WKU, state policies questioned after regent election

Kae Holloway

The Board of Regents will see a familiar face in the regent’s room at its meeting on Oct. 31. 

Barbara Burch will fill the seat left by former Faculty Regent Patti Minter at the end of this month. Minter is stepping down after serving seven years on the Board.

Burch is currently the provost emerita and a professor in the School of Teacher Education. 

“I felt it was an honor to be asked by faculty to consider that position,” she said. “I hadn’t thought about doing it…  I’m pleased with the opportunity to represent the faculty.”

She ran unopposed in the election, which took place Oct. 15. Her election and the election process as a whole was met with debate after potential nominees declined nomination, but some faculty are saying the potential nominees were disqualified. 

Some who declined nominations did so on the basis that several policies, including state statute KRS 164.360 and WKU Human Resources Policy 4.2303, render them ineligible for the position as they have family, spouses or partners employed at WKU. 

KRS 164.360 states specifically in section two that “no person shall be employed at an institution where his relative serves on the board of regents for that institution.”

Human Resources Policy 4.2303 states in the policy and procedure section, in part A, that “no person shall be employed at the university if his or her relative or domestic partner serves on the Board of Regents.” 

The purpose of Policy 4.2303, according to the policy itself, is to create and sustain a work environment with respected, fairly treated employees. It states that relationships between employees are prohibited from having one party of the relationship hold a position that can influence personnel-related issues, such as salary, promotion and performance review.

Jennifer Hanley, Faculty Senate vice chair, said the Senate Executive Committee followed the Human Resources policy, the State Statute and the election codes outlined in the Faculty Handbook “to the letter.”

“Everything was completely above board and completely done by the books,” Margaret Crowder, senate chair, said. “Regardless of this discussion, there’s only one person who accepted the nomination.”

This did not stop a a flurry of emails, letters and other form of communication coming in to debate the statutes and policies used.

“I really understand the nepotism thing,” Molly Kerby, a professor in the department of diversity and communication, said. “At some point, you can’t keep recusing yourself of votes if someone you’re related to works on campus, or your spouse or your partner.”  

Kerby was one of the faculty members who declined nomination based on the statute and policy.

“My partner is a faculty member, too” she said. “I would (serve) if I could, but I can’t.” 

Kerby, who is also the representative for the Coalition of Senate Faculty Leadership, said the state statute is not really clear and several universities are requesting informal decisions. 

She and other members of CSFL across the state are trying to find ways to have clear statutes and HR policies to prevent issues like this from arising.

Another nominee, mathematics professor Claus Ernst, declined his nomination based on the same policies. Ernst said that throughout the election nomination process, many brought other interpretations of the state statute and HR policy to light. 

“I think the SEC had a choice and that’s to stick with one interpretation,” he said.

Ernst said in an email on Sept. 30 to Hanley that, based on the policies and his own interpretation of them, he could not accept the nomination. However, should the SEC change policy or “see this any different,” he would still be interested in a regent nomination. 

Hanley took the email to the special SEC meeting held on Oct. 1 and came back with the response that the SEC decided the nomination “conflicted with university policy and state statute.” 

Two informal opinions were provided by the office of Attorney General Jack Conway, both based on similar situations at Eastern Kentucky University. One opinion provided an account of a student regent that was allowed to serve despite her parents being employed at the university.

An opinion was also requested by Wilkins near the time of former Student Government Association President Keyana Boka’s election regarding her serving on the board despite her mother being employed at WKU.

“You can write the AG and ask them to give you an opinion on how to interpret Kentucky law,” General Counsel Deborah Wilkins said.

Wilkins said the informal opinions were introduced to add to the existing discussion of the statute and HR policy.

“It shows a consistency on the part of the AG about how they’re going to interpret the statute,” she said  “My feeling was at the time that, if there were people who were interested in running or willing to be nominated who had a relative working here, they should be allowed to run and if elected, we could seek an opinion just like we did in these three cases and I was confident the answer would be the same.” 

Crowder said in an email that legal counsel was sought to discuss this opinion.

After that, she received an email regarding the informal opinion from Wilkins that said “the issue in each request letter was limited to one university each time, and one ‘class’ of elected regent.”

“Those letters are issued to one university at a time and one elected regent, one office, so it didn’t apply to Western Kentucky University,” Crowder said.

Boka was also brought up as an example. Boka was allowed to serve despite her mother being employed in the Child Care Center. 

Crowder said, however, that this situation was not applicable because it dealt with a specific class of regent, a student, in this case.

“There was nothing that was there that we could use legally to say one, we’re going to go against state statute to do this and two, regardless, that we would go against internal HR policy,” she said. 

Ernst said the best way to handle the issue would have been to push the election back until the arguments and conflicts surrounding it could be resolved. In order to remain in accordance with the Faculty Handbook, however, he recognized they could not postpone the election.

“I don’t think (Faculty Senate) acted unreasonably,” Ernst said.

In response to the faculty regent election debates and to the prevailing voices calling for a clear interpretation of the state statute, the Council on Post Secondary Education requested a formal opinion from the Attorney General that would address KRS 164.360 (2), prohibiting a person to be employed at the same institution, and KRS 164.321 (6), (7) and (8), dealing with other qualifications and procedures for faculty regent election.

“The CPE polled all the universities, we all agreed that (the statute) needed to be clarified. Going forward, we need the clarity one way or the other,” Wilkins said.

There is no official deadline for when the formal opinion will be announced.

This story is a correction of a previous story that was removed from our website because it was inaccurate.