Calling Richard III: A kingdom for some oversight from the Arizona Board of Regents

If I had a kingdom, I would give it.

I’m not asking for a horse. I’d just like the Arizona Board of Regents to do the job it was created to do.

Look, I have a desk, a couple coffee mugs, some shrimp in the freezer and a dog of an unknown make, model or year. You can’t have the dog, but I’ll give over my desk, some shrimp and a coffee mug for a freaking degree over oversight out of ABOR. 

For instance: University of Arizona Vice President of Business Affairs John Arnold just presented an update about how the school will get out of a budget crisis it has yet to define or detail. So maybe (call me crazy), the regents should show some curiosity about the specifics. Display some interest in the big picture. Tucson’s largest employer has established a hiring freeze, a halt to strategic investments and department-by-department budget cuts to correct $177 million in overspending.

I still have no idea what’s going on with the campus books. Nor does
anybody outside a small group of UA administrators (if they even do
yet). Do the regents have a full grasp?

So I would have loved to hear some really basic questions demonstrating oversight, such as:

  •  UA has cut $72 million out of its budget. What has it stopped doing and what does that mean to the school’s mission?
  • What are the likely second and third-order consequences to these cuts? 
  • The cuts weren’t uniform and across-the-board. Some academic units are getting hit harder than others. Why? Please explain the grand strategy behind who got hit harder and who got let off easier.
  • Tell me how the budget problem happened in the first place. Walk me through a couple departments and explain how it was that they spent down their reserves and what they spent the money on. Did these units put food on their credit card or buy a new refrigerator?
  • When do we get a breakdown of which folks overspent and how that overspending conflicts with the university’s mission?
  • What objectives are the UA pursuing to fulfill that mission and how do these cuts better position Wilburland to carry it out?

That would be basic leadership.

Nope. Nope. Nope. Regents didn’t seem to care about any of that enough to ask.

Related: University of Arizona shortfall reduced to $52M, CFO Arnold tells Regents

Then again, why would now be any different? I covered higher education for a couple years in the early oughts. The regents’ faces have changed but practice remains as it ever was. Board members still prefer congratulations to interrogation.

I remember Regent Ernie Calderon’s first meeting on the board after he was appointed by Gov. Janet Napolitano. He voted against a tuition increase. It passed. He voted for everything else on the agenda that day. A month later he told me had been persona non grata among his colleagues since that vote.

He dared to go against the university presidents and thereby crossed the entire board. How dare he?

A collar up the face

I’ve written repeatedly that I am skeptical this is as much about a budget deficit as it is about a power-play by (now about-to-be ex-) President Robert Robbins and his UA administration. Universities tend to operate diffusely with department practicing academic freedom, which can make for difficult budgeting. Campus presidents want more control. 

Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. What’s certain is that UA administration have treated questions from the media like dogs treat a veterinarian’s clinic door – no way they are going there.

So I hoped for some due diligence out of the regents.

Asking these questions would not necessarily mean Arnold did anything wrong. All his moves might be the right ones or maybe they just reflect sound decision-making. At least ask and check.

Credit where it’s due. Regent Lyndel Manson at least put to Arnold her concern that he was setting the departments up to a “use-it-or-lose-it” approach to budget surpluses. Look at that: Oversight. Must be the thin air and mountain living in Flagstaff.

And I give Arnold credit for allowing these departments to keep the savings they realize. Administrators aren’t “sweeping the lines.”

But then, Manson followed up her single question with only effusiveness.

“The progress you have made in a short amount of time is nothing short of stunning,” she said. I mean it took them six months but whatever. I once saw former Pima County Supervisors Dan Eckstrom and Raul Grijalva make $30 million in cuts in one night, and they did it without a tax increase or harsh cuts to spending. It confused the hell out of the crowd that dragged a gallows to the board meeting.

Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega has, during the same time frame as the UA has repeatedly changed its story about the extent of the shortfall, put together the city’s whole budget.

Regent Fred Duval talked about how great the turnaround is, and for proof he cited the quality of the provost candidates.

Fine, but as one wise journalist pointed out they still have $52 million in savings to find, haven’t seen the state budget yet, don’t know what they’re going to do about UA Athletics in the long term and have to review little things like workloads and space constraints. UA Global Campus? Don’t get us started. If the UA is in crisis, the time has not yet arrived to declare victory.

The regents themselves have said they need to do a better job of oversight. Y’know… someday.

Board oversight was one of the reasons Moody’s Analytics downgraded the UA’s creditworthiness to “negative.” 

“With turnover in management, recent evidence of weaker financial monitoring, and ongoing governance scrutiny, management credibility and track record, a key governance risk under our ESG methodology, is a key driver of this rating action,” said the financial analysts that investors rely on.

“Governance” risks fall under the board. That’s their job.

Increasingly, I’m of the belief that ABOR operates like a corporate board of directors. This is another reason that I wince when I hear “run government more like a business.” Oh, dear God. Please don’t.

There’s no freaking way that the Tucson City Council, the Pima County Board of Supervisors or even the Arizona Legislature would just let something like a $177,000,000 budget fix get done without the slightest curiosity as to how. 

In fact, I’ve got a job for Arizona state Sen. Justine Wadsack after she likely gets her seat ripped out from under her in November. 

 Gov. Katie Hobbs should immediately give her a seat on ABOR. Even if her questions would focus on reptiles and adrenochrome, at least the university administrators would have to try to come up with a set of coherent answers about how the world actually works. Other regents might have to rush in to defend the schools from her otherworldly accusations, but we’d have some scrutiny.

The UA has lost Lisa Rulney, vice president of business affairs and CFO (even though they continue to pay her. Why? Don’t ask). Robbins fired Athletic Director Dave Heeke and then opted to not seek a new contract himself all as a result of the financial whatever you call it. Why do we still have the regents? Why aren’t they resigning in disgrace?

I get it. It’s best to not ask too many questions.