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

Published 2:23 pm Wednesday, May 8, 2024

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By McKenna Horsley

Kentucky Lantern

The University of Kentucky’s University Senate has approved a resolution of no confidence against President Eli Capilouto in response to his proposal to strip faculty of power over academic decisions at the university. 

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The vote, which was 58-24 with 11 abstaining, was taken during a Monday afternoon meeting of the University Senate. The vote of no confidence does not affect Capilouto’s status as president of Kentucky’s flagship public university but instead expresses opposition to his leadership and proposals to change shared governance at UK.  

Shortly after the meeting adjourned, UK Board of Trustees Chair Britt Brockman said in a statement to campus that the board “unequivocally supports President Eli Capilouto.” 

The University Senate debated the measure for about an hour and heard from a mix of supporters and opponents of the resolution, as well as questions about how passing a vote of no confidence could affect the Senate’s relationship with university administration. Senators also briefly considered extending the resolution to show no confidence in the UK Board of Trustees, but ultimately tabled that motion. 

Under his proposals, Capilouto is seeking to change UK’s shared governance model by transitioning the University Senate into a faculty senate, reducing faculty to more of an advisory role.  It would also move some authority to colleges and academic programs over curriculum review and implementation. 

The UK Board of Trustees voted 19-1 in favor of the proposals during its April meeting. The board will give final approval in June. 

While the University Senate has been opposed to Capilouto’s proposals, the Staff Senate and Student Government Association (SGA) have passed resolutions supporting them. Both groups argue students and staff would have greater voice in university decision-making. 

The University Senate includes 94 full-time faculty members, SGA representatives, the president, the provost, college deans and more. 

‘This process has not been transparent’

Introducing the resolution, Scott Yost, director of Undergraduate Studies in  the College of Civil Engineering, saidMonday was a “heavy day” at the university and called the consideration of changing the shared governance model a “low point.” 

“We are here today 100% due to the president, not because of what the Senate is doing, but it’s 100% on the president and leadership at this university,” Yost told fellow senators. 

Molly Blasing, a professor of Russian Studies and member of the Senate Council, said that while she took “no pleasure in the fact that we’re debating this particular resolution,” she was “grateful for the opportunity to debate it.” Blasing added that the administration’s process regarding the changes to shared governance had not “inspired confidence in the future of these deliberations.”

“The process has not been transparent, and we have not been allowed to be partners in moving forward together,” Blasing said. “I think that had the president taken a different approach, we may have gotten to a very similar place in terms of revisions to the governance structures, but we would have all been facing forward together toward the future.”

John Hurley, a member of the SGA who will return to UK in the fall as a graduate student, expressed concern that the no-confidence vote was taking place after spring graduation ceremonies were held last week. 

“I have heard repeatedly today that this body wants to hear student voices more and more,” Hurley said, adding that “the vast majority of students have gone home” while the debate on the no-confidence vote occurred.

Hurley added that students do not feel heard under the current governance structure. 

DeShana Collett, the chair of the University Senate, said in response to Hurley that the no-confidence resolution was distributed to all senators at the same time and the meeting date had been public for a year. 

Collett said at the end of the meeting, which is the last she will chair in her term as chair, that the Senate “can work towards being a collaborative partner” in future shared governance changes. She said leadership of the Senate will work on giving “deliberate feedback” on the proposals ahead of the June trustees meeting. 

“Hopefully, this is a move where the president is also ready to sit down with Senate and Senate Council and move in the right direction,” Collett said. “This was hard for everybody, I think, in this room. It was not an easy vote for anyone, but it was a necessary vote.” 

‘Our work is not done,’ says Capilouto

In his Monday statement, Brockman called Capilouto’s proposals the product of “months of inclusive dialogue” and said they would create “more avenues for greater involvement and collaboration among students, faculty and staff.”

“The University of Kentucky Board of Trustees overwhelmingly supports this process and President Capilouto’s leadership in making it happen,” Brockman said. 

In his own message to campus, Capilouto said Monday that UK has reached several milestones over the last decade under his leadership in student enrollment, graduation rates and expanding health care and research, but “​​our work is not done. Our Board of Trustees has asked us to examine thoughtfully how we can find ways to do and be more for the state.”

Capilouto continued, saying that current governance rules “aren’t clear” and they “don’t position us to be responsive.” He echoed concerns that students and staff do not currently feel heard and said some faculty members have “told me that decisions about curriculum and other policy matters can be better made at the college and unit levels.”

“I know that some among our faculty are concerned about these revisions. I understand the concerns and respect those who have voiced them,” the president said. “Moving forward, my hope is that we will come together. We don’t have to all agree about the changes, but I hope we all agree that we must continue to move forward as a community.” 

The University Senate had previously passed a resolution saying it had “no confidence” that Capilouto’s proposals “are in the best long-term interests of the University or the Commonwealth.” Monday’s resolution is an escalation of its official opinion on the president. 

Nationwide, faculty senates are taking votes of no confidence in their university presidents. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education analysis in September 2023, more than 20 faculty governance boards and unions had passed resolutions of no confidence in that year. 

Last year, faculty at Bellarmine University, a private institution in Louisville, voted they had no confidence in the president.