Amend laws to avoid future disputes over trustee appointments

Gov. Steve Beshear may have created one crisis for Kentucky universities with his proposed budget cuts, but at least he’s resolving another: the political imbalance on schools’ governing boards.

In September, then-Attorney General Greg Stumbo sued then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher, accusing him of violating state law by appointing a disproportionate amount of Republicans to the boards of trustees at state universities, including UK. The suit was still unresolved when Fletcher, a Republican, and Stumbo, a Democrat, left office in December, so it was left to their successors.

Last week, Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway — both Democrats — came to an agreement that would prevent trustees from having to resign, as Stumbo had demanded, the Kernel reported Friday.

Under the agreement, which is pending until the two parties appear in court Friday, Beshear will appoint only Democrats to the boards until they come into balance with the proportion of registered Democrats and Republicans statewide.

The agreement will help preserve stability amid a tough time for state universities — at least they will not have to deal with reshuffling their boards of trustees while dealing with sizable budget cuts.

However, a trustee crisis like this one could arise again in the future, and it may not be so amicably resolved if the attorney general and the governor happen to be from different political parties. To prevent further disputes, the General Assembly needs to amend the laws governing university board appointments.

One of the key points of dispute between Fletcher and Stumbo was whether the political affiliations of elected trustees — those who are not appointed by the governor, such as student, faculty, staff and alumni representatives — should count toward the legally mandated balance.

Clearly, the balance should apply only to the governor’s appointees; a switch in affiliation within the elected seats should not force the governor to seek trustee resignations for the sake of balance. However, this point is not spelled out clearly in the laws about appointments to UK, the University of Louisville, and the regional and community colleges. Some simple legislation could clarify the language and fix this problem.

What’s even more important is for the governor’s office to not let political considerations drive trustee appointments. When spots on the boards open up, Beshear should fill them with experts on education policy, not campaign donors and assorted political allies.

Higher education is not just another piece of the Frankfort political puzzle — the success of state universities will play a large role in whether Kentucky can bring its economy up to speed. That mission is too important to leave to unqualified political appointees.