Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Lu could do no wrong

Will there ever again be a week or even a couple of days without more bad news about the University of Central Arkansas, where the redoubtable Lu Hardin once reigned as president and promoter? The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, which has marked the sparrow’s fall at the college since the disclosures last summer that Hardin had arranged an illegal bonus for himself, carried a report last week of a legislative audit of the university that detailed a litany of illegal or imprudent financial activities undertaken on Hardin’s watch or in the cleanup after his resignation.

We have some sympathy for the university, which now cannot escape the glare of the media for everything that happens, from the smallest misjudgment to the serious scandals surrounding Hardin’s fiduciary conduct. Having once been lavishly overpraised, Lu Hardin and the hapless university that became associated with him now experience the slings and arrows of overwrought attention and criticism. One usually follows the other. For three years Hardin and his relentless promotions of the school were the subject of glowing stories and lavish editorials in the Democrat Gazette, for some of the same things that have since gotten the school and Hardin in trouble.

Six months before the storm, on Nov. 17, 2007, the newspaper gushed about Hardin’s use of state funds for scholarships, which exceeded the law. The law needs to be changed, the Democrat Gazette said, and it implied that other universities ought to emulate him. Lu grabs a lot of publicity, the paper said, “But he’s doing it for his school, and, more to the point, he knows what he’s doing.”

A year earlier, the editor praised him for spending millions of taxpayer dollars on commercials for the school, which a Republican lawmaker had criticized as a misuse of state funds. Hardin came by the newspaper’s office to explain his side. Effused the paper’s editorial page the next day:

“Lu is a rarity: an ex-politician-turned academic you actually like to see coming. He’s plain Arkansas nice and has a Southerner’s native sense of when to stop talking and head for the exit. Boy, is under-staying one’s welcome ever a disappearing act.”

Lu Hardin could do no wrong.

He began to believe it.

Any corner that he cut was for the cause: a bigger university, better athletic programs, the school’s reputation as a center of learning. All the great publicity proved that he deserved much better pay, and that was his undoing. He wrote a memo to the board of trustees over the names of three inferior administrators justifying a big bonus for himself. That discovery ended the man’s elaborate charade, and the newspapers that had praised him so lavishly, notably the Democrat Gazette, turned on him and the school with a vengeance. The stories and the editorials have been relentless: the school’s fudging a little on the use of state funds for athletes, the lavishing of scholarships on students who had connections with the president but no other discernible claim on them, and on and on.

The legislative audit, which is conducted every two years, may have been his undoing anyway, but the auditors this time knew where to look. They questioned the legality of the $300,000 bonus paid to the president, later returned, and the nearly $1 million that the board settled on him as a buyout when it was clear that he had to resign. Some of that was returned and the university found private sources for the payment besides state funds.

Mostly, it was Hardin and his people cutting corners to do what they wanted to do even if it violated state law or the university’s own policies. Hardin took the school into the highest NCAA athletic division, a costly proposition, and funds were too scarce to do it. They found ways.

They wanted to pay the head football coach more than the state appropriation allowed so they washed state tax funds through an advertising agency back into the university’s quasi-private foundation, which cut the checks totaling $82,500 to the coach. Officially, the university was paying an advertising agency for services rendered.

But it was all, you see, for the good of the university, and the laws were in the way. It’s what a “plain Arkansas nice” guy would do — if you keep telling him he’s doing marvelous things.

Ernie Dumas writes editorials for The Leader