Ramsey resigns as University of Louisville president, gets $690,000 settlement
The University of Louisville Board of Trustees has come to a settlement agreement with Dr. James Ramsey for $690,000.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – James Ramsey’s 14-year tenure as president of the University of Louisville came to an abrupt end after about six hours of closed-door negotiations with the Board of Trustees on Wednesday.
Ramsey, 67, will receive a settlement payment of $690,542 in exchange for dropping any legal claims he might have pursued against the university, agreeing not to disparage the university and giving up his tenured professorship in economics.
His resignation is effective immediately, though Ramsey remains employed by the separate U of L Foundation as its president. The foundation provides the vast majority of Ramsey’s multi-million-dollar annual compensation.
UPDATE, 2:45 pm Thursday: In a statement, Ramsey said he plans to continue working at the foundation.
"It has been an honor and privilege to serve as University President over the last 14 years," Ramsey said in the statement. "Jane (Ramsey) and I are proud of the progress the school has made and grateful to all within the University community for their support over the years."
The settlement payment represents Ramsey’s university salary of about $362,000 a year paid through the remainder of the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, plus the year of paid administrative leave to which he was entitled under his employment contract but had not used.
Neville Pinto, the university’s provost, will become interim president under the university’s succession plan, Board of Trustees Chair Pro-Tem Junior Bridgeman said. The search for a new president will begin immediately.
The marathon meeting began with Bridgeman offering the board an agreement he had evidently worked out with Ramsey in advance. The proposal called for Ramsey to resign and be immediately rehired as “interim president” to June 30, 2017, if necessary, at his same salary and benefits, plus the year of paid administrative leave.
But the board apparently did not accept that proposal.
Bridgeman then shuttled between the board’s meeting room in the basement of Grawemeyer Hall and Ramsey’s first-floor office, coming and going at least four times in the six-hour span to negotiate the terms of Ramsey’s departure.
All the discussions took place behind closed doors under an exception to the Kentucky Open Meetings Act.
“After the culmination of a lot of things, we just felt that was best for the university” for Ramsey to leave immediately, Bridgeman told reporters following the meeting. “In the end, it was just a decision on both sides.”
Sam Hinkle, a private attorney who assisted the Board of the Trustees with the negotiation, declined to describe the grounds Ramsey might have had to pursue a legal claim against U of L.
“The discussions were those one would typically expect in this context with the potential for litigation,” Hinkle told reporters. “…Because of the circumstances there is always that potential.”
Ramsey, who has led U of L since 2002, promised Gov. Matt Bevin in June that he would offer his resignation as university president.
The promise came in conjunction with Bevin’s decision to abolish the 20-member Board of Trustees and replace it with a 13-member board that includes 10 new Bevin appointees.
That move is the subject of a legal challenge by Attorney General Andy Beshear, who argues Bevin overstepped his authority.
Until Thursday, Ramsey had been non-committal about resigning as president of the separate U of L Foundation, a nonprofit that manages U of L’s $680 million endowment.
One foundation board member has publicly urged Ramsey to stay at the foundation. Ramsey said he plans to continue his work for the foundation "in whatever capacity the Foundation Board thinks best."
Bridgeman, who also chairs the foundation board, said there was “not one word” of discussion about Ramsey’s status with the foundation during Wednesday’s negotiations over his resignation.
“That’s a separate entity and we have nothing really to do with that,” Bridgeman said of the foundation. "...That'll be a decision for the board of the foundation."
Bridgeman said the issues will not be dealt with until September at the earliest.
U of L a "far better institution" because of Ramsey
As a former Kentucky state budget director, Ramsey brought policy experience and political savvy to his role at U of L in addition his academic credentials.
As Ramsey said in a trustees meeting last year, U of L has done “pretty damn well” under his leadership despite a string of state budget cuts beginning in 2008.
"During the past 14 years, Dr. Ramsey has guided the institution through a remarkable transformation," Bridgeman said in a letter sent to students late Wednesday night. "By any measure – student retention and graduation rates, research funding and successes, student achievement and fundraising – the University of Louisville is a different, far better institution because of Dr. Ramsey."
Perhaps the university’s biggest academic accomplishment has been an increase in the percentage of students who graduate within six years of starting school, which rose 33 percent in 2002 to 53.6 percent in 2015, according to university statistics.
U of L is also attracting better prepared students. The average ACT score of entering freshman rose from 23.3 in 2002 to 25.5 in 2015.
Annual research expenditures grew from $80.9 million to $179.3 million during that period.
Ramsey is often praised for his fundraising prowess. The university completed a seven-year, $1 billion “capital campaign” in 2014.
The university’s endowment – a pool of donated funds that supports academic departments – grew from $479 million in 2002 to $822 million in 2015. However it was down to $680 million as of March 31 after recent losses from its investments.
In keeping with the general trend in higher education, tuition rose every year of Ramsey’s tenure at U of L. In 2002, in-state undergraduates paid $4,082 a semester in tuition and mandatory fees. Last fall, the bill was $10,432, according to the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
Just before Bevin abolished the previous trustee board, some trustees put up procedural roadblocks to Ramsey’s plan to increase tuition by 5 percent for the upcoming academic year.
U of L is now proceeding with the 5 percent increase, though the current board has yet to sign off on it.
Kentucky has drastically reduced state support for colleges and universities, and U of L’s annual state funding fell from $169 million in 2007-08 to $139 million in 2015-16.
Ramsey has found other ways to generate revenue besides tuition hikes.
He has made extensive use of tax-increment financing, a state program that diverts some new tax revenues to pay for economic development projects.
U of L’s three “TIF” districts – the ShelbyHurst office park in eastern Jefferson County, the Nucleus area downtown and the main Belknap campus – had generated $16.2 million for the university as of July 2015.
The university, through its foundation, also gets rental revenue from the three offices buildings it built on the ShelbyHurst campus with real estate company NTS. The buildings command some of the highest office rates in Louisville. More commercial development is planned on the campus.
Under Ramsey, U of L’s Belknap campus continued shedding its “commuter school” appearance. New dorms were built, freshmen are now required to live on campus and a half-dozen private developers have built luxury student apartment complexes within walking distance of campus.
Broad success in athletics
Ramsey presided over the most expansive periods in athletics history at U of L. He gave athletics director Tom Jurich two lifetime contracts, and helped make him a university vice president for athletics.
He oversaw U of L’s departure from Conference USA for the Big East Conference, a move made in large part because of the growth in athletics facilities. After the Big East was raided, he was part of the effort that took the school from the American Athletic Conference to the top-tier Atlantic Coast Conference.
Jurich’s athletics work, with Ramsey’s backing and often the U of L Foundation’s financial support, changed the face of the west side of U of L’s campus, and helped make the school more hospitable for housing and other retail development around the campus.
Ramsey signed off on retaining U of L basketball coach Rick Pitino after an extramarital affair and extortion scandal in 2009, and was behind Jurich when he re-hired Bobby Petrino as football coach following his own scandal while coach at Arkansas.
U of L athletics’ gender equity profile grew greatly during Ramsey’s tenure, under Jurich’s leadership, with new facilities and at least one national ranking for every women’s sport in the past six years.
Recent scandals and embarrassments
But in recent years, Ramsey’s presidency has been beset by a number of scandals and embarrassing revelations.
“There have been a number of news stories… that have been in the wind in recent months and years… that have not shed the best on the light on the university and the commonwealth as a whole,” Bevin said in June when he announced his decision to get rid of the whole trustee board and seek Ramsey’s resignation.
Beginning with former education dean Robert Felner in 2008, a number of university employees were implicated in thefts or misappropriation of funds under U of L’s control. The university eventually hired an auditing firm to help it implement tighter financial controls.
Early last year, federally required tax disclosures showed that Ramsey and other senior administrators had received multi-million-dollar compensation packages from the university’s nonprofit foundation, which manages its endowment.
A WDRB investigation showed that, besides large deferred compensation awards, some administrators got extra pay from a separate nonprofit created by the foundation and that the payments were inflated with “tax gross-ups” – or extra money meant to offset the administrators’ federal, state and local income taxes.
In July 2015, a university-hired consultant said Ramsey was getting at least $600,000 – and sometimes up to about $900,000 – in tax payments alone each year from the foundation, and the consultant recommended ending those payments.
Those payments were the biggest component of Ramsey’s $2.8 million in compensation from the foundation in 2014.
Also last year, a WDRB investigation showed the foundation had awarded, without board discussion or competitive bidding, two six-figure consulting contracts to a former longtime board member and vice chairman.
Revelations about the foundation prompted former State Auditor Adam Edelen to begin an examination, which is being carried on by Mike Harmon, Edelen’s successor. Harmon’s report will be released late this summer or early in the fall, according to his spokesman.
In October, a former Louisville escort released a tell-all book alleging that a former U of L basketball staffer paid her to arrange dances and prostitution for players and recruits over a four-year period.
This past February, Ramsey made the decision to self-impose a postseason ban on U of L’s men’s basketball program in the wake of an NCAA investigation following the allegations. Ramsey and the university also announced a secondary round of sanctions later in the year.
Last fall, Ramsey and his president’s office staff posed for a photo with The Courier-Journal during a Halloween party in which they wore Mexican costumes, including sombreros and fake mustaches.
After a backlash, Ramsey publicly apologized and the university committed to diversity training.
In early November, 78 faculty members – most in U of L’s College of Arts and Sciences – wrote a letter to Ramsey complaining about the "drumbeat of crises that have embarrassed the university and made many ashamed to be associated with it."
Even so, a majority of the university’s 66 faculty senators voted in support of Ramsey earlier this year.
In December, the university placed its vice president for health affairs, David Dunn, and vice president for information technology, Priscilla Hancock, on paid leave following a campus police and federal law enforcement inquiry into “allegations of potential misconduct” that surfaced in the summer of 2014, Ramsey told faculty in a letter.
The problems came to a head in March when several trustees wanted to take a vote of “no confidence” in Ramsey’s leadership. The move, although symbolic, was blocked on procedural grounds by Ramsey’s supporters on the board.
Bill Stone, a Louisville business owner and former trustee, told WDRB in June that Ramsey will be remembered as one of the “great presidents” in school history.
“You have students and people who have been away for 10 years who come back to U of L and can’t believe the changes that they see. He’s truly built us into a destination campus,” Stone said. “If we can get students from out of town to visit our campus, the chances are very good that we’re going to get them. That’s a credit to Jim Ramsey.”
- Tweak by U of L foundation board puts Ramsey in line for extra payout on Jan. 1
- University of Louisville board chair reverses course, says Ramsey did offer to resign in private meeting
- Ramsey says he plans to submit resignation to Gov. Bevin's newly appointed Board of Trustees
- Mitch McConnell speaks with WDRB, calls James Ramsey best U of L president ever
- University of Louisville trustees push no-confidence vote in Ramsey
Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All rights reserved. WDRB.com's Eric Crawford and Marcus Green contributed to this story.