CRAWFORD | Ramsey's Louisville tenure should be remembered for more than final chapters
James Ramsey's final day as University of Louisville president came more quickly than expected -- but his legacy at the school will be felt for some time.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- When James Ramsey woke up Wednesday morning, I don't think he believed he was getting ready to spend his final day as president of the University of Louisville. He attended an ice cream social on the Health Sciences campus. He taught an economics class.
At 3:30 Wednesday, Ramsey submitted a letter to the board of trustees offering his resignation, conditional upon him being hired as an interim president for one academic year -- or a new president was found -- at his present salary. Another condition was that he receive one year paid administrative leave after that, as was provided in his contract, which ran through 2020.
Instead, after a Grawemeyer Hall negotiation with a newly seated board of trustees that lasted nearly seven hours, Ramsey was out, with a settlement payment of $690,542 -- in exchange for dropping any legal claims he might have pursued against the board, and an agreement not to disparage the university. He also relinquished a tenured professorship in economics -- no small thing in itself.
He remains president of the U of L Foundation, and how that entity will proceed isn't known. But his 14-year service as U of L president is over.
The end of Ramsey's tenure has been marred by several scandals, money stolen from the university, a sordid recruiting scandal involving strippers and prostitution in the men's basketball program, an incident in which Ramsey was photographed in a sombrero, questions over his salary and various benefits voted to him. Spats with the former board of trustees and some of the school's own faculty didn't bode well, and other news, the loses of a couple of major Federal grants in May and June, and the reported loss of 17 percent of the foundation endowment's value over the past year, just over $66 million.
In the end, Ramsey, who touts many success stories for the university, couldn't escape a cycle of negative news and souring relationships.
It didn't have to be that way. Ramsey and the prior board could perhaps have maintained their positions had they kept their eye on the ball of student costs and faculty morale. In the end, a university is its students and faculty. What began to seem like compulsory tuition hikes and faculty pay freezes helped erode the support of the very groups university leadership needs most.
But that is far from the whole story on Ramsey, whose tenure saw more change and growth in the university than perhaps any president's in the history of the institution. He received plenty of criticism for the size of his combined university and U of L Foundation salaries. Less talked-about was the growth in the university's financial and academic profile under Ramsey.
First, when it comes to sports, my enduring images of Ramsey all have to do with sports that operate outside of the intense media glare. He showed up at women's basketball and volleyball games often. He was at field hockey matches and swim meets. When Kelsi Worrell set a new American and NCAA record in the 100 fly, Ramsey was there watching, in Atlanta. There wasn't much public relations value in being there, but he was.
Ramsey's primary contribution to athletics was his dogged support for Tom Jurich as athletics director. He offered him a "lifetime" contract -- then extended it. He gave Jurich broad autonomy to raise money, and gave him unwavering support in adding facilities.
The building boom that Jurich engineered in athletics on the southern and eastern borders of the Belknap Campus helped change the physical face of the university. It got the ball rolling on development along Central Avenue, and combined with other changes in the university's focus and mission, helped transform the campus and school.
Ramsey was a major supporter of women's and non-revenue sports at Louisville. During his tenure he would see the women's basketball team reach the NCAA championship game and the baseball program make three trips to the College World Series.
When basketball coach Rick Pitino went through a well-publicized extortion attempt and disclosed an extramarital relationship with a woman in 2003, Ramsey stuck with him, and Pitino delivered an NCAA championship in 2013.
The most controversial move Ramsey made in athletics, the decision to self-impose a postseason ban on the men's basketball program once the school determined that NCAA rules had been broken, was widely unpopular. A banner with the words, "Ramsey is a coward" was hung from a local restaurant near the KFC Yum! Center. But given the benefit of hindsight and more details into the investigation, both Pitino and Jurich agreed that Ramsey made the right call.
"I think ultimately, when the investigation is done, people will say, 'Yeah, they did the right thing,'" Ramsey told me during an interview in April. "We care deeply about this university and we're always going to try to do the right thing. We had access to information that people didn't have access to, and as we sat down in the investigative committee and looked at everything, we did what we thought was in the best interest of the University of Louisville."
During Ramsey's tenure, U of L won two BCS Bowl games and moved from Conference USA, to the Big East, to the American Athletic Conference and finally to the ACC. Those moves are due primarily to the leadership of Jurich, but they would not have been possible had the university not been on a trajectory to be considered by such peer schools as Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and others when the opportunity to join the ACC came.
And that growth is the basis for my second thought on Ramsey's legacy. The struggles of his final years will remain a part of his story, but they're not the whole story.
Since Ramsey took over in 2002, nearly $2.1 billion was invested in the Belknap Campus. What once was a commuter school now boasts eight new dorms or affiliated housing structures, along with subsequent development around the campus for dining and social activities. It is not the place it used to be.
The average ACT score for incoming freshmen has risen from 23.2 in 2002 to 25.5. The six-year graduation rate, 33 percent in 2002, is 52.9 percent in 2015-16. The number of bachelor's degrees has increased by nearly 1,000 per year. The number of doctorates has nearly doubled. In the past 10 years, U of L produced more Fulbright Scholars than all other Kentucky colleges combined. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commended the school's work in the Fulbright program in a letter to Ramsey.
Three new research parks -- ShelbyHurst, Belknap Applied Sciences and Engineering Park and JD Nichols Innovation Park have been added, and research spending has increased 359 percent despite the loss of some federal earmarked funds.
Ramsey, with his experience in Frankfort as the state's chief economist for Wallace Wilkinson and his position in the government of Paul Patton, made U of L a more legitimate player in the General Assembly.
The university, under Ramsey, accomplished all that despite two recessions and a state budget that cut appropriations more than a dozen times. U of L became less reliant on public money and better positioned to chart its own financial course independent of government spending fluctuations in the future.
In the end, Ramsey's tenure, on the whole, will be remembered as a successful one for U of L. Look at the school, its campus, its student body, its graduation rate, its financial profile, its athletic standing. Those of us who remember U of L three decades ago, or more, have an appreciation for where the school is now. Bigger money, of course, means bigger problems sometimes. And when things go wrong, the spotlight is much greater, and often more harsh.
It didn't end well -- and certainly came to a close more abruptly than anticipated. But Ramsey's time at the university should be remembered for more than that.
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