Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Cleaning up mess at UCA

A little public humiliation can go a long way toward cleaning up bad government policy. The bidding war among universities for high-achieving high school graduates, financed largely by the tuition of ordinary youngsters, has been no secret for many years. Neither has been the backdoor largesse lavished on college presidents. But it took the fall of Lu Hardin, the freewheeling president of the University of Central Arkansas, and the embarrassing disclosures of his reckless grasping and spending to bring about a little reform.

It did not hurt that state Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway, a friend, political ally and beneficiary of favors from the disgraced Hardin, was damaged in the process.

This week, the state House of Representatives approved a pair of bills by Baker to clean things up, if only a little. Though triggered by the mess at UCA, the bills would apply to all the state-supported universities and colleges. The presidents know whom they have to thank for the new clamps on their discretion, Lu Hardin. Hardin took a big payout on his contract and resigned as president of UCA last year after secretly cadging a $300,000 bonus from his board (he later gave it back) and admitting that he faked a memo from other administrators endorsing his bonus. Then the real lengths of his maladministration began to surface.

The University of Central Arkansas has been spending close to 35 percent of its tuition proceeds and unrestricted state funds on discretionary scholarships ó not to students in need but to the children of connected people, including the offspring of UCA trustees, as well as to high-achieving high school students whom Hardin wanted to lure away from other colleges. Some of the other universities were doing it, too ó the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Arkansas Tech at Russellville in particular ó but no school came close to matching UCA. It turned out that anyone who could get a line to Hardin directly or indirectly could get his kid a scholarship. Hardin is a lifelong politician ó a former state senator, he hoped to go to the U. S. Senate ó and favors are a politicianís currency.

Bakerís scholarship bill would bar universities from spending more than 25 percent of their tuition receipts and unrestricted funds on scholarships in 2012 and it would lower the ceiling to 20 percent the next year. Hardin had made a lot of commitments and they didnít want to welsh on them.

Twenty percent is still far too high, well above what other institutions are doing. Rep. Bill Abernathy, D-Mena, identified the error in the practice. Most of the scholarships were going to youngsters whose parents could easily afford the tuition, and the money was coming from the tuition of kids who struggled to pay for college, often with college loans. It is reverse Robin Hood, Abernathy observed.

Bakerís other bill would require the state Department of Higher Education to post on its Web site the full compensation packages, not simply the appropriated salaries, of all college administrators earning $100,000 a year or more. After the scandal erupted last year, it was disclosed that while Hardinís state-appropriated salary was about $200,000, his total compensation was $510,667, a little behind that of the president of the University of Arkansas five-campus system.

A little truth and transparency in the cloisters of academe wonít harm its mission at all. It is about time.