UPDATED: Lu Hardin to Leave UCA on Sept. 16

(Video: Click here to see UCA board of trustee member Rush Harding talk about Hardin's resignation.)

University of Central Arkansas President Lu Hardin said Thursday that he will step down from his position, effective Sept. 16.

In an announcement after an executive session with the UCA Board of Trustees, Hardin cited his health as the primary reason for stepping down, but he also said the university needs to heal after controversy surrounding a deferred compensation payment he worked to receive early.

(Click here to see a copy of Hardin's letter of resignation.)

UCA announced that Tom Courtway, a former state legislator and UCA's general counsel and director of government relations, will serve as interim president. Courtway returned to UCA in 2006 after working as vice president for planning and operations at Hendrix College, a private college also in Conway.

The board of trustees met in executive session that lasted more than an hour to discuss Hardin's future.

On Thursday, Hardin said he "deeply" regretted not handling the compensation situation better and hopes his stepping down will allow the university to heal. But he said the cancer in his right eye, for which he had an operation earlier this month, played the major role in his decision to resign.

Hardin said he made the decision after being advised by his physician Wednesday that he needed to recuperate.

"Hopefully this will allow the University of Central Arkansas to go through a similar and simultaneous healing process, and certainly that weighs into my decision," he said.

Hardin also thanked the trustees for their continued support, despite a rough few months.

"I want to thank this board for offering me the opportunity to remain as president," he said. "Your faith and trust means a great deal to me."

In a press conference following the meeting, Hardin told reporters that "it was a fight" convincing the trustees that stepping down was the right decision for the university. Hardin said board members told him he "had the votes to stay on as president."

Board Chairman Randy Sims was vocal about his support of Hardin.

"It goes without saying that we are all saddened by this," Sims said. "Over the last few days I have done everything I could think of to talk him out of this. I can't vouch for the rest of my board members, but I think - and I know - that we could have stood together and weathered the storm. This is probably the best thing for Lu Hardin, but when we look back it will not be, in my personal opinion, the best thing for the University of Central Arkansas."

Trustee Rush Harding III voiced his support for Courtway as Hardin's interim replacement.

"I would hope that this would be our first step in re-establishing a remnant of trust with the faculty, staff and the student body and I pledge as a board member, and the board does as well, to work toward re-establishing that credibility and that trust," Harding said. "And I'm sorry for the fissure in that trust that has been created by these incidents."

In a statement, Gov. Mike Beebe said Hardin's move was the right one.

"Lu Hardin has been a hard-working public servant for 25 years, but I agree that his decision to resign is the right one for him and for the University of Central Arkansas. UCA is an exceptional institution, and I'm confident that its leaders will move quickly to refocus their energies on the mission of education," Beebe said. "Lu is, and will remain, my good friend, and he and his family are in Ginger's and my thoughts and prayers."

Voting publicly Thursday, the board approved by a 5-1 vote a contract buyout that includes $670,162 to be paid to Hardin with public funds from the trustees' discretionary fund, plus an additional $47,570 to be paid by the UCA Foundation. Trustee Michael Stanton voted against the buyout.

Hardin has a five-year contract that annually rolls over and adds another year. His base salary is $253,000 a year, but a recent salary review by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education put his total annual compensation at $508,540.

Hardin will step down on Sept. 16, his six-year anniversary at the university, technically taking a sabbatical until the end of the fiscal year. On July 1, 2009, the $670,162 balance will remain on the public portion of Hardin's contract.

That money will be paid to Hardin from the trustees' discretionary fund, either in a lump sum or over a 39-month term, as determined by Courtway as interim president.

(Click here to read more about the board of trustees' compensation to Hardin.)

Hardin told board members Thursday that he hoped to get back into education in some capacity after his recovery.

"The good news is, I am hopeful that...I will be able to get back into the work force in the field of education," he said.

In a faculty meeting held later in the afternoon Thursday, Hardin thanked the faculty for their contributions during his six years as president and again voiced regret.

"I deeply apologize for the mistakes that I made, very uncharacteristic mistakes that I made, in March and April and May," he said.

Prior to the meeting, Harding said in an interview with ArkansasBusiness.com that he personally believed Hardin made the right decision.

"I'm saddened by the president's resignation but I'm also happy because this will allow some resolution to finally come to this situation," Harding said. "I was in support of what was best for the University of Central Arkansas and in spite of my admiration and friendship for Lu, I felt that the situation had deteriorated so significantly that what was best for UCA was for the president to resign."

He said he hoped UCA could find a permanent replacement for Hardin by June 30.

Hardin's future at the university became uncertain after controversy surrounding a $300,000 bonus he received after urging a secret vote by the board.

Hardin faced criticism from faculty at the campus who were angry to learn that Hardin informed the board that compensation he would receive under a deferred compensation package did not have to be voted on in public. Hardin put that information in a memo bearing the typed names of three UCA vice presidents, who subsequently said they didn't participate in writing it.

Hardin is a former director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. The Republican former state senator became UCA's president in September 2002. Since then, the campus has grown, with enrollment steadily increasing as Hardin heavily marketed the university.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)