FRANKFORT (AP) — A state judge said it is “problematic” for Kentucky’s Republican governor to entirely replace the University of Louisville board of trustees, calling into question the new board’s authority on the day it met to discuss the school’s billion-dollar budget and higher student tuition.
Meeting for the second time since its formation, the new board delayed action Thursday on the school’s spending plan, which includes a proposal to raise tuition by 5 percent. Trustees also took no action on the status of embattled campus President James Ramsey.
Afterward, board chairman Junior Bridgeman reiterated that Ramsey offered his resignation to the board at its first meeting last week, and said trustees will likely take up the matter at their next meeting. Asked if the board had accepted Ramsey’s resignation, Bridgeman told reporters: “That we will do hopefully the next time we get together.”
Gov. Matt Bevin issued an executive order last month abolishing the university’s board of trustees and replacing it with the new board. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear sued Bevin, arguing his order was illegal.
On Thursday, Beshear’s office asked Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd to temporarily block Bevin’s order, placing the university back under the authority of its previous leadership.
Shepherd did not rule on Beshear’s request following a four-hour hearing. But he did call Bevin’s order “problematic” because he said it puts the university’s independence in jeopardy.
“It is problematic to say one governor, any governor, regardless of their identity, regardless of their political party, has the unilateral power to abolish the board and to recreate it and to get rid of all the board members,” Shepherd said.
At the trustees’ meeting in Louisville, Bridgeman said the lawsuit challenging the new board’s legality had no impact on the board’s decisions.
The prospect of paying higher tuition drew complaints from UofL student Kate Hall, who spoke up several times during Thursday’s meeting. Hall said the increase would especially be a hardship on low-income students juggling jobs and classes.
UofL and other public universities have faced a series of state budget cuts in recent years.
Hall told reporters later that she was glad the new board delayed action on the budget and tuition rates, but said it didn’t relieve her concerns — expressed by other students — about the new board.
“We all share the same concerns about this new board and its legality and how that will affect our continuing education,” she said.
It’s unclear how Shepherd’s pending rule would impact the decisions made by the current board, adding to the uncertainty surrounding the university’s leadership.
Steve Pitt, Bevin’s attorney, argued the state legislature passed a law that delegated its powers to abolish and create state boards and commissions to the governor. He cited a state Supreme Court decision from 1984 that upheld that law, which said once the legislature places that power in the hands of the governor such action is “purely an executive function.”
But the governor only has that power, Pitt said, when the legislature is not in session. Kentucky’s legislature typically meets from January to April each year.
“The governor can’t unilaterally abolish the UofL board. He can only propose it, and his proposal goes into effect temporarily,” Pitt said.
“So your position,” Shepherd replied, “Is that between sessions of the legislature the governor has unbridled discretion to affect what you call temporary changes.”
“Correct,” Pitt said, adding the state legislature could accept or reject those changes when it reconvenes in January.
Assistant Deputy Attorney General Mitchel Denham said state law only allows university board members to be removed for misconduct, and even then the board members have a chance to hire a lawyer and appeal the decision to the Council on Postsecondary Education.
“The effect is these members have been fired,” Denham said.
But Pitt argued none of the board members have been removed, just temporarily suspended.