The Mid-Continent University Board of Trustees didn't exactly cover itself in glory Monday night when it gave one of its members the boot for the crime of talking to the media.
The MCU board voted to remove trustee Gale Hawkins, an 11-year member, for "violating written and approved board policy." Specifically, Hawkins was said to have violated an April 12, 2014 board resolution, adopted by "voice vote", saying that "all communications with the news media, public and/or employees" would come from the president or his designee and "no trustee â ¦ shall issue any public statements regarding the action of the Board of Trustees and/or issues affecting the university."
It leads one to ask, just what is the role of a trustee, if it is not to communicate with the community and university stakeholders about issues affecting the university?
In a July 8 letter to trustees, a copy of which was obtained by the Sun, Acting President Tom Walden begins by telling trustees that "The administration is trying our very best to protect the board members by obtaining the appropriate insurance and by responding to various governmental agencies â ¦" Walden then goes on to complain that information "leaked" to the media contained "errors or innuendos that are incorrect" resulting in "rumors" that "cost time and effort" and "complicates and delays the possible solutions available to the university."
It strikes us that the best way to fight rumors and innuendos is for the administration and the board to be open about what their problems are and what they are doing about them. After promising openness early on, the administration and trustees have gone into bunker mode, always meeting in closed session and not even allowing reporters into the building where meetings are taking place.
Hawkins may be a thorn in the side of the administration. He may even be a rabble-rouser. But as a trustee for over a decade he has a right and even a fiduciary responsibility to speak out. Those rights and responsibilities cannot be canceled by board resolutions.
Hawkins, in a letter obtained by the Sun, makes some very serious allegations concerning the operation of MCU. He alleges that for years the university administration systematically obtained federal loans for students who did not meet the standards and requirements for such loans.
He also alleges that even after the board was informed the U.S. Department of Education had placed MCU on Heightened Cash Monitoring and suspended money for student grants and loans, MCU did not advise students that their grants and loans were not Title IV money, but instead were loans directly from the university. Based on that, Hawkins objects to efforts by the university to get those students to now sign loan agreements with MCU and pay the money back.
Hawkins is not alone in his reservations about the loan program. The Kentucky Attorney General has stated on his website that he too has serious concerns about the matter.
Hawkins' letter also suggests the university may yet face legal action by the Department of Education to recover funds that may have been improperly obtained, which would almost certainly bankrupt what's left of MCU.
These are major issues that ought to be publicly addressed. But the board's response has been a gag order on trustees and little to no substantive public comment otherwise. It's the very sort of thing that feeds the suspicion and rumors Dr. Walden complains of in his July 8 letter.
We continue to believe the MCU administration needs to be forthcoming. If there's bad news, MCU should disclose it. If there's good news, people would love to hear it. But if the idea is to simply circle the wagons and try to wish the university's problems away, that is a strategy destined to fail. Booting Hawkins was a blow to MCU's credibility, and we think there's little left to squander.