Oval-Commons-University-of-LouisvilleIn a blistering letter to University of Louisville board of trustees chairman Robert Hughes, the two trustees behind recent efforts to strengthen that body’s oversight after high-profile scandals at the university suggest the chairman is “misleading” the public by establishing a review panel without input from the board or any outside organizations.

The letter, which is addressed to Hughes and signed by trustees Emily Bingham and Stephen Campbell, was obtained by Insider Louisville on Sunday. It comes several days after Hughes appointed a seven-person committee to review the board’s role as an overseer of university administrators, mission and long-term vision. Campbell is also a member of that committee.

Hughes announced the committee in a news release on Thursday. It came in response to a two-page memo — drafted by Bingham and Campbell, and made public late last year — offering specific recommendations for how the board could enhance its role, including more substantial review of top administration officials and using national benchmarks to set new oversight standards.

In the letter, Bingham and Campbell point out that although Hughes was within his rights as board chairman to establish the committee himself, he should have sought broader guidance, and that the move “goes to the heart of the need for a review of governance.” They take issue with the substance of Hughes’ charge to the panel, which is heavily focussed on restating the board’s existing role under Kentucky law and largely ignores specific issues raised in their memo last year. It also limits the scope of best practices to in-state and Atlantic Coast Conference schools.

Bingham and Campbell, as well as a growing number of trustees quietly aligning with them, are urging Hughes to look to the national Association of Governing Boards for guidance in developing stronger oversight and accountability methods. U of L is the only major university in Kentucky that is not a member of that organization.

“Despite the many successes at U of L, we are frequently accused of operating in an opaque manner and having a passive board of trustees,” Bingham and Campbell wrote. “We live in a turbulent time for higher education where the public trust in student access and success, the sustainability of current education models, and the university’s role in economic development engagement with the community face multiple challenges and risks.”

In an interview, Hughes told IL he researched the issues presented in the original two-page memo himself, concluding that the committee he formed should examine “how the trustees govern themselves” before addressing any of the substantive issues raised by Bingham and Campbell. He also denied the accusation that he is misleading the public by creating a committee that, by charge, sidesteps most of those issues.

“What I did was perfectly appropriate,” he said.

Hughes did not seek input from trustees and informed the seven members of the panel via email or cell phone last week. Among the members are two who work under U of L president James Ramsey — the board’s faculty and staff liaisons — and one student whose term will expire before the panel is slated to provide final recommendations to the other trustees. Hughes said he appointed those three members because he believes in an inclusive “shared governance” model. The chairman of the committee is Ron Butt, a trustee and Hughes ally.

Hughes said he believes the frustrations of other trustees come from a lack of understanding of their role and a desire to move more quickly than the board should.

“Running the university as a trustee is not your day job,” he said, adding the board should maintain a positive working relationship with U of L president James Ramsey and his administration. Hughes is also widely seen as a strong ally of Ramsey.

Bingham and Campbell declined to comment, saying the letter — printed below — speaks for itself. Other trustees contacted for this story declined to go on record.

It is clear that Bingham, Campbell and their allies on the board want U of L to think bigger as it plans for a future that will look much different from its past. They want that to include strong oversight and accountability mechanisms and an openness to outside thought, and they want to dispense with the provincialism that can often hamper such progress.

That is not necessarily at odds with what Hughes wants; however, there is a strong difference of opinion among trustees about how to proceed on the finer points.

“I think that there is probably some divisiveness on the board, and I think that’s a problem,” Hughes said. “And that’s probably what I’m trying to fix. One of the things, if you look across the whole governance thing, is you do not want a divided board.”

Bingham and Campbell wrote that there isn’t a divided board; it’s just that Hughes’ committee and its charge “do not reflect our original intent as the trustees who initially called for a closer look at governance at U of L.”

In the wake of recent troubles at U of L — two embezzlement cases totaling more than $5 million by a former dean and a university official, the botched hiring of a dean at the business school — as well as significant advancements, such as joining the ACC and the standing it will bring the university at-large, it appears the time is right for review.

The Association of Governing Boards released a report in November suggesting some university governing boards have fallen behind the times, too caught up in meeting tactical short-term goals while ignoring longer-term strategic planning for changes to the model, including lowering costs for students at a time when government funding is increasingly in peril. It is an optimal time for that at U of L, which earlier today announced Speed School dean Neville Pinto as its interim provost, the No. 2 official at the university. There was no word on the length of his tenure as interim or when a search for a permanent provost would begin.

U of L Trustees Letter to Hughes

Stephen George
Stephen George is news editor of Insider Louisville. He is a former editor of LEO Weekly and the Nashville City Paper, and a former news editor of the Nashville Scene. He has written for various other news and culture publications and is happy to be back in Louisville.