Leader Blues

Friday, August 08, 2008

EDITORIAL >>The quality of mercy

Charity and forgiveness, those eternal qualities that form the underpinnings of our religion and our personal relations, get tested as well every day in the public precincts. In what measure does the government distribute them to those who run amok in small and big ways: the north Arkansas physician who chose to sterilize a disabled woman without her knowledge to save her some day from a life-threatening pregnancy, the unlettered farmhand who got mad over his firing and killed his boss 16 years ago, the poor and illiterate truck driver who kept coming back to drive Osama bin Laden on his appointed rounds after learning of some of his heinous deeds?

And Lu Hardin, the almost universally loved president of the University of Central Arkansas, who also faced his board on the same day as the others this week after a string of forced admissions humiliated the board and the institution he served. The first three seem to have got off rather lightly, although the farmhand may still be put to death if Gov. Beebe rejects the Parole Board’s recommendation of clemency and Salim Hamdan may not consider more than five years in solitary in the Guantánamo brig to be light punishment for chauffeuring a madman.

All of them said they were deeply sorry for what they did, and none was more contrite than President Hardin, who repeated his anguish after every revelation. The tribunals that heard the pleas of the other transgressors considered there to be extenuating circumstances or else that redemption was real and not faked.

Hardin will get off lightly as well, it is clear enough. He is a generous and forgiving man himself and, after all, nothing he did — all the efforts to arrange huge bonuses for himself in violation of the law — contributed to anyone’s death or even physical pain. The university’s board of trustees met to consider whether to extend Hardin’s contract when it expires next month in light of all that has come to light since the May board meeting when the board secretly gave him an illegal $300,000 bonus.

The chairman arranged for a string of admirers, including some of the city’s leading citizens, to come and testify about Hardin’s fine qualities. We have shared some of that admiration.

Barbara Anderson, one of the school’s vice presidents and one of those whose names Hardin attached to a memo recommending illegal steps to secretly raise his pay every year, uttered the consummate appeal: We have all sinned.

“He stumbled in front of the state,” Anderson said. “Most of us get to stumble in private.”

That is true, but we should not forget that Hardin tried valiantly to keep it all very, very private. And when the board and the school’s faculty and students extend official forgiveness next month, as they almost certainly will, they also should not forget or try to diminish exactly what he did. After giving the board false information about administrative compensation and the law, he lied — wait, make that misled everyone — about having received the raise. The action violated at least three laws and arguably another. When one unhappy board member released a sheaf of documents, Hardin had to admit that a confidential memo to the board allegedly authored by three subordinate administrators, including Anderson, actually was his own work. He attributed the recommendations, including unlawful steps to raise his pay, to them without their knowledge.

Hardin regretted that deception, too. Hardin will get to keep the job that he has often performed so well with no penalty except his personal sorrow. The example of charity in his case will be remembered, but it will be hard to follow. Some kid will falsify his history theme and discover swifter justice.