Leader Blues

Friday, August 29, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Lu Hardin’s final farewell

Lu Hardin took the only course left to him Thursday and resigned as president of the University of Central Arkansas effective in a couple of weeks. He said he did it to tend to his health after a second serious eye surgery. That would be an understandable reason for parting and one for which the school should tender its good wishes and, if that were all, perhaps even a monetary token. But Hardin’s letter to the board of trustees made no direct reference to the cascade of deceptions that made it impossible — well, implausible anyway — that he could remain, and his short public statement made only a passing allusion to the events that brought demands from here and elsewhere that both he and the university’s board of trustees resign.

The tragic elements of Hardin’s resignation are inescapable. He has a dangerous health problem, a carcinoma behind an eye that has now required two surgeries in four years, and everyone wishes him good health. The stress of any high-pressure job under the best of conditions must add to the peril so Hardin’s plea to be allowed to give his body the best chance to heal by leaving the job must be accepted at face value. The other tragedy is the disgrace that Hardin has brought upon himself after a long career marked mainly by loyal service to the public good. Who cannot be saddened to see a man leave public life, if indeed he has, upon such a joyless note?

But Hardin’s personal travails do not diminish what he did and they do not assuage public anger over the board’s own role.

Only in his final deception, or at least the final revelation, was the board innocent. He counterfeited a memorandum to the board from three administrators making the case for giving him a $150,000-a-year raise — it was to be called “deferred compensation” — and hiding it from the rest of the university and the public. A faculty that was getting no raise and having their benefits cut might have got over the earlier discovery that the board had already given the president a secret $300,000 bonus in May, in violation of at least three laws, but learning that the vicar of their academic institution had submitted bogus research over the names of three unsuspecting subordinates was too much. The faculty senate was apt to ask for his resignation next month.

Lu Hardin can now contemplate his missteps philosophically because the board, by a vote of 5 to 1, will pay him $750,000 or more, in effect giving him a vacation at nearly full salary for the next four years. The board’s explanation was that it was a “sabbatical” but one member later said that was an unfortunate description. Whatever the trustees choose to call it, the university’s constituents and the taxpayers may contemplate for themselves whether that is wise stewardship of the public’s money.

The spectacle of petty grasping by a public official who had been toasted for his good works only punctuates a summer of disenchantment. It could hardly be surprising, given all Lu Hardin’s exemplars in the commercial world, nationally and right here in our poor little state. The executives of a native company auctioned it for the second profitable time, this time to a bigger company, which announced proudly to its own investors that the purchase would create “synergies,” which translated means eliminating a thousand or so jobs in Pulaski County. For his trouble, the departing CEO pocketed a cool quarter of a billion dollars and other officers a trifle less.

Who could blame Lu Hardin for expecting his own just rewards, too, and doing what you have to do to make it happen, even if the law and the public interest get in the way?