Kentucky’s Bevin Shifts Higher Ed Focus to Economy

(Photo: Timothy D. Easley, AP)

(Photo: Timothy D. Easley, AP)

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has appointed new members who represent business and industry to the Council on Postsecondary Education, the state’s higher education governing agency.

The council has 13 public members that include a student and a faculty member, all of whom are appointed by the governor. The commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education serves as a member of the cabinet without voting.

In 2015, former Gov. Steve Beshear appointed four members to empty spots on the council, but these four were not confirmed by the Senate during the last session. Two other members’ terms had expired and the two were not reappointed.

The governor has a desire to rebuild the state’s manufacturing community and questions the benefit of spending tax dollars to promote liberal arts education.

“All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so, they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be, for example,” he said in January.

Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner said in a press release that there is excitement within the education arena based on the steps being taken to position the state’s students — and the state itself — for success.

“Postsecondary institutions will play a pivotal role in developing a stronger Kentucky workforce and citizenry, and I am confident that this distinguished group of new CPE appointees is up to the task.”

But Rudy Spencer, writing for Leo Weekly, says that Gov. Bevin’s “fresh start” for higher education in the state of Kentucky is beginning on the wrong foot.

Spencer notes that the governor’s severe cuts to higher education and his never before seen, and possibly illegal, dissolution of the University of Louisville’s Board of Trustees constitute a drastic ideological reconstruction of higher education board governance in Kentucky.

Bevin has the right to appoint board members, and it is not unusual that the appointments have political ramifications. But Spencer says he did expect the governor to exhibit clear, transparent, and thoughtful governance.

Gov. Bevin eliminated the University of Louisville Board of Trustees, calling the body “dysfunctional” without supporting his decision. Spencer, who served on the board in 2008 as a student representative, says debate and disagreement are not dysfunctional. This is what governing boards are supposed to do, he says.

Bevin can remove board members for just cause, but board members are allowed a hearing before the Council on Post-Secondary Education, and this did not occur.

Because Bevin radically reorganized the board’s practices and policies, it could set a precedent for every new governor to appoint a new university board. This action is a threat to the stability of higher education and academic freedom, Spencer adds.

Spencer continues by pointing out that if the governor had wanted to see a “fresh start,” he could have considered statewide election of university trustees, which is already in place at the University of Michigan. Or the governor could have allowed alumni of the institution to elect board members in the same way Cornell and Princeton do.

The trustees appointed by Bevin were not fully vetted, in the opinion of Mr. Spencer; one candidate had posted homophobic and anti-intellectual information on Twitter. Spencer ended his piece by stating:

“At one time, Kentucky was the place where education pays, but now, it only pays if you’re a political buddy who shares Bevin’s worldview. “