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Unsuccessful search may eventually lead back to interim director

<p>Roy Ockert</p>

Roy Ockert

I am withdrawing as a candidate for director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. I hadn’t actually applied, but it has become painfully obvious that there is something wrong with the position.

Last week two applicants that the state Higher Education Coordinating Board planned to interview also withdrew. They apparently had been the best of about 15 people who had applied.

A search that began when Jim Purcell resigned in February 2011 to accept a similar position in Louisiana has yet to bear fruit.

Board member Kaneaster Hodges of Newport, who heads the search committee, told a reporter, “We did not have the caliber of people apply this time that we’ve had before.” ASU President Dr. Chuck Welch, also on the committee, said he wasn’t interested in interviewing any of the applicants.

That couldn’t have been good news to the 15 applicants.

What’s amazing is that Arkansas, which doesn’t seem to suffer from a lack of educational administrators with plenty of degrees, can’t seem to find anyone qualified to serve in this position from within the state.

Why, the Arkansas State University College of Education is literally full of highly competent educational leaders, and some of the state’s other top institutions may have as many or more.

One of the two applicants who withdrew had most recently served as director of the Higher Education Coordinating Council in the United Arab Emirates, which surely isn’t much like the Arkansas agency. The other at least had been a top officer in the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Some say that the problem is the state is offering a salary of “only” $192,000 a year. That wouldn’t lure me out of retirement (especially for a job with so many bosses), and it certainly pales in comparison to what we pay university presidents, much less our best coaches.

But it’s a little better than we pay our other top educational administrators and a lot more than we pay our best teachers.

Another problem is that a few years ago the Legislature decided to set the qualifications for a director.

Act 1114 of 1997, which reconstituted the state Board of Higher Education into a coordinating board and defined the state department’s director thusly:

“The director shall be an experienced educator in the field of higher education who demonstrates competence in the field of institutional management and finance. The director and key staff must have relevant experience on a campus of higher education.”

Too bad the Legislature doesn’t require competence and relevant experience for its own members.

The law didn’t change the odd selection process: The state board appoints the director, subject to confirmation by the governor. And the director serves on the governor’s cabinet and at the pleasure of the governor.

That law was written partly in reaction to the appointment by Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Lu Hardin, a politician and lawyer with a little part-time teaching experience, as director of the higher ed department.

The Legislature, dominated by Democrats, wanted to keep politics out of educational appointments. Later Hardin was appointed president of a state university, and we all know how that came out.

Since then the director’s position has been vacant several times — no one seems to want to hold it long, or to be able to satisfy the various constituencies. That would include all the college and university presidents, whose main mission is to secure as much state money for their institutions as possible.

When Purcell resigned, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe named a political ally as interim director. — Shane Broadway, an ASU graduate and term-limited state legislator who had been Purcell’s top deputy for a short time.

Broadway was doing such a good job that all the college and university presidents sent a letter to the chairman of the coordinating board supporting his appointment as permanent director.

Some Republicans, having been won over by the anti-political appointments argument, objected because Broadway was not an “experienced educator,” nor did he have “relevant experience on a campus of higher education.” Being able to do the job well didn’t seem to be a qualification. Before an attorney general’s opinion confirmed his lack of qualifications, Broadway withdrew as a candidate.

The state board renewed its search, and Broadway has continued to serve competently as interim director.

Soon even some Republican legislators seemed to be having second thoughts about what it takes to head the state Department of Higher Education.

“I am not sure it is as much of a policy role as it is someone who can administer effectively that department,” Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, told an Arkansas News Bureau reporter. “I don’t know that you have to have a Ph.D. with on-campus experience to be able to administer that department. I think that’s why we ought to go back and look at it.”

Key added that it was clear Broadway was doing “a great job” and that he was communicating better with legislators than his predecessor.

Of course, the Legislature doesn’t meet again until January. Perhaps the best candidate is already in place at a reasonable salary — if only the Legislature fixes the law before he decides to move on.

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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royo@suddenlink.net.

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