vote of no confidence is non-binding and is not a termination of employment, it is not clear to me why such a vote could not proceed. It certainly could be termed a “major” action, but I will leave that for lawyerly types to determine. As of today, a Board meeting on April 20 remains scheduled, but no agenda appears on the Board’s website. Although it was not clear to me that a Governor needs to use the Nominating Committee to fill unexpected openings on the Board, this agreement requires him to do so. As of today, I can find no evidence that the Nominating Committee has begun its process of collecting nominations from the general public. Surely this has to take more than the short time available.
Indeed, it is important that the minority community have an opportunity to bring forth their most worthy members for consideration. Without new names being tossed into the eligible mix, the nominating committee will use an existing grandfathered collection of names that has been filtered through a demonstrably inadequate political sieve and which includes former Board of Trustee members. This is not the new blood that the University deserves and desperately needs. Let me suggest that a female minority Trustee is long overdue on a campus in which gender inequalities and sexual abuse are or should be presumed to be present. Let me also remind the parties involved that not all racial minorities are African-Americans. I suggest that in all fairness a trustee of Asian extraction is also long overdue. I presented the demographics behind these recommendations in an earlier article. Why stop at three? In fact, I asked the question, that based on the racial makeup of Jefferson County, why should the number of minority representatives on the Board not be five or more? I am still waiting for an answer to my question of how is it that using a strict numerical racial quota can be constitutional. We shouldn’t need a law to do what is right and just.
- Faculty Senate discussion of no-confidence vote to be secret.
Publication of the agenda of the Senate’s April 6 meeting makes it official that it’s leadership intends to limit attendance to that item of its agenda to members of the Senate only. A University spokesperson declined to comment when asked if this had been a recommendation of the President’s office or his attorneys. I have to assume that it was. I can understand a justification that a closed session without media presence might encourage more frank and inclusive discussion. On the other hand, still more secrecy has even more potential to poison any result, especially since the Senate’s Chairperson and Faculty Trustee Representative has already indicated she is not bound to follow the majority opinion of either the Senate or the faculty. Indeed, she has essentially given other senators permission to ignore their constituents’ majority opinion as well. Probably for this reason, some faculty members have been discussing having the faculty decision-making process bypass the Faculty Senate altogether and emerge from the Assembly of the Faculty as a whole in which “ultimate faculty authority resides.” That would be a big deal.
I and other faculty members are unhappy to be excluded from this discussion. While the bylaws of the Faculty Senate allow restricting attendance “if the meeting is closed in accordance with law,” as a former Senator from the Department of Medicine, I am personally unaware that this has ever been done in a general session. Additionally, Louisville attorney Jon Fleischaker, perhaps the Commonwealth’s leading authority on open meeting and open records law, has expressed his opinion that the statutory exemption to the Open Records Act that protects discussion related to disciplinary personnel actions does not apply to the Faculty Senate, but that it “applies only to government units that have the power to hire or fire, which the Faculty Senate does not.”
More time is needed.
Frankly, in my opinion the Senate was not yet ready to have such an important discussion. Perhaps the most important role of the Faculty Senate is to gather faculty opinion on matters important to it. I am not yet convinced that has been done properly. Indeed, the President’s office is attempting to depreciate the validity of already-released surveys on the grounds that they were procedurally deficient. In fact, it appears that some folks within the University tried to sabotage a poll that was critical of the President. I wrote to all current faculty senators individually expressing my concern that a more uniform, transparent, and confidential collection of opinion from the general faculty in a manner that is not subject to bias or distortion is of critical importance to both President Ramsey and the faculty. At least one whole major department had not even asked for their opinion.
Although it is difficult for me to address an issue involving a former faculty colleague, one of the justifications for my recommendation is that I believe, as have others, that the Trustee Representative of the Faculty has a built-in conflict of interest that seems to me is difficult to reconcile. The University’s directory presents Dr. Pamela Feldhoff to the public as UofL’s Associate Vice President for Research and Innovation. Her immediate supervisor in this role is Executive Vice President William M. Pierce, Jr. who in turn reports directly to President Ramsey. Dr. Feldhoff is unequivocally a member of University administration. This touchy issue has arisen before in the Senate during a discussion of President Ramsey’s supplemental compensation. No matter how honorably she casts her vote as a Trustee, some, and perhaps many, will doubt her ability to objectivity or aggressively support faculty interests.
The matter of how faculty opinion will be transmitted to the Board of Trustees will in my opinion be critical in allowing the University to climb out of its current debilitating slump. Transparency and accountability will be everything. My recommendation to Dr. Feldhoff, indeed to all three of the Trustee representatives who represent faculty, staff and students; is that unless the opinion of these respective constituencies is split very narrowly, that the three trustees agree to represent the majority will of their constituents. If there are considerations the faculty, staff, or students do not know but which are necessary to support valid decisions, then those things need to be shared. (I would extend this advice to the trustee representatives of the Alumni Association, but I do not know how the opinions of that vast group can reasonably be assembled. In any event, the two current Alumni Trustees are among the most fervent supporters of President Ramsey.) If as a result of the votes of the three non-appointed trustees listed above President Ramsey emerges without a declaration of no confidence, that apparent victory will be meaningless. Our collective agony will continue indefinitely until a durable effective resolution is found.
- Yet another instant budget cut for state universities?
In his initial budget presented to the House, Governor Bevin did not spare higher education from the largely across-the-board 9% cuts he proposed. The House and Senate budget committees have been unable to compromise on whether to restore higher-education funding, and if so, by how much. The current legislative session is closing without a budget and may well require a special session. In the middle of all this, Governor Bevin went ahead with his plan and issued an executive order cutting 4.5% from Universities current year’s budgets. Attorney General Andy Beshear says that is illegal absent certain other statutory requirements. One side of this argument says that our universities are spending for things that are not necessary and they need to bite the bullet in order to allow the state to deal with its pension crisis without raising taxes or borrowing. The other side sees only a multi-year series of budget cuts that are used to justify rising tuitions and which diminish educational opportunities. In my opinion, the truth lies somewhere in the middle but probably closer to the side that says some expenditures are unnecessary. In my opinion, for one, the University of Louisville has strayed from its primary mandate of education in favor of its commercial sports and research enterprises. I suspect the Legislature will work something out. (They have to, don’t they?) Is Governor trying to teach the Universities a lesson? Will the new Trustees he appoints this June be financial hard-liners? In Louisville, will they be supporters of President Ramsey, individuals expected to advance the Governor’s agenda, or are these the same people? Time may tell.
What is distressing to see so soon is a direct confrontation between a Republican Governor and his Democratic Attorney General who just happens to be the son of the former Governor whose legacy the current Governor is seeking to unravel. This may not bode well the Commonwealth! On the other hand, given the current Governor’s willingness to use a heavy hand to advancing the religious agenda, maybe an adversarial relationship is exactly what is needed.
4. U of L has a new Provost.
Professor Neville Pinto of the School of Engineering was advanced from Acting Provost to Permanent Provost. I have heard him speak before the Faculty Senate and I have absolutely no reason to believe he is not qualified for the position. So why then is some criticism arising, including a characterization of a “sham search.” It has been revealed, as was the case with former Provost Shirley Willihnganz, that no external search was performed. Only two internal candidates were reportedly considered. Having only two candidates for what is the second highest administrative position in the University seems rather low. It is being argued that by not judging the qualifications of Professor Pinto against external candidates, that his legitimacy as Provost might be diminished. One additional wrinkle in this appointment is that the co-chairpersons of the search committee were Doctor Pamela Feldhoff who is the faculty representative to the Board of Trustees, and Mr. Bruce Henderson who is a current Trustee and an outspoken supporter of President Ramsey. Some faculty have publically expressed their opinion that Dr. Feldhoff is not neutral in her support of President Ramsey either. Dr. Pinto will report to President Ramsey for all academic issues. A Provost must not be a President’s puppet.
A reasonable argument can be made in fairness to existing faculty, that an upward path to career advancement should be available. Not every new appointment needs to be from the outside. Nonetheless, it can also be argued that not having an open search is unfair to both the candidate and the institution, especially for a national research university that UofL aspires to. Hopefully the search committee was not afraid that because of our current adverse publicity that UofL would not be competitive to attract a meritorious outside candidate, or that for financial reasons insufficient programmatic resources could be offered. I wish Provost Pinto well. The University needs a strong, ethical, and administratively accomplished Provost who will focus on what is best for students and faculty more than it needs an outside contender. Recall that not all the outside appointments made in recent years have been so good for the University!
5. Unbelievable puffery.
On the webpage of president Ramsey’s office, at the bottom of a sequentially dated list suggesting that it was placed more recently than mid-March, is an article without a date or named author entitled, “Nice Guys Finish First.” If it had been placed there at any other time, one might accept it as harmless promotion. If it really was placed within the past very few weeks, its too-obvious effort elicits no more than an unsympathetic chuckle! There appears to be little doubt that President Ramsey’s PR and crisis management team are hard at work. Care must be taken that fluff is not substituted for substance.
It goes without saying that events at the University of Louisville are moving rapidly and probably even unpredictably. It is painful to watch. I have already ventured my opinion, shared increasingly by many others with more credibility than I, that the Presidency of James Ramsey has run its effective course. I do not believe he can recover from a dreadful sequence of events. Much that is good has been accomplished during his tenure but there have also been problems, some in my opinion related to his management style and personality. I would like to assume that he is not simply maneuvering for a better buy-out of his contract along the lines of the separation agreements he has offered others. Surely there must be in part a matter of pride involved, but pride is not always a reliable guide. There are those around the President who benefit in a multitude of ways from their employment or association with the University who may be advising him to hang on. Others in the community with considerable credibility are advising a very different course. Things can always get worse than they are now. The opportunity for a dignified resolution may yet be present. President Ramsey may have yet an opportunity to determine his own endgame, but that option may well pass from him. In the end one can only hope that what is best for the University and its students will guide the decisions of all involved, and that all will have the collective wisdom to make that determination.
Peter Hasselbacher, MD
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, UofL
2 April 2106