Friday, September 02, 2011

EDITORIAL >>UCA fires Meadors

We were never so superstitious as to believe that a person could have “bad karma,” but the University of Central Arkansas is about to convince us that an institution can be infected with bad energy. Check the news almost any day and you can see the fruits of it—or maybe it is just the fruits of consistently poor leadership. Either way, UCA, as the old school is known, has had enough of it.

Yesterday, the school’s trustees hastily bought out its fairly new president’s contract—fired him—and will pay him some $525,000 to leave the premises by the end of the month, if not before. He had embarrassed them for the last time. They had paid handsomely to get rid of the previous president only three years ago after he had humiliated them and tarnished the school’s good name.

UCA’s troubles go back a decade or more, at least since September 2002, when Gov. Mike Huckabee tapped his pal Lu Hardin to be the university’s president to succeed his old enemy, Winfred Thompson, who had raised the school’s profile and modernized the campus but irked the faculty and the governor. Thompson resigned before Huckabee got full control of the board and fired him, and then he went off to become president of American University, first in the United Arab Emirates and then in Kuwait.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette touted Hardin often as a celestial gift to higher education, but it was soon obvious that Hardin’s main objective was self-promotion—he wanted to be governor or U.S. senator—and the university was his instrument. Hardin starred in television commercials and newspaper ads promoting UCA as the learning center of Arkansas and he was at the center of every other promotion as well.

That all ended with Hardin’s resignation three years ago after it was revealed that he had connived, among other things, to trick the board of trustees and the school into giving him a $300,000 bonus to help him pay his gambling debts. The trustees were happy to give him anything he wanted, but the revelation that he had gulled them made them look bad, along with the institution and its staff. Five months ago, Hardin pled guilty to federal counts of wire fraud and money laundering, and investigations of other shenanigans are continuing.

But Hardin’s hasty departure from the campus did not end the bad publicity or the blundering and self-dealing. Rather, they have cascaded on an almost weekly cycle under both the interim regime and successor administration of president Allen Meadors. This week, it reached a crescendo. Meadors and the trustees have been unhappy with conditions at the president’s mansion on the edge of the campus despite the expenditure of more than $400,000 since 2009 to improve the home and the grounds. There also had been expensive improvements when Hardin took over in 2002. Meadors says he and his wife do not mind living in the squalor of the old mansion, but it is not a fit place to entertain important guests of the university. (We were entertained there a couple of times in the last 15 years and found it elegant enough for our proletarian tastes, but it apparently is not suitable for people of better breeding.)

Owing to all that had transpired under Hardin and afterward, Meadors and the trustees agreed that it would not look good to spend public funds—the state’s tax support or students’ tuition—to gild the president’s home again, so they would seek private help. Lo, Meadors presented them last week with a deus ex machina—a gift from heaven. Aramark, the big national company that provides food services for the school, wanted to kick in $700,000 toward the renovations of the home and grounds. You don’t often encounter that kind of selfless generosity from a business. The trustees were happy and moved forward on the renovation, authorizing the school to spend $1,500 a month to rent a home for the president and his wife while the work was being done.

A nosy reporter, the Democrat-Gazette’s relentless Debra-Hale Shelton, made a request under the freedom of information law to see Aramark’s offer. The school obliged and then rushed an email to the trustees with a copy of Aramark’s letter before Shelton’s story got into print. It turned out that the company was not so generous after all. The $700,000 gift was contingent on the university renewing Aramark’s exclusive contract for campus food services for another seven years when the contract expires in May and doing it without giving competitors a chance to bid on the contract. The company would recoup its $700,000 (and how much more?) from the students over the next seven years.

The trustees, or most of them, were furious, not so much over the quid-pro-quo deal but over the administration’s misleading them by making it appear that it was an unselfish gift from the vendor. They looked foolish yet again. Meadors said he just simply did not think to tell the trustees or the public about that aspect of the deal because it did not seem important. After all, he said, such arrangements are common all across the country. Colleges apparently give big contractors sweetheart no-bid deals like that all the time.

Thursday, Meadors said he realized that he had made a big mistake and he took full responsibility for not being square with the trustees. The board named a committee to investigate the incident and take sworn testimony from everyone involved to see who was telling the truth—who was deceived and who deceived.

That hardly seemed to matter. It was inescapable that the problem was more endemic and wouldn’t be cured by determining who lied and who was just excessively meek in this embarrassing episode. The school’s leadership—the trustees and the men they choose to run the school (is cronies too strong a word for them?) — has been consistently weak. Some institutions seem to beg governors to be basely political in anointing its leaders. The state Game and Fish Commission is the exemplar.

After a day to reflect and read the press, the trustees apparently sensed that, too, and negotiated with the president to leave pronto and end the embarrassment. Buying out his contract costs the university $525,000 that it can scarcely afford, but honor sometimes comes at a price.

Gov. Beebe has to consider whether Meadors’ departure solves the underlying problem or the trustees, who include his own as well as Huckabee’s patronage, bear some of the burden. He should ask for all their resignations and open a fresh slate for the University of Central Arkansas. That superb university, which has had sliding enrollment and prestige in these debacles, deserves a better shake.