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NWA editorial: Untrusted trustees

Chairman’s policy proposals would weaken oversight

What's one to do when there's no trust in the trustees?

We're talking about the University of Arkansas System board of trustees, a 10-member panel appointed by the governor to serve 10-year terms. Those terms, at most universities and colleges, are filled by men and women who have achieved significant success in their own right. They are movers and shakers of business, law and politics. In other words, no wallflowers here. They are generally people of action in their professions. Their stature, as well as their potential to contribute to an institution's leadership and success, is the reason they're selected to serve.

What’s the point?

Limitations on individual members of the University of Arkansas System board of trustees are unnecessary and unwelcome.

Ben Hyneman of Jonesboro, now serving as chairman, will this year wrap up his term on the UA board. Among the parting gifts he apparently hopes to leave behind are changes to policies affecting how his fellow trustees behave, or perhaps more accurately, might be prevented from misbehaving. That is, if misbehaving is defined as doing the job they're appointed to do.

Hyneman recently proposed changes to board policies that set standards of conduct, conflict of interest, disclosure and prohibited activities. It comes not long after the trustees were deeply involved in the firing of an athletic director and head coach at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. But Hyneman says it has nothing to do with that.

"I wanted to propose some of those changes to just focus the attention of the board," Hyneman said of his proposal. "It didn't add so much as it clarified. And hopefully, in my opinion, it would improve the operation of the board ... and keep things flowing in an appropriate fashion."

In other words, blah, blah, blah.

What these proposed policy changes are about is control. If approved, the policies would allow only the board chairman to speak for the panel as a whole (who else would, even without the policy?); prohibit trustees from discussing the content of executive sessions that aren't open to the public; and tighten rules about how trustees request and obtain information from the UA system's campuses.

These changes are wholly unnecessary. But Hyneman makes the trustees' inquiries for information sound like heavy burdens for the campuses they oversee. Hyneman suggested they "bog down our leadership and staff with unnecessary work." Such requests, according to Hyneman, ought to go through the system president.

That's what gate-keeping looks like.

Then there's this gem: ""Further, when information is prepared for just one trustee, it puts the other trustees at a disadvantage, particularly if the information is released publicly."

For heaven's sake, can anyone not see this is really about reining in a trustee who is in the minority on a particular issue. Hyneman's proposals would make it far easier to shackle the efforts of a trustee who might be perceived as rogue or renegade.

These aren't people who ought to be shackled. Why they were appointed in the first place: They are trustees, formed by the root word "trust." These men and women are entrusted with service to the institutions of higher education in Arkansas, not to their fellow trustees or to the board overall. But it's always easier to run a committee if everyone can be made to have the same perspective, or if a member with a dissenting viewpoint can be constrained.

It's the height of government inefficiency and ineffectiveness to appoint someone to a position of trust, then to treat them as though they cannot be trusted. One doesn't muzzle these people. Why put them on a panel like this then seek measures that control them more?

Questioning is a big part of the job of trustees. Administrators, from the president to chancellors on down, sometimes need to be challenged. You don't turn control of all information over to them. Trustees should be able to ask anyone anything. Period.

Anything that makes the UA board of trustees less transparent -- which these proposals would do -- is a bad idea.

Commentary on 02/11/2018

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