Thursday, August 28, 2008

Power to the People: Citizen Journalism and the UCA Story

Since I’ve blogged a number of times about the unfolding saga at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), I think it’s important to provide updates to that story as they come along. The Arkansas Times reports last evening and again today that UCA president Lu Hardin has chosen to resign with a buy-out contract of $1 million (,

The chair of the UCA board of trustees has confirmed that the board will meet today, noting that Hardin has the votes to remain as president if he so chooses. Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times, suggests that the board of trustees has been, well, less than scintillating in its handling of a matter in which the president’s integrity appears to patently compromised in a very public way. Brantley writes,

The Board of Trustees has not distinguished itself in this matter. If Hardin resigns in recognition of his inability to credibly lead, would it be wrong to suggest that the Board should make a similar gesture? (emphasis added)

On the whole, bloggers at the Arkansas Times website wholeheartedly agree. Comments of bloggers about the role the board has been playing in the UCA story include the following (emphasis added):

The Board, with their handling of this just sent a terrible--really a horrible lesson and message to anyone paying attention to this. Shame on them all. They never got out in front of this. Not once. Even know. I'm sorry, I just have absolutely no respect for their handling of this.

If Hardin needs to resign then surely a majority of the board does too.
▪Sad as this is to say, the reality is that what is right and fair is irrelevant. Only the politics of the possible. It is really disturbing to think that the board will pay him the full buyout when he could have, should have been removed for cause.

▪I just sent the governor an e-mail asking him to exercise some control over the BOT.

▪Go back and look how the whole affair has unfolded. Early on the Board was in denial and defensive of the facts. If Hardin is REWARDED for his actions with severance pay, then say adios to the Board for wasting TAXPAYER dollars in awarding severance pay for the SECOND time. The UCA episode has evolved into the likes of a Greek tragedy with Lu Hardin playing lead. It is time to end the tragedy by not only releasing the lead player but the supporting cast as well.

The Board still doesn't get that their role is stewardship of the institution. Again, shame on them for blowing it here. Thankfully, and I think this was a large part of it, the ArkTimes Blog kept this in play long enough and to the degree necessary for the issue to be kept alive until the full weight of what happened here was fleshed out. Once again, evidence that the power is shifting from the hands of the mass media to the masses.

As I’ve noted before, I have a twofold interest in this story. One is, of course, that I’m a citizen of Arkansas and my tax dollars help fund this school (to which, by the way, two of my aunts went to do graduate work as they prepared for teaching careers).

But I’m even more intently interested in this story because of the questions I’ve raised in this blog about the significant role higher education plays in imparting to students civic values essential to the successful maintenance of a democratic society. As I’ve noted, when the example set at the top of an educational institution—from the board of trustees and the president—is one that contradicts core values necessary to build a sound participatory democracy, we all have reason to be concerned.

My experience in higher education has been solely in faith-based universities. Though these institutions cannot be held directly accountable by citizens and by state governments in the same way that UCA can, our tax dollars also help to fund church-owned universities. And we therefore have a vested interest—all of us, as citizens—in calling for the tax dollars also help to fund church-owned universities.same degree of public accountability, transparency, and integrity on the part of boards of trustees and presidents of church-owned universities that we expect from state-sponsored ones.

In fact, I would go further and argue that the church sponsorship of church-owned universities gives those institutions an added responsibility to exemplify the highest level of integrity on the part of their leaders—starting with their governing boards and presidents. Precisely because these institutions proclaim that their mission is grounded in the ethical teachings of their sponsoring churches, leaders of church-based universities have an exceptionally strong responsibility

to value and speak the truth

to be transparent and accountable to the various publics they serve

to entertain open discourse about the core values of their institutions by members of those constituencies, even (and especially when) that discourse exposes disparities between the values an institution proclaims and the behavior of its key leaders

to defend those most susceptible to abuse within the power dynamics of the university

▪and to refrain from doing harm—as in ignoring the rights of vulnerable minorities who have no legal protections, and then using legal threats to silence members of minority groups who protest such immoral treatment.

As someone who has had the unpleasant experience of watching university boards of trustees operate up-close, I have to say that I have seldom been overwhelmed by the degree of competence and—above all—commitment to core civic or religious values among many members of boards of trustees. As with boards of state institutions, boards of church-sponsored universities too often value impression management and protection from legal action above respect for the core values of their institution (and, in the case of church-sponsored universities, of the sponsoring church). Most will bend over backwards to protect a president even when they have strong reason to suspect that the president is either incompetent or venal, or both. Hardly any will take the trouble to investigate—and to hold open forums—when it is patently obvious from many credible reports that a president’s behavior is dangerously close to violating core ethical principles of the institution.

The blogger who notes (above) that, sad to say, “the reality is that what is right and fair is irrelevant” to many boards of trustees, is right on target. As that blogger concludes, many boards—and I include boards of church-sponsored universities here; my experience has been solely with those—are interested only in the politics of the possible.”

And so what does that communicate to students and to the public constituencies served by any university about its values? That they don’t mean much at all, when push comes to serve. That values are something to be paid lip-service in a classroom, but discarded when students enter the real world.

Holding faith-based institutions accountable for the services they provide the public, and for the ways in which they either exemplify or betray core civic values: this is an exceptionally important task of the American public, since we are a nation with the soul of a church that invests billions of dollars in these institutions precisely because we believe they serve the common good.

And as long as church leaders, and the leaders of church-owned institutions, resist transparency and public accountability (as they often do)—and as long as they use their financial clout and institutional image-management capital to resist transparency and accountability and attack those who call for integrity on the part of their leaders (as they continue to do)—the most significant tool we have today to accomplish this task is, as one of the comments cited above note, the ability of citizen journalists to keep significant issues in the public eye.

If readers will forgive my citing once again something I have written (but collaboratively so, with a leading scholar in the field of values-based education and transformative leadership, Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed), I would like to conclude with several reflections from the document I cited earlier this week on transformative leadership, which is used as an introductory text the master's program in leadership at Bethune-Cookman University:

▪Abundant literature suggests that a key challenge facing higher education in the 21st century is to produce leaders for a rapidly changing postmodern cultural context. The cultural context within which students are now growing up and in which they will pursue careers is marked by change (technological, social, political, and economic) of an ever increasing pace, a communications and information explosion, new fusions of regional cultures throughout the world, increasing interaction of people from various cultural backgrounds due to advances in transportation technologies and migrations of people, and profound ethical shifts concomitant with the preceding developments.

If educational institutions fail to assist students in dealing with these developments—above all, to assist them to acquire the ability to think critically about and respond with ethical sensitivity to them—they will abdicate one of their chief responsibilities. This is to shape leaders who help to promote civic cultures in which more and more constituencies are drawn into participation, and in which the voices of groups historically marginalized (and those presently marginalized through lack of access to information) are heard and valued in processes of participatory democracy.

▪Because they are often looking solely at economic trends and focusing only on skills rather than internal and affective ethical change, organizations that fail are usually entrenched in maintenance forms of leadership that value preservation of the status quo above responding creatively to change.

To my way of thinking, this says it all: educational institutions, including (and perhaps particularly) church-owned ones, which value maintenance of the status quo and entrenched forms of leadership above the imperatives of mission, which ignore the centrality of values to the educational process, which abdicate their responsibility to inculcate values that build participatory democracy, are failing—even when, as at UCA, the numbers game allows them to claim that their "brand" is appreciating in value in publications such as US News & World Report.

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