Though behind-the-scenes talk was sometimes heated, the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees presented a united front on the Gearhart Affair last week.
For a year now, the UA flagship campus at Fayetteville has made the wrong sorts of news: A huge deficit in its fund-raising department, still uncorrected. Firing of Brad Choate, once Chancellor David Gearhart’s good friend. Firing of John Diamond, the campus’ chief spokesman. Diamond’s accusation that Gearhart resisted press accountability. Testimony that Gearhart told staff to “get rid” of budget documents. Failure of top officials to mention known problems to auditors. Reluctant compliance with better accounting controls. Prosecutorial reviews of university officials, including Gearhart.
Some loose ends remain. But the big question was whether Gearhart still had the confidence of his superiors. UA System President Donald Bobbitt seemed on board. The Fayetteville campus wags the UA dog, after all, and Gearhart is beloved among the rich people whose favor he’s curried for contributions. But what about the 10-member Board of Trustees? Reliable sources indicated problems with at least some members. Those who believed they saw a pattern of confusion, obfuscation and arrogance in campus governance had some evidence for their opinions.
We don’t know what was said in a three-hour executive session of the UA Board last Friday. But we do know that when it was over, Board Chair Jane Rogers read a personal statement of support for Gearhart. It said he’d taken responsibility for “problems” surrounding the deficit, had taken steps to improve accountability and ensure “fiscal health” and otherwise had led the campus on an “upward course.” Trustee John Goodson recommended that Rogers’ statement be put in the form of a resolution and it was approved unanimously. This was a little confusing, in that Rogers’ statement was written in the first person. Did all mean to share in her statement of “full support of the chancellor”? Gearhart interpreted it that way, naturally. Absent public dissent, that seems fair enough.
The Board also adopted new system policies on Freedom of Information compliance and ethical standards. Purely coincidental, you understand, a system wide measure not aimed at Fayetteville.
The FOI policy designates a coordinator for handling information requests. Fayetteville had one of those before. The problem was, according to Diamond, that Gearhart overruled advice from him and attorneys. The new policy won’t change that. Diamond thinks the UA System legal counsel should have the final say when a chancellor and other campus officials disagree on what should be released.
An FOI policy and an ethics policy are both only as good as the people who live under them. The Do-Right Rule already should have been in place at UA. It was routinely ignored. Gearhart began resisting disclosure — and you may do this legally — because he grew weary of press inquiries. Other acts — loose compliance with budgets and bookkeeping procedures and failure to report problems to auditors — also find no justification under a Do-Right Rule. Whether embarrassment, malice or incompetence explains the problems uncovered by press and auditors, it fell something short of an “upward course” in management.
The big question now is whether the administration has been chastened and righted those parts of campus management in need of correction. Or will the resolution orchestrated by Chair Rogers be taken as evidence that the administration is bulletproof?
We’ll have opportunities to judge. On a giant campus, where some very smart people are paid a whole lot less than an enormous group of six-figure administrative bureaucrats whose pay was enriched while the minions struggled, things eventually tend to leak out. FOI or no FOI.