UK faculty’s role in decision-making expected to shrink when trustees vote Friday

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

Changes that faculty warn would end their decision-making power in academic matters are set to come before the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees Friday for a final vote.

UK President Eli Capilouto, who says the changes are needed to streamline governance processes, has revised his controversial original proposal in response to feedback from students, faculty and staff,  UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said Wednesday.

UK President Eli Capilouto (Photo by Mark Cornelison | UK Photo)

Among the revisions made by Capilouto is one strengthening the definition of academic freedom, Blanton said.

Capilouto also rejected some suggestions from campus groups, which, Blanton said, is “precisely how the process is supposed to work.” 

“Indeed, this process of feedback and counsel was even more comprehensive as President Capilouto added conversations with hundreds of community members across the campus,” Blanton said in an email. “From those conversations, a proposal was made to the Board to include more voices and people at the table, to streamline our often-confusing rules and regulations and to return more decision-making authority to colleges and units, closer to where the expertise resides.” 

The UK board in April voted 19-1 in favor of Capilouto’s proposal.

In response, during its final meeting of the 2023-24 school year, the University Senate approved a resolution of no confidence against Capilouto. While it did not affect his status as president, the resolution was an expression of opposition to his leadership and the proposed changes. The University Senate is made up of faculty, staff and student representatives.

If the board’s final approval of the proposal comes Friday, it will  be at a time when many stakeholders are away from campus, as the spring semester ended in May and most students and many faculty return to campus in late August. 

University of Kentucky Senate votes no confidence in president over governance changes

While the University Senate has approved multiple resolutions against the proposed governance changes, the Staff Senate and Student Government Association (SGA) have passed resolutions supporting Capilouto’s plan.

Members of the University Senate have warned that the changes would pave the way for faculty to lose decision-making power over academic decisions, such as admission standards for students.

The University Senate also has expressed a willingness to make concessions to staff and students.

The University Senate is open to evaluating and assessing our current processes,” the University Senate’s website says. “We are willing to evaluate and determine whether there are better ways to incorporate the perspectives and expertise of staff members and students, whose input we have always valued and integrated into our procedures.” 

Defining academic freedom

The University Senate shared its suggestions and comments on the proposals in an email to faculty at the end of May. They include further clarifying the definition of “academic freedom,” removing the president from setting rules to elect trustees who are not appointed by the governor, and specifying in greater detail the role of a proposed President’s Council, which would be made up of leaders of the faculty, staff and students to advise the  president. 

Blanton, the university spokesperson, said in an email to the Lantern that in the revisions the board will review Friday, “President Capilouto incorporated many of the proposals made by our shared governance groups, which included students, staff and faculty.” The revisions include clarifying curriculum that faculty has primacy over involves both credit-bearing and non-credit bearing courses as well as programs within an academic college.

Blanton said other revisions include strengthening the definition of “academic freedom” to include all instructional space and not just physical classrooms as well as making “the important point, offered by faculty leaders, that instructional spaces led by faculty will be places that often challenge students and can at times be uncomfortable. That’s how learning takes place.”

While the governor appoints most UK trustees, some board members are elected by faculty, staff, students and alumni. Blanton said the revisions clarify the board’s role in elections while “also acknowledging that there must be ways to change those processes to ensure that these elections are held in accordance with state laws.” He added that the General Assembly recently outlawed ranked choice voting, which allows voters to rank multiple candidates for an office based on their preference rather than selecting one candidate. Elected trustee positions are governed by statute. 

“Two of our shared governance bodies – faculty and students – have utilized that mechanism before, so there will be times when we must go to the board to make changes in election processes,” Blanton said. 

Capilouto also responded to proposals made by faculty, staff and students about adding “important areas of primacy, the policy areas that shared governance groups will consult regularly on with the administration,” Blanton said. 

Suggestions from the University Senate rejected by Capilouto  include removing “a reference to the Board of Trustees as the ‘people’s representatives’ or to abolish recognition of a ‘graduate faculty’ on our campus.”

UK Board of Trustees Chair Britt Brockman said in a statement to campus after the resolution was approved that the board “unequivocally supports President Eli Capilouto.” 

The University Senate has also received outside support from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the University of Southern Mississippi Faculty Senate President Joshua Bernstein. Both sent letters expressing concerns about the changes. 

“As you likely know, the proposal violates AAUP standards and long-established academic norms, according to which faculty have primary say over what is taught at the university,” Bernstein wrote to Capilouto and the Board of Trustees. “These standards are crucial for ensuring that learning is not politicized or subject to meddling. What happens in Kentucky could be replicated elsewhere to the detriment of learning across the country.”

Blanton said Capilouto agreed with “the overwhelming majority of our Board” that approved the proposed changes in April as a way to “streamline and clarify our rules to enable us to be even more responsive to the state’s needs.” 

“Along with other efforts underway – from thoughtfully growing enrollment to expanding care to more people, from undertaking an initiative to study housing needs across the state to new proposals to help us recruit and retain an outstanding workforce – we are following the direction the Board has given us: to find ways to accelerate our progress in advancing Kentucky,” Blanton said. “That’s what all these efforts are about – doing better so we can do more for Kentucky.”

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