Citing self-dealing, thefts, conflicts of interests and other embarrassments and scandals, dissident members of the University of Louisville’s Board of Trustees called for a vote of no-confidence Tuesday in embattled President James Ramsey.
“When we ask questions we get temper tantrums,” Trustee Emily Bingham said. “I regretfully express my loss of confidence in the president.”
But in a contentious meeting marked by personal attacks, Ramsey’s supporters blocked the motion on procedural grounds.
Defending U of L’s 17th president, Dr. Bob Hughes said, "This is not a broken administration, it is a broken board."
He called on every board member to resign and let Gov. Matt Bevin appoint replacements.
Ramsey's fate is still in doubt. The board will reconsider the no-confidence motion at its next regular meeting April 20, and proponents say they have enough votes to pass it.
They include Chairman Larry Benz, who said after the meeting that he supports the measure because of his questions about Ramsey’s leadership and the university’s performance.
Ramsey didn’t speak during the meeting but said afterward that he has no intentions of resigning.
The no-confidence motion was made and supported by trustees who hadn’t previously challenged Ramsey publicly.
Calling for the vote, Dr. Jody Prather cited a “near complete collapse of a meaningful working relationship" between the board and Ramsey as well as instances that have "harmed and embarrassed the university irrevocably."
Trustee Larry Hayes complained that Ramsey has excluded the board from important decisions, including the one to impose a ban on postseason play by the men’s basketball team.
“That was not good governance or shared governance," Hayes said.
Bingham cited “a drumbeat of crises” that prompted 78 full professors to sign a letter saying they were “ashamed to be associated with the university.” She also said Ramsey had failed to forcefully condemn the sexual misconduct allegations currently facing the basketball program, "already embarrassed by the sexual misconduct of its coach."
“We cannot move forward with leaders whose moral compass on these questions is not clear,” she said.
But Hughes and others who support the president, including Marie Abrams, said the no-confidence vote was out of order because it had not been on the agenda for the special meeting, and general counsel Leslie Strohm, who was hired last year by Ramsey, said that is required by state law.
Lashing out at the dissidents, Hughes and Trustee Ron Butt suggested that they want Ramsey ousted so that he can be replaced with one of their family members.
In an unusual confrontation, Hughes challenged Trustee Craig Greenberg to name their president of choice, saying “you know who his is.” Greenberg replied that he didn't know whom — or what Hughes was talking about.
After the meeting, Hughes said that Ramsey’s opponents are elitists who didn’t go to U of L “and wouldn’t send their children there.” Without mentioning the mystery candidate by name, he suggested it might be Matthew Barzun, the Louisville businessman and Obama fundraiser who is ambassador to England.
In a battle of impromptu press conferences, Greenberg told reporters "this isn’t about the next president, It is about embezzlement, scandals and indictments. It is time for a change.”
While a no-confidence vote wouldn’t immediately cause Ramsey’s ouster, it could prompt him to resign. He is under contract until 2020, which may explain why the dissidents aren't seeking an outright vote to fire him.
There are currently 19 members on the board, but Bevin is expected to appoint a 20th before the April 20 meeting. The makeup of the board also could change with the resolution of a suit in which the Justice Resource Center has challenged the board's racial composition.
Tuesday's dispute was on the heels of a lawsuit in which a veteran former compliance officer accuses Ramsey and his top lieutenants of trying to squelch enforcement of conflict of interest rules and Ramsey himself of public misconduct. A university spokesman declined to comment on the suit.
Hired in 2002, Ramsey has been credited with helping dramatically increase the university's academic standards for incoming freshmen and its graduation rate. He also led fundraising drives that have transformed the campus and its athletic facilities.
But over the past two years, his leadership came under attack as the university dealt with embezzlement scandals and other embarrassments, including an FBI investigation of its top health care executive and an NCAA investigation of allegations that men's basketball players and recruits were provided dancers and prostitutes.
The university also has been criticized for offering buyouts to top officials in exchange for their silence, and Ramsey's compensation has been questioned.
Last year The Courier-Journal reported that Ramsey, provost Shirley Willihnganz and chief of staff Kathleen Smith had been paid $2.4 million, $1.8 million and $1.3 million, respectively, in deferred compensation. The CJ also reported that Ramsey in 2014 was paid 2.5 times more than the average of the Atlantic Coast Conference's other 14 presidents and chancellors — all of whose universities are ranked far higher academically than U of L.
No-confidence votes are common in academia but usually are made by faculty rather than university governing boards. Some such votes have made headlines and brought about administrative change, according to Insidehighered.com, which says a faculty vote of no confidence in Harvard President Lawrence Summers contributed to the university board's decision to oust him.
But the publication says votes of no confidence typically indicate that faculty feel a leader is no longer fit to serve in his or her position but rarely lead to a resignation or firing.