James L. "Skip" Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, will retire on June 30, he announced on Monday.
Rutherford said he informed UA System President Donald Bobbitt of his retirement date before the COVID-19 outbreak in Arkansas. The pandemic didn’t disrupt those plans, but it did delay the announcement. He sent Bobbitt an official letter about his retirement early Monday.
“My plan was to announce that after our graduation,” Rutherford told Arkansas Business in an interview on Monday. “In May, Wolf Blitzer came to speak at graduation. I wanted to get through graduation, let the graduates celebrate their time, and then make the announcement. So it's been planned for a long time. However, in March, the pandemic hit and there was operational uncertainty. Plus, just dealing with health issues of students, faculty and staff, facility issues. I felt like I needed to make sure that the Clinton School came out on the other side of the storm.”
Rutherford also said the school will have to coexist with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future because the pandemic won't end without both a vaccine and a treatment for the infected.
He said the school's future must also include doing a better job of showcasing the project-based learning it offers students.
He added that, in a post-pandemic world, affordability will “take on a whole new meaning,” and that all of higher education must address rising student debt.
Rutherford reflected on some big moments in his career, which took root when he was a kid watching election returns on the courthouse lawn in Batesville.
“I remember, you know, always believing that elected service was public service,” he said. “And I've just always had a belief that the way you make a difference, or at least try to make a difference, is roll up your sleeves and get in the arena.”
Rutherford said he enjoyed being involved in the “monumental” building of the Clinton Presidential Library and called helping a large group of well-known local figures develop the city’s River Market District “a real labor of love.”
Coordinating the 40th anniversary commemoration of the 1957 integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School was another career highlight. The event brought national attention to the campus, which was later named a National Historic Site, Rutherford said.
He added that seeing Clinton School graduates gain success and growing the school’s free and open-to-the-public speaker series has been rewarding.
Rutherford, the school’s dean since the beginning in 2006, said he has no firm post-retirement plans.
“I will say someone asked me, ‘Well, are you going to be bored?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I’ve never been bored. But it might be nice to try it for awhile,’” he told Arkansas Business on Monday.