(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of business history feature stories. Suggestions for future Fifth Monday articles are welcome. Please contact Gwen Moritz at (501) 372-1443 or GMoritz@ABPG.com.)
David Pryor, the former Arkansas governor and U.S. senator, was diplomatic when he suggested that he and fellow members of the University of Arkansas board of trustees not rush into a nine-digit bond issue primarily to add swankier seating to Razorback Stadium.
“A bond issue is a debt of the University of Arkansas,” Pryor said at the trustees’ Jan. 27 meeting. And while higher priced tickets and other private funds are expected to make the payments, “It is a debt of the people of Arkansas, and ultimately if something goes wrong, who’s responsible? And that’s the people.”
The trustees, with Pryor abstaining, voted to continue researching the $160 million in improvements pitched by Athletic Director Jeff Long, but no bond issue has been approved. Still, a casual observer might wonder how unelected UA trustees have the authority to borrow money ultimately co-signed by taxpayers.
The answer: Amendment 33.
Placed on the statewide ballot by petition and adopted on Nov. 3, 1942, by a majority of fewer than 1,600 votes out of almost 78,000 cast, Amendment 33 insulated institutes of higher education and “all charitable, penal or correctional institutions” from the whims and provincialism of politicians.
The legislature provides a level of funding, but the trustees of each institution decide how to spend and when to borrow. Under Amendment 33, “the management or control” of the institutions cannot be taken away from the trustees, so the powers that belong to the UA trustees also belong to the trustees of Arkansas State, Arkansas Tech, Henderson State, the University of Central Arkansas, Southern Arkansas University and the independent two-year colleges like Pulaski Tech.
“I support the concept of Amendment 33. I think you’ve got to let the board of trustees have independence,” Pryor said in a recent interview.
But the amendment made it harder for state government to make the various institutions serve statewide goals rather than their own interests.
“Because of Amendment 33,” Little Rock freelance journalist Ernie Dumas said, legislators “have just floundered around for all these years trying to come up with a way to regulate” the state-supported colleges.
Dumas, who began covering Arkansas state politics in the early 1960s, described Amendment 33 as the first in a series of petition-initiated amendments designed to limit political meddling in the day-to-day functions of government.
Amendment 33 was inspired by a political dispute between Roberta Fulbright, publisher of the Northwest Arkansas Times, and Gov. Homer Adkins, who defeated incumbent Gov. Carl Bailey in 1940.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Bailey, a UA trustee, succeeded in getting Fulbright’s 34-year-old son Bill named president of the University of Arkansas in 1939. In the next year’s election, “She supported Carl Bailey over Homer Adkins,” Dumas recounted. “Holy Homer became the governor, so he punished her by stacking the board of trustees and firing Bill Fulbright.”
J. William Fulbright, an Oxford-educated Rhodes Scholar, recovered nicely from the episode. On the same 1942 ballot that brought Amendment 33, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and two years later he defeated Adkins to start a 30-year career in the U.S. Senate.
“Mrs. Fulbright’s revenge was complete,” Robert Leflar, former dean of the UA School of Law, said in an interview quoted by the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Never again would an Arkansas governor exert so much power over the management of a state college or university.
Amendment 33 did not keep legislators from favoring their alma maters and hometown colleges when it came to the only authority they retained, so in 1961, the legislature created the Commission on Coordination of Higher Education Finance. A few years later, it was replaced with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.
ADHE, according to its own website, is “the administrative staff for the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board,” and a coordinating board is qualitatively different from other state boards that have much greater power to regulate.
Instead, ADHE’s mission is “to advocate for higher education; to promote a coordinated system of higher education in the state; and to assist each of the publicly and locally supported institutions of higher education in the state in improving the delivery of higher education services to the citizens of Arkansas.”
In a recent interview, Jim Purcell, who was director of ADHE from 2008-11, compared the coordinating board to the Wizard of Oz — “that man behind the curtain who makes sure all the voices are heard.”
Like the Wizard, a coordinating board is not particularly great or powerful, but it can remind the individual institutions that they all play a role in executing a higher education agenda that benefits the state.
“There always needs to be an adult in the room because all of the systems will advocate for themselves and … and may see themselves as the total solution for the state,” said Purcell, who left Arkansas for a similar job in Louisiana and is now commissioner of postsecondary education for Rhode Island.
Arkansas is not unique in having multiple institutions for a coordinating board to try to wrangle. Louisiana has four systems underneath a coordinating board, Purcell said, “and while you can guide a state by policy and regulation and advocacy in the legislature, you really end up with management by charisma. It depends on who has the best management during a time period.”
Purcell likes the idea of a single statewide university system with one oversight board. Georgia’s higher ed system is organized that way — 29 public institutions in the University System of Georgia governed by the Georgia Board of Regents.
“If you can’t do that, then have a coordinating board that has strength and has teeth so they can make sure the state is getting what they want and need when they invest their dollars,” Purcell said.
Combining all of Arkansas’ state colleges and universities into one system is an idea that has been mentioned over the years, journalist Dumas said.
“One idea is to make all the institutions part of the UA, and then the board of trustees of the UA could be the Department of Higher Education,” he said. “Another idea is a board of regents.”
And while the legislature can’t mess with the work the college and universities do, Amendment 33 clearly anticipates that institutions could be “abolished or consolidated.”
Dumas won’t hold his breath.
“Or course, all the institutions would oppose being taken over by the University of Arkansas, so that will never happen.”
Amendment 33 Boards and Commissions Governing State Institutions
1. Term of office of members.
The term of office of members of the boards or commissions charged with the management or control of all charitable, penal or correctional institutions and institutions of higher learning of the State of Arkansas, now in existence or hereafter created, shall be five years when the membership is five in number, seven years when the membership is seven in number, and ten years when the membership is ten in number. Such terms of office shall be arranged by the General Assembly to provide a membership with one term of office expiring every year from the effective date of this amendment. The unexpired terms of members serving on the effective date of this amendment shall not be decreased.
2. Abolition or transfer of powers of board or commission - Restrictions.
The board or commission of any institution, governed by this amendment, shall not be abolished nor shall the powers vested in any such board or commission be transferred, unless the institution is abolished or consolidated with some other State institution. In the event of abolition or consolidation, the new board or commission shall consist of a membership of five, seven, or ten.
3. Increase or decrease of members of board or commission prohibited.
The membership of any such board or commission now in existence shall not be increased or decreased in number after the effective date of this amendment nor shall the number of members of any such board or commission created after this amendment is in operation be increased or decreased subsequent to its creation.
4. Removal of member - Procedure - Appeal.
The Governor shall have the power to remove any member of such boards or commissions before the expiration of his term for cause only, after notice and hearing. Such removal shall become effective only when approved in writing by a majority of the total number of the board or commission, but without the right to vote by the member removed or by his successor, which action shall be filed with the Secretary of State together with a complete record of the proceedings at the hearing.
An appeal may be taken to the Pulaski Circuit Court by the Governor or the member ordered removed, and the same shall be tried de novo on the record. An appeal may be taken from the circuit court to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which shall likewise be tried de novo.
5. Vacancy - Filling.
Any vacancy arising in the membership of such board or commission for any reason other than the expiration of the regular term for which the member was appointed shall be filled by appointment by the Governor, subject to approval by a majority of the remaining members of the board or commission, and to be thereafter effective until the expiration of such regular term.