UofL lawsuit nearing ruling after accreditation expert testifies on possible impact of board revamp

09/15/2016 07:59 PM

FRANKFORT — A Franklin County judge says he will soon rule on Attorney General Andy Beshear’s lawsuit challenging Gov. Matt Bevin’s reorganization of the University of Louisville’s Board of Trustees following a four-hour court hearing on Thursday.

Both sides in the suit questioned Patricia Cormier, former president of Longwood University in Virginia and a former commissioner with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools that handles UofL’s accreditation.

Cormier, who charged Beshear’s office up to $10,000 at $250 per hour for her expertise in college accreditation, was the lone witness called during Thursday’s hearing.

Bevin’s attorneys tried to quash Cormier’s testimony before she took the stand, arguing that the central issue of Beshear’s lawsuit is the legality of the governor’s moves, not the university’s accreditation. Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ultimately allowed her testimony.

Cormier faulted Bevin for speaking with ex-UofL President Jim Ramsey before he announced his decision to overhaul the university’s governing board, saying Ramsey should have spoken with trustees about potentially stepping down. Ramsey wrote Bevin a letter ahead of the governor’s June 17 press conference indicating that he would offer to resign or retire once a legal board was seated.

Cormier said she agreed with an Aug. 18 letter from SACS to acting UofL President Neville Pinto that the university appears to be out of compliance with three of the organization’s standards relating to presidential appointments and evaluations, improper external influence and board dismissals.

“In my view, the governor inserted himself in a process over which he does not have authority,” she said, adding that trustees have “the ability to hire, to evaluate and to fire a president.”

“Only the board can do that,” she continued. “Nobody else can do that.”

But Steve Pitt, Bevin’s general counsel, noted that Ramsey didn’t offer his resignation to the governor, but rather to the newly appointed board on July 27. Shepherd issued a temporary order July 29 that reinstated the former UofL Board of Trustees until his decision.

Pitt, who argued that state law gives the governor authority to reorganize university boards, also noted that South Carolina State University, which was under SACS sanction at the time, kept its accreditation after South Carolina lawmakers replaced the entire governing board last year.

Under cross-examination by Pitt, Cormier said that Ramsey didn’t need to speak with trustees before discussing his future with Bevin but should have.

“A university president could go to his or her minister, they could go to his or her wife or husband, they could go to friends, the could go to the governor, and they could say, ‘What would you think about me retiring or resigning? I’m trying to make my mind up,’” Pitt said. “Would there be anything wrong with that?”

“No,” Cormier said. “No.”

Shepherd gave both sides until Wednesday to file briefs in the suit, saying that he would issue a ruling soon afterward.

Following Thursday’s hearing, Pitt said he expected the lawsuit would be settled by the Kentucky Supreme Court before any action by SACS.

“Or else the legislature’s going to come in in the January session and go ahead and codify that governor’s executive order reorganizing the board anyway,” said Pitt, who declined to speculate on whether the state’s House of Representatives, if it remains in Democratic hands after this year’s election cycle, would go along with approving Bevin’s UofL reorganization.

While Pitt said the case ultimately boils down to the governor’s authority to reorganize university boards, Beshear told reporters that UofL’s accreditation should be a focal point as well.

“It threatens all the students at the University of Louisville because the loss of accreditation means the loss of their federal financial aid, and for the governor to stick his head in the sand and pretend this issue doesn’t exist is not responsible,” Beshear said.

“It’s time for the governor to realize that he caused maybe unforeseen consequences and to roll back his executive orders because there are some real issues here at stake,” he added. “There’s some real harm that may be done, and we need to move forward with the university and not put those students at risk.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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