Billy Fleming, a former University of Arkansas student government president who’s now a doctoral candidate in the Penn School of Design, had an op-ed published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning faulting new UA Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz for throwing in with the $160 million ($226 million counting bond interest) Razorback Stadium expansion plan.
Fleming, who’s written his thoughts on the Arkansas Blog before, shared the piece in advance with me. It doesn’t knock Athletic Director Jeff Long for doing what athletic directors do — build empires. He’s good at it. Nor does he fault the UA Board of Trustees for supporting the desires of their chosen campus leaders. But Steinmetz?
After his kitschy listening tour around the state, it appears that Chancellor Steinmetz reached a strange conclusion: that the most pressing concern for the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the UA is the construction of a more posh football stadium. If he truly believes this, then I fear for the future of higher education in Arkansas.
Though it’s true that the Athletic Department functions as an auxiliary of the UA writ large – meaning that its finances are managed separately from those of the campus – decoupling their financial relationship is not so simple. Who will be responsible for the debt obligations of this stadium construction should the Athletic Department be unable to service it? Who enables the Athletic Department to operate as a tax-exempt entity despite engaging in commercial activities? The answer, of course, is the University of Arkansas and, by extension, the residents and taxpayers of Arkansas.
Even if it were true that the two operations were completely distinct – that their futures could be completely decoupled from one another – it is undeniable that they draw from the same reservoir of political capital. Energy and time spent on this stadium expansion cannot be spent on other, more pressing things.
It is also true that the best measure of one’s priorities is their budget. It worries me that our new chancellor’s top priority seems to be borrowing money to construct a luxury product that few Arkansans – and even fewer faculty, staff, and students – will ever get to enjoy.
Fleming would choose other priorities — for example professional schools not currently available in-state such as a vet school. But this suggestion stood out:
He could also decide that the only way to create real access to higher education for all the residents of Arkansas is to adopt a zero-loan policy at the UA. Under this system, students would only be responsible for paying what they or their parents could afford. This means that students from wealthy families would be billed for full tuition while those from working-class or low-income families would pay little or no tuition. Much of the Ivy League operates under such a policy and it is precisely why it’s often cheaper for a bright student from the Delta to attend Harvard, Penn, or Yale than it is to attend the UA. Why not tell the children of Arkansas that their educational and financial futures need not be inextricably linked to their parents’ wealth? Surely this would be a worthy use of the chancellor’s scarce political capital.
Arkansas sends many contrary signals on the types of students we want to attract. We give cut-rate tuition at UA for students from Texas and many other states — often students who can’t make the cut in the highly competitive top Texas universities, but who find Arkansas a bargain even at rates near those given Arkansas students. They CAN afford this rate and they are well-qualified. Their test scores alone are a good indicator of the end of the economic spectrum from which many of them rise.
The legislature has made things worse for economically struggling students. It has raised the academic qualifications for the lottery scholarships. Given the proven demographics of standardized test scores, this will inevitably further concentrate the scholarship benefits in a higher-income, lower-minority sector of the college-age population.
And let’s not forget the most punishing aspect of Arkansas higher ed policy — the state’s discrimination against students born outside the United States of undocumented parents. They can be 17-year residents of Arkansas and Arkansas high school valedictorians and not even qualify for in-state tuition, never mind financial help.
The good news is that the favoritism extended to the upper end of the economic spectrum might contribute to a greater number of alums able to afford the new luxury seating in Razorback Stadium.
PS ON FREE PR ADVICE: Right now would be a good time for Jeff Long or the Razorback Foundation to write a piddling $500,000 check out of their $130 million or so in annual revenue to shore up the crumbling Senior Walk.
PPS: Scott Varady, executive director of the Razorback Foundation, provided some information to followup questions I’d posed about the “Founders Suites” portion of the project — some new special seating to be provided for major contributors.
He said the Foundation has received five commitments for suites so far — a commitment that requires a $3 to $3.5 million contribution (tax-deductible under the current federal code). The number to be available hasn’t been determined. It will be based on demand and design requirements, among others.
Varady also wanted to correct the record of reporting on the stadium project, based on a statement from former UA trustees opposed to the project which referred to new underground parking for the athletic department as part of expansion of offices in the north end of the stadium.
The plans for the stadium project have never called for the construction of an underground parking garage or a private elevator for Athletic Department staff. While I know this inaccurate assertion did not originate with you, I know you strive to report accurate information, and I wanted to dispel such an unfounded myth.
ALSO TODAY: Columist Nate Allen rips UA Trustee John Goodson for saying, in arguing for the stadium expansion, that a vote against the stadium expansion was “a vote of no confidence in our chancellor, our president and our athletic director.” Allen observed:
… if voting a “no” on a specific issue is deemed an all-encompassing vote of no confidence because it’s against the grain of the president, chancellor and athletic director, then why bother having a board of trustees?
Allen could have added that Goodson’s imperious comment was also head-slappingly hypocritical. Goodson, if you’ve forgotten, is one of two trustees — along with Asa Hutchinson appointee Kelly Eichler — to vote against every chancellor in the UA System and the UA System president in voting to allow staff to carry concealed weapons on campus.