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The decks run red

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Have pirates seized control of the state's flagship university? If not, they're dangerously close, the fighting hand to hand. The Arkansas Farm Bureau, the lobbying arm of agribusiness, always more devoted to tax breaks and cheap farm labor than to education, has been campaigning diligently if furtively across the state to get a former Farm Bureau president, Stanley Reed, named the new president of the University. The Farm Bureau believes there's cash to be milked from the university cow if the right man is doing the pulling. A farmer of sorts, Reed has no qualifications to lead an institution of higher learning. He does have a record of being on the wrong side of numerous public issues, including his support for private segregated schools and anti-gay laws, and his opposition to laws prohibiting cruelty to animals.

For awhile, the Board searched for a new president in private, a majority of the trustees repudiating the state Freedom of Information law and their own duty to taxpayers, students, and parents. The Board found support for its secrecy from a chief counsel, Fred Harrison, who believes that university trustees, like vampires, work most efficiently in the dark.

A change in the chairmanship of the Board has opened the process up somewhat, Harrison notwithstanding, and that glimmer of sunshine may hurt Reed's chances, though his supporters on and off the board continue to connive.

The Board's raggedy reputation was further damaged last week, when the Times revealed that the Board has no policy prohibiting its members from doing business with the institutions they oversee. What little language the Board has concerning conflict of interest is intended more to protect the conflicted trustee than the university. One board member, Mike Akin of Monticello, has just entered a real estate deal with the University of Arkansas at Monticello; other trustees may have their own ventures working. This kind of thing should be banned outright, by statute if not by the Board.

The UA Board ceded considerable authority to the Walton Foundation in exchange for a large gift a few years back. It's never been made clear exactly how much the Board handed over, but we know the transaction produced a well-financed UA department whose purpose is to undermine the public schools.

We didn't expect the Board to offer the president's job to the Dalai Llama while he was in town, but we'd rather not have a Blackbeard either. Cannot we add just an ounce of idealism to the search for a university president, some slight acknowledgement that university graduates should know of value as well as price, of truth as well as profit margins? Arkansas needs more than hustlers.


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