UA stamps football top secret 

The University of Arkansas just can't quit its bad habits.

On the very week University of Arkansas officials faced a damaging audit before a legislative committee, it demonstrated again its disdain for public accountability.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette asked a simple question. How much did the University of Arkansas pay Southern Mississippi to play the Hogs last Saturday in Fayetteville?

The university refused to say. Officials said the Hogs would be placed at a "competitive disadvantage" if compelled to disclose football game contracts.

The information was readily available. The Hogs paid $975,000. AMemphis newspaper asked Southern Mississippi for the amount and it was promptly supplied, just as Arkansas State University routinely does.

The subject came up at the legislative hearing at which the fired University of Arkansas spokesman John Diamond said he'd been instructed by Chancellor David Gearhart to shred documents related to deficit spending in the UA advancement division. Gearhart denied that and said Diamond was just disgruntled. No doubt, but it doesn't mean he wasn't telling the truth. We already know Gearhart wasn'truthful when he told Arkansas Business when it broke the deficit story that the division always had a balanced budget when he was in charge. The legislative audit said he was six figures wrong.

At the same hearing, auditors and legislators also noted that top university financial officials knew of problems in the division but failed to mention them to legislative auditors.

State Rep. Andy Mayberry was quoted in the Democrat-Gazette:

"I guess I fail to see what would be so proprietary in nature that the university would be so protective of that. But it seems to be part of a more overall approach or perhaps a lack of transparency, or maybe it's just a perception of such."

Gearhart responded:

"We believe it is a competitive disadvantage to us if we released that information. We are trying to keep our expenses at the Razorback Foundation and intercollegiate athletics as low as we can, and our feeling is that this is information that would hurt us in contract negotiations with other teams."

Low cost? The UA has a $3 million football coach and just bought a $4 million airplane and is hitting up donors to build a $100 million football stadium expansion.

But the real nonsense is this: The state Freedom of Information Act wasn't written to protect the state, it was written to protect proprietary information of private companies when they seek assistance from the Economic Development Commission. Under the UA theory, it could keep secret details of any contract — including Gearhart's.

The University of Arkansas has argued this exception before — notably in keeping secret its negotiations with the Walton family for a $300 million contribution.

The UA would have you believe that it always makes decisions in the public interest. You need look no farther than the university's hiring of a former football coach's mistress to know that mistakes are sometimes made. The Southern Miss contract? Did we pay too much? Could we have gotten a better opponent for less?

The University has long hidden much of its business, using the private Razorback and University foundations to do its secret work. It doesn't tolerate those who object. Ask John Diamond.

But when a football game payday becomes an official secret, we've crossed a bridge too far. Legislators didn't seem much inclined to cut the UA slack last week. Newly powerful Republicans, not part of the long-cosseted power structure, were in the vanguard of the questioners.

It will be interesting to see if Republicans — as they institutionalize their power — will become as susceptible to the university's charms (cut-rate football tickets, free parking, other entertainment) as others who came before them.

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