Columns » John Brummett

With the oath comes a blindfold

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I am reminded of a couple of helpful lessons that arise from this almost unbelievable episode of scandal redux at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway.

First, we need to stop handing out blindfolds to appointees to state boards and commissions immediately on their taking oaths of office.

Citizens going on state boards inevitably fall under the spell of whatever administrative staff happens to be in place. Board members know only what the hired help tells them.

They are loath to ask nagging questions lest they get branded troublemakers or grandstanders, or self-important clowns addicted to the sounds of their own voices, and ostracized.

It's a club, you see, not a public service. It's a reward because somebody knew the governor. It's in the job description to be incurious.

At UCA, board members patted Lu Hardin on the back as he helped himself to a bonus. They did so because he had unctuously ingratiated himself with them and convinced them he was the heroically indispensable transformer of their college.

He apparently accomplished this ingratiating ambidextrously by talking to board members over his cell phone with one hand as he fed a slot machine with the other.

So then these board members embraced a new president for whom the free house across the street simply wasn't mansion enough. They exulted with warmed hearts when he gave them the sweet news: Some food service contractor had been kind enough to come out of the blue and provide him — correction, the school — an early Christmas present of $700,000 cold cash for swankier quarters.

Isn't life wonderful when one of your contract service providers extends such generosity? Why, Aramark cares. They like us. They really like us.

A few days later the board members found out that Aramark had made a deal, not a gift. Board members began flailing around trying to get their blindfolds removed.

This reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is spectacular, tenacious and unrelenting. If you are not affiliated with UCA, be thankful you are not on her beat.

But if she is the only person in the UCA board meeting room who can find stuff out, then let's implore her to accept appointment to the board so she can question things directly — before a president runs off with 300-grand here and 700-grand there.

Dear public board members, all of you, from the Highway Commission to the Skunk Odor Reduction Study Commission: Your responsibility is to the taxpayer and to the efficient, competent service the agency or institution exists to provide.

At UCA, that would be quality educational instruction for ... well, what do you call all these young people walking around? Oh, yes, students.

Hired help comes and goes, as surely UCA has demonstrated. Well, that's true except for Tom Courtway. He's apparently permanent, ready to mop up on an interim basis whenever another exalted president gets caught mooning the taxpayers and students.

Now to the other lesson: All these public colleges and universities, enjoying semi-independent status constitutionally and awash in cash funds from service contracts and student fees and surcharges, are insular fiefdoms that bear closer watching.

Here's how the insular fiefdom can work: You generate cash from hostage students for their food, books, housing and general "activities." Then you sell bonds based on the revenue stream you've forcibly extracted from the students. Then you build something with these borrowed riches — a new football scoreboard, maybe — that you can show off as evidence of your noble vision for higher learning.

I cannot fathom why we value so the chief executive of a college. We give him a house. We give him secluded grounds. We give him a car. We extol him as our most important purveyor of vital higher education.

But the most important purveyor of higher education is whoever is standing in front of a class right now.

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