Friday, June 19, 2009

EDITORIAL >> UCA gets new start

Dr. Allen C. Meadors, the new president of the University of Central Arkansas, enjoys the best of jobs and the worst of jobs.

After 10 months of relentless revelations about the blunders and deceits of the previous president, Lu Hardin, how can Meadors not look good? It is like following a football coach who had three successive 0-12 seasons.

But he undertakes a job where his activities will be under unprecedented scrutiny, thanks again to Hardin. The media, government regulators, lawmakers and auditors learned the need to prowl through the contracts and receipts of the university to see why and how the administrator did business. In Hardin’s case, wherever they looked there was evidence of self-dealing and political back-scratching. It will be a while before that scrutiny subsides.

There also is the little matter of running an institution that is virtually bankrupt. The school has been running a deficit, which it must not do, and the president has few options for improving the receipts side of the ledger. He and his board can raise tuition and fees, but that has been overdone already. That leaves cutting expenses, and the interim president, Tommy Courtway, has been taking those steps, some hard but some easy, like canceling the contract for Hardin’s secret flak, whose job was to talk Hardin up with the media and get him good publicity, all on the taxpayers’ tab. The faculty has not had a raise in two years and morale is low and expectations high.

But Allen Meadors looks like a superb choice. He is an academician, not a politician, and he has taught and administered a large institution. When it hired Hardin nearly seven years ago, the board of trustees caved in to political pressures. Gov. Mike Huckabee wanted his friend and political ally, a former state senator who was ambitious for higher office, installed in the job, and Hardin resumed the political career that had been short-circuited by his defeat in the U. S. Senate race in 1996, but operating from the academe instead of the legislature. He ran the university like a canny politician would, cultivating his image, seeking and passing out favors and rewarding friends and supporters. He wanted the school to be the second largest institution, behind the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and have more a prestigious athletic program, so he manipulated enrollment and the accounting ledger to get them done. He laundered taxpayer funds into a private account to get around the ceiling on what he could pay a head football coach.

The new president knows that he will be scrutinized closely, and he welcomed it. He said Friday that he expected everything to be transparent and open and that when he made mistakes he would admit them. We remember how Hardin’s demise came. He worked out an illegal $300,000 bonus for himself with the trustees, hid it from the public (he flatly lied when reporters asked about the rumor), and then affixed the names of three subordinates to a memo that he wrote justifying his bonus.

Meadors takes the job with high praise from the trustees and to the great relief of students, faculty and alumni of the school.

The long ordeal seems to be over.

Lofty expectations are not bad, difficult as they are to live up to. But it is worth remembering that only a year ago Lu Hardin was enjoying regular plaudits from the UCA board, political leaders and the media. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette editorial page wondered why other institutions were not following the fantastic leadership of the president of the University of Central Arkansas. Sic transit gloria mundi.