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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Pick for University of Arkansas’ new chancellor was dramatic, historic

by Greg Harton | November 23, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

I sat in a routine meeting last Wednesday. Rusty Turner, this newspaper's editor, turned his attention to his smartphone.

We were discussing possible editorials for the next week or so. I wondered if he was looking for something more interesting than my suggestion for an editorial stance on whether more pickleball courts are needed in northwest Arkansas.

Nothing but hard-hitting opinionating on these pages, right? Well, I suppose pickleball can be hard hitting.

His attention, however, was drawn by breaking news: The University of Arkansas System board of trustees, after a 16-month search, had just voted to name Charles Robinson as the seventh chancellor of the system's flagship campus in Fayetteville. Robinson has served as interim chancellor since August 2021.

It was both a dramatic development and a historic moment.

Dramatic for at least a couple of reasons: Trustees until then had struggled to reach a consensus between Robinson, a 20-year veteran of the Fayetteville campus, and Daniel A. Reed, presidential professor of computational science at the University of Utah. The hiring drew lobbying efforts for both candidates. William Dillard II, chairman and CEO of Dillard's, Johnelle Hunt of J.B. Hunt Transport Services, some former trustees and several campus organizations backed Robinson.

Among those in Reed's corner was Steaurt Walton, son of retailing legend Sam Walton, for whom the UA's business school is named, and UA System President Donald Bobbitt, to whom the chancellor reports.

Further drama came when Bobbitt offered Robinson a chance to return to his previous post as the UA's provost, but at a higher salary than he was paid as interim chancellor and with enhanced duties. In a bold and confident move, Robinson declined Bobbitt's enticement and declared that he hoped the board would support his candidacy for chancellor.

Clearly, the board wasn't unanimous in its decision, leading to the stalemate of the last couple of months. Then C.C. "Cliff" Gibson III, chairman of the board of trustees, scheduled a public vote for last Friday, saying the process had languished long enough. Apparently, on Wednesday, the trustees agreed to the unanimity that had eluded them earlier.

The hire is historic because Robinson will be the first black chancellor for the UA campus. Gibson said Robinson's skin color is incidental, but he also declared that the selection demonstrated that "the Arkansas of today is not the Arkansas of 1957." I assume that was a reference to Little Rock's Central High School, where it took federal troops to enforce racial integration of public schools.

Praise for Robinson has been strong, citing an earned reputation for hard work, strong leadership and collaboration during his years on campus. It's clear he was a favored candidate among many people on the 30,000-student Fayetteville campus.

I found it humorous that Bobbitt said Wednesday he was dismayed by the public campaigning "by those on the outside" for various candidates. He said those lobbying "inserted themselves into the board's business."

The trustees serve, or should, the UA System's students and all Arkansans. They're not unfamiliar with being lobbied, albeit in perhaps a less public fashion. That some voices who might not have the ear of one of the trustees got involved in the push for Robinson isn't crossing a line.

Best wishes to Charles Robinson and the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

• Speaking of the University of Arkansas: In a letter from a Little Rock reader on Friday's Voices Page, the writer shared thoughts on what he believed to be the wrong decisions of Arkansas' football coaches on two key fourth-down plays in the contest against LSU. He blamed those decisions for the loss.

I'm all for a guy having opinions and expressing them. It occurred to me, though, that the letter would have been more appropriately placed in a Monday morning edition.

Print Headline: UA pick historic, dramatic

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