Tuesday, May 26, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Delusions of grandeur

An institution, like an individual, can lose the way by nursing too much ambition. In the case of the University of Central Arkansas and its downfallen president, Lu Hardin, they are one and the same. Hardin’s overweening pursuit of grandeur has cost the good institution dearly.

That was evident one more time in the revelations in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette over the weekend that the school had doctored the books for three years to hide the heavy subsidies it was making to enhance the glory of its athletic teams. The university’s real mission, education, suffered in the balance.

But the university’s explanation is that spending lots more on the athletic program than the state allowed was supposed to enhance education by raising the school’s prestige and attracting more students who love athletics even if they don’t play. Enlarging the student body was Lu Hardin’s singular goal as president.

Debra Hale Shelton, who has marked the sparrow’s fall at UCA for nine months, reported in the Democrat Gazette that the school transferred money each year from other programs at the university to supplement the salaries of the coaches. The state some years ago established a ceiling on the general funds that the state universities could transfer to the athletic program to try to restrain the impulse of university administrators to aggrandize the sports teams at the expense of education.

Hardin wanted his school to play in NCAA Division IAA, right below the stratosphere in which the Arkansas Razorbacks play.

That means, for one thing, that you hire more coaches and pay them more. To give an assistant coach more money, the university might slip him a few thousand dollars more a year from the admissions office budget. The justification was that when the coach was recruiting a linebacker from Tyler, Texas, the youngster’s girlfriend and perhaps a few pals might follow him to UCA, so the coach was doing invaluable work for the academic side of the school. Other transfers to sports were from institutional advancement, physical plant, academic outreach and Web development. The bookkeeping legerdemain allowed the school to skirt the state’s limit on transfers from education to academic, which is about $1.1 million a year.

Jim Purcell, the director of the state Department of Higher Education, identified the problem. “Funding an athletic program with the aid of a convoluted series of questionable accounting procedures does not illustrate that a university can afford its athletic program,” he said.

But Hardin, like the administrators of other schools that have stretched their assets to get into the most prestigious sports circle, always insisted that the recognition of Division I status was good for the whole academic mission. The greater revenue from playing bigger teams before bigger crowds with bigger payouts would more than offset the higher costs of salaries, stadiums, travel and scholarships.

It does not work that way, a study by the NCAA showed. It examined the history of eight schools that moved from Division II to Division IAA between 1993 and 2003, and 11 that moved to Division I. The athletic programs all lost money before the move.

They lost far more afterward. The schools’ athletic revenues grew after the promotion, but expenses grew far more. UCA’s experience will fit the template.

Now the university’s prestige and its fiscal condition are in the dumps. The delusions of athletic grandeur bear only part of the blame, but they are a part.