Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Murphy Oil giving back

Talk about corporate citizenship. Murphy Corp., the global oil company headquartered at El Dorado, defined it this week when the company announced that for the next 20 years it would pay college tuition and fees for every son and daughter of the city, rich or poor, black or white, scholar or struggler.

People in the old oil town — now bust town in some respects because the nearby sands are about depleted of oil — cheered and wept when the company made the announcement. We confess to fighting a tear or two ourselves, although we know none of the thousands of beneficiaries of Murphy’s philanthropy. So many Arkansas towns need hope. How do you infuse a whole community with hope?

This is how. Surely the next morning every child in every class was told, your future is assured and starting today it’s up to you. We do not call Murphy’s gesture charity for it is not that. It is both payback and investment. Murphy, although it is not a giant among the energy companies, is a very profitable company, 193rd among the Fortune 500, and it got its start in the woods and fields around El Dorado and northern Louisiana and thanks to the toil of generations of roughnecks, pipefitters, clerks and accountants. Their grandchildren will now get a free college education.

There is a story behind these scholarships that we can only surmise because the announcement did not tell it. Charlie Murphy, the elder, started a lumber company in the first years of the 20th century and drilled a well across the border in Louisiana in 1907. Murphy began oil exploration in earnest in the late 1930s after H. L. Hunt had bagged his first fortune in the south Arkansas oil fields. Soon afterward, Murphy was felled by a stroke and turned the company over to his son, Charles H. Murphy Jr., then only 21. The younger could not go to college, so he educated himself in foreign languages and the classics. Meantime, he built the company and took it public in 1957. He took the company’s rigs to the North Sea, Venezuela, Iran, Libya, New South Wales and the Louisiana and Mississippi offshore.

Though largely self-educated, Murphy regretted his inability to get a college education when the burdens settled on him at such an early age, and he came to prize it above nearly all else. He served a decade on the state Board of Higher Education, where he championed a liberal education, tolerance and broad opportunities for kids to get a college education. Murphy died five years ago. This, we imagine, is how he would have wanted his legacy to be defined.

“The El Dorado Promise” is patterned on a program in Kalamazoo, Mich., where a few anonymous donors set up a scholarship program for Kalamazoo kids to attend public universities in Michigan. Murphy is going to pay for kids to go anywhere in the world for a degree up to the limit of the cost of tuition and fees at the most expensive Arkansas public university, now about $12,000 a year.

Bob Watson, the superintendent at El Dorado, described the Murphy promise as “absolutely the best thing that could happen to public education.” It would be hard to think of anything that should matter more. We predict that standardized test scores in El Dorado public schools will begin to rise. Watson expected the college-going rate to rise 20 percent or more. Murphy’s perpetual good deed is an example for the other titans who express a concern for public education but who invest their money in false schemes that harm the public schools and minimize learning: charter schools, private-school vouchers and incentives that force teachers to drill children all year long on standardized tests so that the teachers might claim a small bonus at year’s end.

Would that every town in Arkansas, especially in the poverty-ridden Delta, had a Murphy Corp. or a few worthy corporate citizens who had a similar vision about what to achieve with their extra fortunes. The legislature could go home and the Supreme Court could declare Arkansas schools constitutional.