The first positive step taken by the University of Arkansas in response to financial woes created by its Advancement Division was to create and fill a new administrative position to exercise "full budget control." In the world of higher education administration the answer to every problem seems to be to hire another administrator.
Timothy J. O’Donnell, a utilities financial executive, will become associate vice chancellor for budget and financial planning on Oct. 7 at an annual salary of $150,000.
His job apparently will be to make sure no other highly paid UA administrators create the same sort of public relations nightmare as did the former vice chancellor of advancement, Brad Choate, and former advancement budget chief, Joy Sharp.
Choate was paid $348,175 annually, 12th highest among all non-medical state employees, to run the Advancement Division so poorly that auditors now believe it overspent a $10 million budget for fiscal 2012 by an astounding $4.19 million. That may have happened because the division overspent its fiscal 2011 budget by $2.14 million, and nobody complained.
Hey, if it works once, why not double your money?
Most of the state employees paid more than Choate are coaches, and you can bet their performance will have to be better than his.
Sharp, who was paid "only" $91,000, has become the secondary scapegoat, and her pay was docked $30,000 before she and Choate were fired when their contracts ran out June 30. During interviews with auditors Sharp said she "lacked the necessary skills to perform her job duties."
That sort of makes you wonder why she was promoted to the budget officer position by UA-Fayetteville Chancellor G. David Gearhart when he was head of the Advancement Division.
Choate was replaced by Chris Wyrick, who promptly got into a nasty dispute with John Diamond, associate vice chancellor for university relations, resulting in Diamond’s being fired for insubordination. For his part, Diamond says he was fired for objecting to university administrators’ efforts to prevent the release of damaging information about the financial situation. He also accused Gearhart of ordering the destruction of documents to keep them from public view.
For the record, Gearhart denies all of those allegations.
Perhaps the UA will need to create another administrative position to exercise "full spin control" over whoever is hired to replace Diamond.
The growth of administrative positions at exorbitant salaries in public higher education, and not just at the UA, is in need of better oversight.
Last March an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette study found that in fiscal 2012 the number of non-medical state employees making at least $100,000 annually had grown by 122 to 1,998. Almost all of the additional positions were in higher education, where the top salaries go to administrators.
The Democrat-Gazette story also said that state had 1,102 employees working for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who are earning at least $100,000 annually. Most of those are doctors who teach.
Auditors have found that the UA Advancement Division hired employees and paid them for several years without having the necessary budget authorization or funding. That happened at least 20 times between 2008 and 2012, according to the UA’s own findings. Incredibly, nobody noticed.
Increasingly, educational administrators claim they must compete with business and industry in offering salaries to administrators. In hiring professors, though, the strategy is to be competitive with other universities.
Because of that and other factors, a chasm is developing between administration and faculty at many institutions, not only in terms of salary but also in educational theories, campus governance and academic experience. Too many educational administrators have little or no teaching experience, which may profoundly affect their understanding of the institution’s most important mission — the education of students.
Just as every editor should have some background in reporting and writing, every educational administrator should have some teaching experience, perhaps on a continuing basis. That doesn’t mean every teacher will make a good administrator, or vice versa, but it certainly helps keep things in perspective.
In academic matters, such as enrollment growth, the typical university response is to hire an adjunct professor because that’s much cheaper than a full-time professor.
But when an administrative position is needed, a reserve fund can be tapped. At least that’s the explanation given by UA officials when questioned by a legislative committee.
Wyrick acknowledged in a recent university statement that "mistakes were made before I assumed leadership of the division," and Gearhart pointed out that "no taxpayer dollars or private funds were lost, not one penny."
The latter statement makes no sense. The university had to make up somehow for the overspending for fiscal 2012, not to mention for previous years. Does that mean students were overcharged? Or was money taken from academic accounts to fill in the Advancement Division’s black hole? If the UA had that much in excess money lying around in reserve, perhaps its appropriations could be cut and the money used better in other places.
Whatever the case or outcome, the whole fiasco has deeply damaged the UA’s image and credibility, as well as that of higher education in Arkansas generally.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.