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Kentucky governor puts Louisville at risk of losing accreditation

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is at the center of sanctions being placed on the University of Louisville by its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. (Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press)
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Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan to appoint a new board of trustees at the University of Louisville set off alarms for the school’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

This week, the head of the agency, Belle Wheelan, sent Louisville’s acting president Neville G. Pinto a letter clarifying SACS’s decision to sanction the university because Bevin has “considerable external control and influence” that “places in jeopardy board capacity to be ultimately responsible for providing a sound education program.”

University officials had asked Wheelan for more information after the accrediting agency placed the school on a year-long probation in December. Probation is the most serious public sanction imposed by SACS, short of loss of accreditation, which is a seal of approval needed for colleges to receive federal student loans and grants. Schools can face probation for failing to comply with the agency’s education, governing or administrative standards, among other things.

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In Louisville’s case, the university’s probation is directly the result of the governor’s actions. Bevin (R) issued an executive order in June to reorganize Louisville’s governing board by appointing a new 13-member panel, with plans to fill 10 of those seats himself. He announced the decision alongside the departure of Louisville’s president, James Ramsey. At the time, the governor said he wanted to “give a fresh start” to the university, which has contended with a series of controversies surrounding its finances, sports program, board and president.

Bevin has argued that the board had been illegally constituted, with too few racial minorities or Republicans to meet the state’s legal requirements. He has said the board’s “dysfunction has precluded it from being fiduciarily effective.”

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Within days of Bevin’s dismissal of the board, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear (D) filed a lawsuit accusing the governor of making a unilateral decision without state lawmakers. A state judge issued a temporary injunction blocking Bevin from moving forward, saying the governor’s actions raised “profound issues regarding the statutes on governance of public universities and the separation of powers under the Kentucky constitution.”

The case is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court, but a recent move by the state legislature could render the lawsuit moot. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The legislature passed a measure at the start of the year that cleared the way for Bevin to appoint a new board, subject to confirmation by the state Senate. Bevin has signed the bill into law.

Senate President Robert Stivers (R) called the legislation “a very evenhanded approach to the issues that have created this problem. Actions [like the governor’s] will be limited in the future because we will have Senate confirmation of appointees.”

In an email obtained by The Washington Post, SACS Vice President Patricia L. Donat told university officials Tuesday that the legislation appeared to be “moving in the direction of clarifying the process for reorganization and a process for notification to current board members regarding review and termination of their service.” She went on to say that “it will be important for all legislation, Board documents, and institutional policies to be aligned once something new is in place.”

Amanda Stamper, Bevin’s spokeswoman, said the legislature “remedied the situation,” adding that “it’s time for the University of Louisville to move forward with a new board of trustees and begin its fresh start.”

Despite Donat’s assurances, she told Louisville officials that she could not predict the agency’s response to the new law. In Wheelan’s letter, she made it clear that dismissing the board of trustees without due process in accordance with existing Kentucky statutes and policies violated SACS standards. Bevin’s negotiation of Ramsey’s resignation without board involvement also violated the agency’s rules and signaled the possibility of interference in the university’s selection of a new president, she said.

Louisville must submit a progress report no later than Sept. 8 and in advance of a visit from SACS, according to the letter. If the university remains on probation for two successive years, it will lose accreditation.

Not only would that mean the end of Louisville’s participation in the federal student aid program, it also could disqualify the university from membership in the NCAA. The school has enjoyed enduring success in basketball, with a national championship in 2013 and a current national ranking of 14th in the AP poll; it also has risen in the national college football landscape, finishing 21st in the AP poll this past season, led by Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

For much of the past year, Louisville has been enveloped in scandal. The FBI is looking into whether three senior university officials misappropriated funds, a probe that factored into Moody’s Investors Service’s downgrade of the school’s credit.

A local grand jury and the NCAA have also investigated allegations that a former basketball coach brought prostitutes to an on-campus residence hall for players and recruits. And Ramsey came under fire in October 2015 after he and his staff wore stereotypical Mexican costumes at a Halloween party in the midst of a national debate on college campuses about race, ethnicity and cultural sensitivity.

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