Friday, July 18, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Hardin saga continues

Lu Hardin, the ubiquitous president of the University of Central Arkansas, sent a check to his college’s comptroller this week returning the $300,000 that the school’s trustees gave him illegally, or at least the part that had not been sent to Washington and Little Rock to settle tax obligations on the gift. So he has paid his debt to society, as they say in the correctional world, and all is well that end’s well, right?

Hardin has indeed paid a steep price for a cascading series of misjudgments that were not altogether his own because the unbelievable attention showered on the mistakes have blemished his reputation. Hardin hopes to run for governor in 2014, or earlier or else for the U. S. Senate if the stars are aligned right, and this has hurt. Hardin must have been astonished at the mammoth coverage that his secret bonuses received in the media, which had been nothing but adulatory for years. By returning the money before all the legal questions about it were settled, he opted to try to stifle the controversy rather than await its finale.

The coverage, which did seem excessive (football coaches get much sweeter deals than he did), was in direct proportion to his own eternal quest for publicity. He has starred in TV commercials promoting his university, which helped make UCA the most visible and fastest-growing campus in the state and Lu Hardin the most familiar figure in higher education. So he can hardly complain about sensational coverage of the bonus and the attendant misjudgments.

Hardin in fact has not complained, and he has been almost embarrassing in the depth of his apologies and the fullness of his acknowledgement of error. But he had to be because his dissembling had been so thorough and so indefensible. When reporters had asked him about rumors that he had gotten a big pay raise at a secret meeting of the university trustees in May he roundly denied it. When the deal was finally confirmed he tried to explain the fib by saying that the $300,000 check was technically not a pay raise but an early payment of deferred compensation and that it had come from private, not public, funds.

But it was a pay raise and it came from public funds.

Hardin has been unusually contrite, apologizing to the media for his deceptions and to the faculty and students of his school for his mistakes. The latter was an essential step because while he was getting a $300,000 bonus, on top of his $250,000 annual compensation, students were assessed higher tuition, faculty benefits were reduced and no faculty pay increase was scheduled for the new school term.

The law was broken in more ways than we can count, although the attorney general has yet to specify them. The Freedom of Information Act was flouted for sure, along with the fiscal laws regulating the dispensation of university funds. Perhaps the state’s ethics statutes were breached as well in the private provision of gifts to a public servant for the performance of his official duties beyond his appropriated compensation.

With the largest bonus returned, not much else needs to be extracted from Lu Hardin or the board for the trustees’ illegal conduct and Hardin’s dissembling. Lu Hardin’s contrition seems to be sincere and complete, and restoration of the $300,000 to the college seems to satisfy the public interest, except this: No one has yet acknowledged the extent to which it was all unlawful. A comprehensive opinion from the attorney general will help, and both the board and the president need to acknowledge that this was more than a series of poorly informed and reasoned decisions.