The University of Arkansas Board of Trustees interviewed two candidates today for president of the UA System — John Churchill, who heads the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and, later, Donald Bobbitt, provost of the University of Texas at Arlington. Frank Oldham, a Jonesboro banker, and Stanley Reed, a Marianna farmer, are to be interviewed tomorrow. The Board will meet in executive session after the final interview to consider all the candidates. Background on them all here.
Behind the scenes the politicking has been fierce, particularly in behalf of Reed, former head of the Arkansas Farm Bureau. His participation in the private school, Lee Academy, founded in 1969 as a response to public school integration, is a subject about which he presumably will be asked. His leadership of the Farm Bureau when it backed ballot measures aimed at restricting rights of gay people is another relevant topic in light of university policies that bar discrimination on account of sexual orientation. The UA also has had ongoing discussions about allowing coverage of domestic partners of university employees on group health insurance.
The candidates are meeting in turn with chancellors of the UA system.
UPDATE: In talking with reporters after his interview, Churchill, the only candidate who didn’t attend a UA campus, emphasized his many family ties to the UA (including his wife) and his own affection for the school. He mentioned state support for higher education as a top challenge and said he could be an effective advocate with the legislature. He confirmed a reader’s comment here that he was a blue ribbon winner for his pickled okra, at the 1980 Faulkner County Fair, while on the faculty at Hendrix College.
UPDATE II: Perhaps because Churchill is a philosopher by training and Bobbitt a chemist, Bobbitt’s answers seemed more specific in comparison to Churchill’s thematic responses to reporter questions. Bobbitt was at once bold — in responding to a question about the role of the president he said it was no time for the status quo — and cautious. In response to a question about health insurance for domestic partners of faculty members, Bobbitt said this was a charged issue and that university presidents needed to be careful not to get out in front of boards or boards out in front of the people, whatever individual feelings might be. Note to Paul Greenberg: Though he was careful, Bobbitt said the reduced core curriculum could be a good thing — and in practice had been — when it created new opportunities for students, such as by giving them the latitude to achieve real mastery in a foreign language.
POLITICAL UPDATE: As I’ve mentioned before, Reed went into these interviews believed to have three solid votes from the Delta trustees, but some strong opposition. His backers have always felt he’d be a second ballot victor, after other candidates failed to muster the necessary majority on the 10-member board. The likelihood of that increased today with some apparent support forming around Churchill and Bobbitt that could send backers of one or the other into Reed’s camp. A third option with a fractured board — and feelings are deep enough that it’s not certain a candidate, particularly Reed, could get a final unanimous vote — would be to not pick a candidate tomorrow and start over. Alan Sugg undoubtedly would be willing to postpone his retirement a bit longer.
Think about it though. From the Board of a segregation academy to head of a university system. That would be quite a journey. Maybe a story of interest to national media.