When the University of Arkansas speaks, people listen — carefully | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

When the University of Arkansas speaks, people listen — carefully

Posted By on Wed, Nov 6, 2013 at 6:41 AM

click to enlarge ABOVE IT ALL: The UA behaves more like a private corporation than a public institution.
  • ABOVE IT ALL: The UA behaves more like a private corporation than a public institution.

The culture at the University of Arkansas creates problems of appearance — repeatedly.

Examples:

* SHREDDING DOCUMENTS: I think it's perfectly understandable that a paper-generating dynamo like UA would want to clear out accumulating piles of paper, some duplicated elsewhere. To do so amid financial controversy and to seemingly deny engaging in document shredding after months of it, however? Bad appearances.

* BIG MONEY IN BIG SPORTS: Then there's the athletic department, a quasi-private fiefdom like the Advancement Division, thanks to the millions that run through an unaccountable affiliate operation, the Razorback Foundation. We learned yesterday that UA Athletic Director Jeff Long HAD been contacted about taking the job leading the Texas athletic department. So why did he issue a wiggle word denial by Twitter Sunday night, fully 48 hours after he'd signed a deal with UA giving him a $300,000 windfall over the next eight months in return for removing himself from consideration? And why did it take the UA a full eight hours yesterday to respond to my yes/no question on whether Long had received a pay raise? Bad appearances.

* WHEN THE FBI IS NOT THE FBI: This morning. the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported  that an FBI agent who specializes in financial matters was on the team of a local state prosecutor reviewing questions raised in the audit of the fund-raising division. I should have mentioned this long ago. But it provides a timely  reminder of how the UA responded to my first inquiry on it three weeks ago. Following is my e-mail and initial UA response on Oct. 14:

Me: Has Chancellor Gearhart or any employees of his office been interviewed by the FBI about UA financial matters?

UA: No one from the Federal Bureau of Investigation has contacted anyone at the university.

I was a little surprised. The source of my tip has rarely been off-base about UA matters. But there you go. It's always good to check.

Then there was another development — a followup UA phone call, somewhat ambiguous, that suggested that an FBI agent might be working under the auspices of the local prosecutor. That was not to say the FBI as an agency was investigating the UA. Law enforcement agencies sometimes reach out for special expertise from cooperating agencies and so forth.

Well, yes. And I considered this routine enough not to do anything with it. If the probe remained in the state prosecutor's hands, an FBI specialist at work didn't mean the feds were on the case. But really. Why issue a categorical denial when someone in a position of authority clearly knew that it should have included an asterisk?

If you're keeping score in the court of public appearances, John Diamond is winning. (He's the university spokesman fired, he says, because he fought the hierarchy in favor of more disclosure.)

I still tend to count myself in the camp of those who think Chancellor David Gearhart is too smart and has too much experience and too much understanding of the stakes to operate illegally. But there's evidence aplenty that he and other top UA officials resent public accountability and believe that the university should run more like a private corporation, with all the privileges that accrue to top university execs and their major clients (the fat wallets who fund the UA and Razorback foundations.) That includes high-handed treatment of non-team-players. At a minimum, the culture needs to change.

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