Thursday, August 28, 2008

End of an era

Today marked the end of a months-long drama on my university's campus, one that flashed into a public crisis that seemed to deepen weekly. Our embattled president, Lu Hardin, resigned this morning effective September 16.

Due to my administrative position, it would have been inadvisable for me to comment on the situation here. But now that it's over, I can provide a brief summary of the process that led to the resignation. It's been front-page news here in Arkansas for a couple of months, but undoubtedly none of my readers outside the Natural State's borders knows anything about it. Despite the provincial nature of the controversy, it is of some interest, I think, because of its illumination of the perennial divide between academics with their traditional values and administrators who might identify more with business or political values.

Back in June, faculty senators met with the president to discuss two issues. One was a hastily-called meeting of the board of trustees that had slashed current retirees' medical benefits under their pension plan. The other was a rumor that the president had received a raise, which if true would certainly stick in the craw of faculty who had not even received a cost of living adjustment in the past year.

The president had earlier denied getting a raise when asked about it by a reporter. But following the meeting with the faculty senators, he sent a letter to the school's administrative listserv explaining the retiree benefit cut as mandated by an accounting change that would have cost the university millions. He also said that a $300,000 deferred compensation package that the board of trustees had awarded him in 2005 on the condition that he stay for five more years had been moved up on the schedule. The board had voted to give it to him immediately in closed executive session at the end-of-semester meeting. There had not been a public vote on the matter; the board merely took a vote approving all (unspecified) personnel matters after they came back from executive session.

This revelation prompted a media investigation that took several different tacks. First was the matter of whether the undisclosed vote on the bonus violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Second was where the money had come from to pay the bonus; the board had paid it out of a discretionary fund that was set up some years ago with the express purpose of providing funds for scholarships and other university needs. The state of Arkansas caps by legislation the amount of money that can be paid through public funds to certain categories of state employees; President Hardin's state paycheck exceeds the maximum allowable by 25%, which is permitted under law for a certain percentage of any agency's employees. However, the bonus money was specified as deferred compensation, not salary, and was in addition to some tens of thousands of dollars annually that were paid to the President from private sources. The question of whether the board's fund was public or private money became a matter of contention. Turns out the fund consisted of "excess revenues" from the housing department and from the bookstore and food service concessions on campus. The university attorney queried the attorney general on whether those funds could be considered a private donation, and the answer was a resounding "no."

Third, what request or impetus prompted the board to accelerate the bonus? A letter from President Hardin to the board, prepared in response to a board request for a compensation package proposal "consistent with comparable universities," was made available. It compared the President's compensation packages to a few other university leaders, including the chancellor of the University of Arkansas system, the University of Mississippi, and Mississippi State University. It requested $150,000 of deferred compensation per year ongoing, in addition to the accelerated bonus. In executive session at the end of semester meeting on May 2, a memo of talking points about the compensation package was handed out to board members. This memo claimed that because the money was deferred compensation and not salary, a public vote of the board was not necessary. And at the bottom, it claimed to be "respectfully submitted" by three vice presidents whose names appeared without signatures.

Quite aside from the question of whether such a compensation package was fair, advisable, or politic, the investigation quickly honed in on the three vice presidents whose names appeared on the memo. In interviews with the media, all three said they had not been involved in drafting the memo. And subsequently, the President acknowledged that he had written the memo himself.

Whether or not he intended to mislead (he at one point referred to "mitigating factual circumstances" that he thought would explain the matter to an angry faculty), the perception of misconduct continued to grow. The memo even refers to one of the vice presidents in the first person, claiming that "I (Jack Gillean) helped draft ..." The faculty senate interviewed the three vice presidents whose names appeared on the memo, and the transcripts were made available on the faculty senate webpage. All denied writing the memo or holding many of opinions attributed to them.

When the first full faculty senate meeting was held last week, the controversy was the main topic of conversation. An ad hoc committee was formed to investigate further allegations of wrongdoing that had surfaced, including "preferential housing"; trustees' children and relatives of political allies had been allowed to live in university-owned houses, including one that had undergone a $50,000 renovation purportedly to house visiting speakers and other VIPs, none of which had so far stayed there in two years. Allegations that the president's office had changed grades were also under review.

Now that the president has resigned, citing both the mistakes he made with the memo and the return of a cancerous tumor of the eye, the resolution authorizing the investigation has been revoked. We have an interim president -- the university counsel -- and a brand new provost who has an uncompromising stance on the centrality of academics to the university's mission.

It has been an unhappy few months in the public eye. The President made publicity a centerpiece of his administration, aggressively advertising the university and making himself its public face in television commercials. When the lovefest ended, it ended quickly and spectacularly. We're all ready to move on.


Doc Thelma said...

Sorry to hear of your administrative woes; that situation is hard on everyone, no matter how it ends. If you've read my blog recently, you know we've had our own scandal (albeit on the departmental level) so I can relate to the "ready to move on" aspect.

Stephanie said...

Great recap, Donna. A friend at UNC Greensboro was just asking was was going on here, after reading about it in the Chronicle. I just referred her to your blog!

Tim Sisk said...

Wow, Donna. I had no idea. We lost our president at UT unexpectedly at the end of last semester. Crazy world.