‘What’s going on up there?’

At a small dinner party in Little Rock a few nights ago one of the attendees, a five-figure donor to the University of Arkansas, her alma mater, angrily vowed that not another of her dimes would flow to Fayetteville until and unless she had a better understanding of “what’s going on up there.”

To be certain, and for the record, not a soul connected with the controversy surrounding the deficit-plagued Advancement office, the university’s fundraising division, has been accused of diverting even one of those dimes for personal profit. What began as an fiscal fiasco — and not a small one, but millions of dollars in over-spending — has steadily expanded to involve not merely lax supervision and accounting incompetence but allegations of improper document shredding, subordination of the state Freedom of Information Act and an overall calculated absence of candor with the public, the press and the General Assembly.

A handful of dismissals and reassignments in the development and communications bureaus have not satisfied the skeptical and indeed have whetted appetites for a fuller assessment of the university’s administrative hierarchy. If the mistakes began in the advancement department they now extend to the highest office on campus, and a steadily hardening consensus in the state’s political and business community (they are all but one and the same) is that chancellor David Gearhart’s job is in peril. Whispers to that effect in mid-summer have risen to murmurs audible across a crowded room, and when such was mentioned to a senior official of Gov. Beebe’s administration this week, his only response was to nod matter-of-factly.

There may be no “there” there, or no more “there,” which is to say the continuing review of the university’s finances and executive stewardship could eventually sustain Gearhart’s position — that the advancement office calamity was an aberration that the chancellor promptly addressed, with no attempt to delay, evade, obfuscate. That Gearhart did not, as a former aide testified and other personnel appear to suggest, order the destruction of documents or, conversely, order the creation of one — entries on his desk calendar. And that he answered truthfully the questions put to him under oath by a legislative committee. In short, assume a best-case scenario for the chancellor. He and an increasingly unsettled Arkansas establishment are left with a mess on their hands.

One prosecuting attorney has cleared the Fayetteville administration of any criminal wrongdoing but now a second is reviewing the sworn testimonies of Gearhart and his finance chief, challenged by a former aide. A grand jury is a possibility.

The legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, whatever its intent, only heightened suspicions that the entire story remains untold by declining to hear the account of the man Gearhart recruited as head of advancement and then blamed for the chaos. In so doing the committee angered some legislators, distressed others and put the remainder on the defensive with their constituents.

The university trustees are under pressure as well, grappling with a dilemma rather larger than securing suitable Razorback seats for big donors. Embarrassed early this year by the unprecedented resignation of a fellow trustee — poultry magnate John Tyson, reportedly angry over the disposition of a family contribution to the advancement fund — their agenda now includes a tempest grown to a storm. One trustee, Texarkana attorney John Goodson, who delivered his colleagues’ mea culpa to the General Assembly, presumably would prefer to nurture the ambitions of his wife, Associate Justice Courtney Goodson of the state Supreme Court. Blood being thicker than water, another trustee, former Senator David Pryor, would rather devote his time to the political survival of his son, embattled incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, than weigh Gearhart’s odds.

Governor Beebe has remained all but silent — publicly — as the UA’s troubles have unfolded. The trustees are his appointees, yes, but they are entitled to their own timetable, and the Arkansas Constitution grants state universities near complete autonomy — save, of course, for appropriations, the domain of the General Assembly, which, always courted assiduously by Fayetteville, has traditionally kept hands-off the University’s internal affairs.

Mr. Beebe’s circumspection will probably continue until at least January 7, an important date for the university and for Gearhart. Legislators irritated by the Joint Budget Committee’s deference have summoned the ousted development director and will hear his version of the dispute. It is difficult to imagine the chancellor opting to not attend. Plainly it will be an interesting meeting. It may, or may not, resolve questions about what’s going on up there.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.