After recently watching the Oscar-winning movie, “Spotlight,” it occurred to me that the turmoil surrounding University of Louisville President James Ramsey rings eerily similar to the Catholic Church’s child sex-abuse scandal. Supporters of the current administration, Ramsey and his executive staff insist that nobody should question or criticize them because that would hurt the university’s reputation. At one point in the movie, someone from within the archdiocese tries to convince The Boston Globe editor to not run the story exposing a systematic cover-up. “People need the church more than ever right now. You can feel it … The cardinal, you know, he might not be perfect. But we can’t throw out all the good he’s doing for a few bad apples.”
I’ve heard that argument about UofL: “The president, you know, he might not be perfect. But … ”
Challenging the status quo, the very system itself, is what democracy is all about. Holding those in power accountable to the public is what journalism is all about. Questioning authority is absolutely what higher education is all about. It should also be what the Board of Trustees is all about.
This was highlighted in the brilliant LEO story written by Steve Wilson, a former trustee, depicting Ramsey as the naked emperor whose subjects feared to question or criticize him. Critics of the piece blamed Wilson and other dissidents for embarrassing the university by raising concerns. They became the focus of counterattacks because they — the same trustees whom Ramsey is legally obligated to answer to — fulfilled their fiduciary responsibility by requesting and then demanding transparency. Supporters of Ramsey defended their emperor by attacking their colleagues.
Concern about the image, reputation and future of the university is fair and justifiable. But these trustees and other dissenters are trying to hold truth to power, as well as courageously refusing to blindly follow the president because of the good things he has accomplished, while willfully overlooking the multitude of known scandals. To question their motives reflects the same intentional blindness that allowed the Catholic Church to cover for its sex-offending priests for decades. Make no mistake: The easy thing for trustees would be to continue to voice approval without question.
Wednesday is the next scheduled meeting of the UofL Board of Trustees. From all accounts, there is expected to be a no-confidence motion by the anti-Ramsey faction of trustees. The meeting may be delayed, as the board awaits the appointment of two new trustees by Gov. Matt Bevin. Whether it happens next week or next month, the no-confidence motion will be made, and Ramsey may face the option of taking a buyout of his contract (which is up in 2020) or dragging the board and university through a potentially painful process of his forced removal.
It is time for Ramsey to leave the University of Louisville. There is no putting the toothpaste back in this tube. Ramsey has lost too much credibility with the trustees, faculty, students and community to continue to be an effective leader. At the very least, his presence will continue to be a shadow over the school’s reputation — the reputation his supporters seem to value above all else. He has continually demonstrated a stubbornness and aversion to transparency and collegiality with his board. Finally, he has proven to be a tone-deaf, naked leader, oblivious to the world outside his palace. (See his latest pay raise versus rise in student tuition cost.)
Earlier this month, the UofL Foundation bought full-page ads in The Courier-Journal defending Ramsey. According to a CJ article, “Using foundation money they said was ‘donated specifically’ to support Ramsey … the cost of a full-page ad run one-time in the newspaper is $12,918 …”
Ultimately, by using UofL’s Foundation to run a PR campaign on Ramsey’s behalf, the trustees who continue to support him also begin to look like the emperor, himself. Throwing thousands of dollars at a newspaper ad reeks of desperation, and a curious desire for maintaining the status quo. Similarly, casually spending large sums of money reflects a similar ignorance and tone-deafness, and reinforces the perception of the overall problem: that money and power corrupt.
Ramsey needs to take this opportunity to negotiate a buyout and move on. There is still opportunity for him to avoid embarrassment and leave a legacy that he and the community will remember fondly. If not, the board should do what it can to begin the process of removing him. It will be an ugly process, but this will most likely need to get worse before it gets better. Instead of pointing to the successes of the past as reasons to overlook the problems of today, the trustees should see replacing Ramsey as a challenge and an opportunity. Build on his progress, but push for transparency and accountability. And for those who continue to support him, remember that the spotlight is not going away, and it will shine brighter and brighter.