FRANKFORT, Ky. — As Kentucky’s two highest elected officials battle for control over one of the state’s largest universities in the courts, another group could settle the dispute first: voters.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear presented their final evidence Thursday as they await a ruling from Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd on whether the governor can abolish and replace the University of Louisville board of trustees. But a decision, likely weeks away, is almost certain to be appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Kentucky voters will go to the polls in November to decide which political party controls the state House of Representatives. If Republicans win a majority for the first time since 1920, it will clear the way for the state legislature to turn Bevin’s executive order into law.
Steve Pitt, Bevin’s attorney, repeatedly referred to that possibility during a nearly four-hour hearing in Shepherd’s courtroom Thursday, raising the stakes for an already pivotal election for the last legislative chamber in the South still controlled by Democrats.
Republicans need to pick up four seats to win a majority. Of the 100 races on the ballot, 65 are contested.
“I would not like to speculate what might happen if the House remains in Democratic hands,” Pitt told reporters after the hearing.
Beshear, who sued to try to block Bevin’s order replacing the University of Louisville’s board of trustees, presented testimony from Patricia Cormier, a former commissioner for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the accrediting body for the University of Louisville. Cormier said Bevin’s order put the university’s accreditation at risk because it removed board members without a hearing, violating one of the commission’s standards.
She said if the order is allowed to stand, it would mean any public university board could be replaced, threatening each institution’s independence.
“This case is no longer just about the University of Louisville, but whether the governor’s actions and the absolute authority he claims puts the accreditation of all universities at risk,” Beshear said.
Pitt noted there is no law that requires public universities to be accredited. Pitt and attorney Chad Meredith tried twice to convince Shepherd to throw out Cormier’s testimony, saying it is not relevant to the case. The only point that matters, they said, is a state law that gives the governor the authority to make changes in state government that include the “creation, alteration or abolition” of state boards and commissions.
But Shepherd, who will issue a ruling in the coming weeks, has said repeatedly that the impact of the governor’s order on the university’s accreditation is important to him. Shepherd has already temporarily blocked Bevin’s order, saying it cast a cloud of uncertainty over the university’s accreditation as it approaches its 10-year review.
Belle Wheelan, the president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges has ordered a formal review of the university, writing in a letter to the school’s interim president that there is “evidence of significant accreditation-related issues.”
Connie Shumake, the university’s assistant provost for accreditation and academic programs, testified in July that the school was not in any immediate danger of losing its accreditation. Her testimony came before Wheelan sent her letter to the university’s interim president.