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UAF scorns higher-ed reform 

Greater central control is 'very, very bad idea,' Gearhart says.

Paid consultants and the Beebe administration see a need for reform in the state system of higher education. The state colleges and universities will require strong persuasion. Bruises may ensue.

The state Department of Higher Education helped pay for a recently completed study on higher education in Arkansas. The consultants said, among other things, that Arkansas needs more "system-level leadership," leadership that is, "at the level of the Department of Higher Education and other state departments." That doesn't sound so bad, and it's been said before, but more system-level leadership inevitably means less autonomy for the colleges and universities and their boards of trustees. They never like to hear that, none less so than the University of Arkansas, the state's largest, oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning, the one with the most to lose.

G. David Gearhart, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, says the study looks like a put-up job, conclusions favored by DHE arrived at in advance. He also said the consultants used incorrect data, making UAF look worse in comparison with similar research institutions in other states in producing graduates. And he told the Arkansas Times that both the consultants and the director of DHE, Jim Purcell, had made statements in connection with the study that were unconscionably untrue.

The consultants, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems of Boulder, Colo., have not replied to a sharply critical letter from Gearhart. Purcell, who received a copy of the letter, said he was "very happy" with the NCHEMS report and that Gearhart was the only person who'd complained loudly about it, though it concerned all of the state institutions of higher learning. Purcell said he saw no errors that had "real impact" on the study's conclusions.

Both Purcell and Gearhart said they strongly supported Gov. Mike Beebe's announced goal of producing more college graduates in Arkansas. The state ranks near the bottom in percentage of adults with college degrees. Gearhart pointedly sent Morrill Harriman, Beebe's chief of staff, a copy of his letter to the consultants.

DHE paid $15,000 of the cost of the NCHEMS study of higher education policy in Arkansas. Non-profit groups, including the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, contributed also. Purcell said that NCHEMS agents spent 12 weeks in Arkansas meeting with officials of the various institutions and with legislators.

In his letter to Dennis P. Jones, president of NCHEMS, Gearhart describes a lively meeting at Fayetteville on Oct. 12, 2010. Aims McGuinness, an NCHEMS associate, represented the organization at the meeting. Gearhart writes:

"Dr. McGuinness began our conversation by thanking us for having him to the University of Northwest Arkansas. As the land-grant, flagship institution of the state, this was demeaning and in poor taste. He laughed that it might be a bad joke. It was, and it was in keeping with his tone and attitude for the rest of the meeting."

(McGuinness may have picked up his joke on some other Arkansas campus. At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and probably others, one finds resentment that the Fayetteville school still calls itself the "University of Arkansas" although the state now has other universities. Some critics say the U of A serves Northwest Arkansas primarily. The U of A disagrees.)

Gearhart said in his letter that McGuinness had defended erroneous data with "a lack of veracity," and that McGuinness "was condescending and presented predetermined findings. He did not listen and scoffed that our lack of funding was not a major contributor to our current degree output. He was not interested in a dialogue of any sort. His approach was accusatory on the basis of erroneous data, and as you can imagine, this did not create a collegial atmosphere to talk about the policies and practices related to student success. ... I have subsequently spoken to persons outside Arkansas, including chancellors and presidents of other universities, and have come to understand that this may be Dr. McGuinness' modus operandi. ... Dr. McGuinness said he liked this approach because it allowed him to dig a little deeper. I assure you that working in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration would have been much more helpful for both our groups."

Purcell said that DHE had a representative at the Fayetteville meeting, and he wouldn't agree that McGuinness was disrespectful. Both McGuinness and Jones have appeared before legislative committees in the past, and may do so again, Purcell said. (Purcell and Gearhart met last week. Purcell said the meeting was cordial. "I mostly listened to his concerns.")

The NCHEMS report said that Arkansas needs an entity "that has the capacity, authority and responsibility to provide statewide coordination and policy leadership for the state's post-secondary education system." The state Higher Education Coordinating Board is only an advisory body. "By requiring ADHE to gain the consensus of the college and university presidents on critical policy recommendations ... [Arkansas has] basically subordinated statewide priorities to institutional interests," the report said. "Such requirements undermine policy-making in the public interest."

Purcell said that legislation to strengthen the authority of DHE might be introduced in the current session of the legislature.

Any talk of reforming higher-education policy in Arkansas runs up against Amendment 33 to the state Constitution, which is intended to protect college and university boards of trustees, and other state boards and commissions, from excessive political influence. It was adopted by the voters in 1942, after Gov. Homer Adkins had removed J. William Fulbright as president of the University of Arkansas because Fulbright's mother had criticized Adkins in the family newspaper. The colleges and universities are quick to invoke Amendment 33.

Gearhart cited it in an interview with the Times. To give more authority to a central board of higher education would be "a very, very bad idea," he said, and changing the structure of higher education would be "anathema to democracy and local government."

Purcell said he believed that changes could be made in higher education without repealing Amendment 33 "and I believe that's the governor's view." He said the administration would offer a package of higher-ed bills, including a new funding formula that would be based not only on enrollment and need, but also on performance, and that might include additional funding for producing graduates in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math and in areas associated with "green" technology. That could be controversial with supporters of the liberal arts, and Purcell's statement that "We hope to do some things differently in remediation" could set off alarms too, especially at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where more than 90 percent of the students take remedial classes.

A proposal that would remove the constitutional independence of the colleges and universities, as well as that of the Game and Fish Commission and the Highway Commission, has been introduced in the state Senate. So has a bill to establish a higher education "oversight committee" that would make recommendations to the legislature in areas that are now left to the boards of trustees, such as tuition and faculty tenure. Purcell said these measures were not part of the administration's package.

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