Columns » Max Brantley

The UA's bumbling search

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I talked with former U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder last week about his experience as an applicant for the presidency of the University of Arkansas system.

Snyder, now working for Arkansas Blue Cross, says he has no hard feelings about being bypassed, but criticism for the process.

The secretive process lasted from fall through late March. A hired executive search consultant and UA Board Chairman John Ed Anthony tried to find a successor to B. Alan Sugg. Anthony talked one by one with other trustees. I and others, but not the UA legal counsel, think this was an illegal way around the state sunshine law.

Ultimately, Anthony's term on the board ended without a candidate, despite some nibbles. A new board chair, Dr. Carl Johnson, embarked on a more open search. And what of Snyder's experience?

In November, at the urging of Trustee David Pryor, Snyder indicated his interest. He met with Anthony in Malvern. He met in Dallas with consultant Bill Funk. Snyder was told he was "eminently qualified" and was one of two finalists.

But, in January, Snyder got a call from consultant Funk. He was told that after Anthony held a series of one-on-one meetings at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans with eight of the 10 trustees, "there was a vote of 8-0 that they were going to go a different direction."

Funk used the phrase 8-0 several times, Snyder said. (Funk did not return my call.) Snyder said Anthony also reiterated later that, by an 8-0 vote, the board had decided to go another direction.

An 8-0 vote? There's no way to have a legal 8-0 vote except in public.

Snyder let Anthony know of his misgivings. "I said you know there's something wrong with a process when I'm told by a hired gun running the search that it's down to me and one other person. ... And then I'm told by a vote of 8-0 they are not interested at all. The process has got to treat people better than that."

That's not all. Two weeks later, Funk called Snyder again. He asked if Snyder might be interested after all. No. "I think that was peculiar," Snyder said.

Anthony insists he didn't tell Snyder there'd been an 8-0 vote. "There was never any vote," Anthony said. But he said there was agreement that everyone on the board wanted to "look at all options." He said it was possible, however, Funk had indicated to Snyder he wouldn't be chosen.

Snyder said he'd emphasized to UA reps that he had no objection to release of his name. "We need to set a tone at the highest level of leadership that the Freedom of Information Act is important. It is not good enough to just technically meet the standard. Or to say private money was used."

He said the process was insulting to people who sent unsolicited applications that were publicly disclosed. "It's almost like if you apply, you're not a serious candidate. That sets a bad precedent for public jobs in Arkansas."

Anthony clearly doubts an open, competitive process can produce the best candidates for system president, though he thinks it could work for, say, a chancellor.

Dr. Johnson, the new board chairman, says the job is good enough that someone should be proud to apply.

But, at this moment, the UA board still lacks a candidate — except as embodied by the Farm Bureau campaign for its former leader Stanley Read. Reed has modestly conceded he'd accept the job (which he's been trying to capture for months with inside politicking).

If Reed is the only man standing, that might be good enough. But not much of a process.

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