Columns » John Brummett

Divorce at UCA

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CONWAY —  Some kind of demonstration takes place outside the student center. A young man stands next to a large placard as he shouts. A few students, maybe 20, gather around casually.

Could these be the defining sights and sounds of a college campus on a day offering a sneak preview of spring, with young minds budding, ideas fertile and expression unabashed?

Is this a protest against tuition waivers for children of members of the board of trustees of this school, the University of Central Arkansas? Or might it be opposition to special discretionary scholarships given secretly by the college's departed president?

It turns out to be none of that. Students and adults seldom get worked up about the same campus issues. There are two UCAs, the one on the front page inhabited by politicians and the one on these grounds inhabited by young people.

This fellow of ample lungs and pervasive monotone is droning about the Book of Revelation. He declares that we're going to burn in hell forever, without respite, deprived even of a drop of water, if we don't get right with God.

He appears to frighten no one and to amuse a few.

Down the way is Wingo Hall, where Lu Hardin took a WPA building and tacked a swanky new administrative annex on the back, as if to symbolize both the progress and crassness of his tenure as UCA's president.

This is where the board of trustees gathers for a special meeting.

On a table in a side room, providing the trustees with snacks and refreshments, there are sandwiches and a steaming pot of plump, delicious-looking shrimp. If only for sensitivity's sake amid the school's financial and political beleaguerment, maybe sandwiches would have been nourishment enough.

It turns out that Hardin was nearly destroying the place even as he was leading it to great new heights. There are vestiges of a personal fiefdom and cozy favoritism. There are remnants of fiscal profligacy.

A tenacious reporter for the newspaper in Little Rock has used the Freedom of Information Act to pound this place into submission. She kept the administration busy complying. She kept it embarrassed by what their compliance revealed.

Basic newspaper reporting, said to be nearing extinction, still has no remote or worthy substitute. Without newspaper reporters, columnists and editors brandishing their meddlesome inquiries and audacious commentary, this would still be what they were calling “Lu-C-A.”

So today the board will seek to divorce itself and the college more thoroughly from Hardin.

Two resolutions offered by the harried and able interim president, Tom Courtway, get adopted perfunctorily, without discussion beyond a cursory explanation.

Discretionary presidential scholarships will end after this term and be restarted, if at all, only after study and through more accountable administrative channels and procedures. Tuition waivers for employees' offspring will no longer extend to trustees' kids.

Last but not least, and on Hardin's own overture, the university will cut $84,000 from the resigned president's lump-sum buyout scheduled for June. That represents the amount of public money he'll draw the rest of this school year.

UCA will be pretty much finished with Lu after paying $580,000 or so, all from private funds through the UCA Foundation. The board hopes the foundation can get that done this month.

It may be that Lu needed or wanted the money now instead of June and concocted this concession of $84,000 as a trade-off.

It's all good, though, and a simple divorce negotiation. He gets quicker money, but less.

This should make a clean break. It's called moving on, except for one thing: UCA will continue extending its group insurance to Hardin, who has a recurring cancerous tumor behind his eye.

Anyone wanting to make an issue of that should go ahead.

The only evident political trouble spots remaining at UCA are two: The university's reliance on federal privacy laws to resist releasing names of the recipients of those discretionary presidential scholarships, more specifically the inevitable suspicion raised by this understandable and appropriate legal caution; and, of course, the looming recession and how to impose cuts that may become advisable or necessary.

The guy preaching hell-fire and brimstone? He's gone.

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