“There’s right and there’s wrong and there’s UCA.”
I don’t even know what that means. I doubt that the Conway insider who uttered it to me Friday afternoon does either.
I use it, though, because it conveys the relevant utter frustration.
A few years ago the University of Central Arkansas was the hottest college in the state. It was located in a booming suburban college town. It had a politically astute president. Enrollment was skyrocketing. Television advertising was Landersesque.
Then that politically astute president, Lu Hardin, got caught cutting ethical corners to gin up some bonus money for himself to pay gambling debts. He will be going to prison any day now, surely.
The UCA Board of Trustees, looking around for the anti-Lu, found its man in Dr. Allen Meadors, a campus graduate with experience as a small-college president and a meek manner.
Not long ago I made a crack about Hardin’s ethical wasteland in the presence of a leading UCA staff member. It angered her. She explained that she loved the school and that it was steadily righting itself and, essentially, that a smart-aleck press commentator ought to watch his mouth.
But now this: Meadors was revealed this week to have misrepresented to the UCA board that the campus food vendor, a company called Aramark, was donating $700,000 to fix up the president’s official home across the street from the campus.
The board, initially as blindly obeisant to administrative happy talk as with Hardin before, said sure, yes, without delay, we accept this gift for this most urgent academic need and we authorize preliminary architectural designs and cost estimates.
Then came that pesky reporter for the statewide daily, famous for bedeviling Hardin, and still wielding the Freedom of Information law like a switchblade.
She asked board members if they had known a little detail: Aramark actually would donate the money from one hand only if it was guaranteed that it would reel more money from UCA into the other hand by getting its food service contract renewed without competitive bidding for a period at least long enough for a guaranteed realization of enough profit to get back the gift.
Why, no, we didn’t know that, said some of these board members, and, by golly, we are just a little bit ticked. They called themselves to a special meeting.
This was not charity, but amortizing. It was a food service vendor seeking to escape a new round of competitive bidding by going into the home improvement lending business on the side. It was an advance on marked-up grub the kids would eat later in their hostage environment.
I’m advised that this kind of arrangement is not uncommon. But it ought to be. And if it is common, why conspicuously neglect to mention it?
Meadors, going all-in for damage control, told the board in this second special meeting that he had erred and that he would recommend that the school not accept the money as offered. He recommended that the school open the food service contract for bidding.
The board withdrew its previous approval for a housing allowance by which Meadors and his wife could rent suitable quarters elsewhere until the presidential home was renovated.
Meadors’ wife, a stronger personality, has been spending quite a bit of time with family in North Carolina.
Just 24 hours later, on Friday afternoon, the board met in special session again, this time by phone. Then the board reconvened in public and bought out Meadors’ contract.
The board could have restored Meadors’ authority to live temporarily off campus. But that might simply have kept matters festering — a la Hardin — and nobody wanted to go through that again.
Meadors may be a bit of a victim, just as UCA.
He clearly erred by not revealing the full nature of the arrangement with the food vendor. But it is entirely possible that he considered such deals commonplace.
He may have felt some pressure close to home about inadequate living arrangements, the short-term solution to which got sacrificed in this fast-roiling controversy.
So now UCA will start trying again to right the ship.