UA board dismisses allegations of ‘deception’ against president

By: - June 26, 2023 6:38 pm
Old Main at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville

During a special meeting on July 6, 2023, the UA System Board of Trustees agreed to President Donald Bobbitt’s contract for two years. (Photo courtesy of the University of Arkansas Fayetteville)

The University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees on Monday adopted a resolution that calls Trustee Sheffield Nelson’s allegation that President Donald Bobbitt misled the board regarding a proposed affiliation with the University of Phoenix “inaccurate and false.”

The resolution also affirmed that it’s “inappropriate” for the board to discuss personnel issues outside of executive session. Nelson, Tommy Boyer and Steve Cox voted against the resolution.

UA System Board Trustee Sheffield Nelson (Courtesy of the UA System)

Nelson, whose term expires in 2025, is a longtime figure in Arkansas politics. He ran unsuccessfully against Bill Clinton in the 1990 gubernatorial race. Nelson is also the former chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas and a former member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He was appointed to the latter by former Gov. Mike Huckabee.

The board rejected in April Bobbitt’s proposal for the UA System to affiliate with a nonprofit organization called Transformative Education Services, or TES Inc., that would buy the University of Phoenix and turn the for-profit entity into a nonprofit. Phoenix could then function as an affiliate with a licensing agreement.

Bobbitt told the Washington Post the deal would cost at least $500 million and could yield the UA System about $20 million annually. 

The board met in executive session for about two hours during a special meeting Monday to discuss Nelson’s allegation that Bobbitt deceived them. In an email sent June 21 and obtained by the Arkansas Times, Nelson said Bobbitt got the board to approve a policy revision in 2022 that allowed him to pursue a deal with Phoenix on his own. 

The policy change was done as part of a routine updating of board policies, Nelson said, but there was no mention of the University of Phoenix. Nelson said it gave a lot of the board’s powers to the president and he urged the board “to move quickly” to close the loophole so this type of event can’t be duplicated in the future. 

Additionally, Nelson said the board should not consider extending Bobbitt’s contract because he chose the University of Phoenix’s best interests over the UA System’s. He urged the board to “consider the subterfuge, deception, and the general conduct of Bobbitt” before voting.

University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt (Courtesy of the UA System)

In an email sent on June 22, Bobbitt said the policy revisions were part of an ongoing process to update board policies to align with current law and had nothing to do with a potential acquisition of the University of Phoenix. The policy changes address only related entities that are “owned or controlled” by the UA System, which TES was not. 

Bobbitt noted that a separate board policy has long delegated authority to the president and system chief financial officer to execute contracts on the board’s behalf. 

Bobbitt said he explored the partnership with the University of Phoenix with the UA System’s best interests in mind. 

“I believe that we must evolve our practices and diversify our revenue streams in order to continue our vital mission of service to the people of Arkansas during challenging times for public higher education,” he wrote. “With the potential of any significant increase in public funding unlikely and the continued headwinds regarding enrollment at many of our campuses, I believe it is my fiduciary duty to consider opportunities that can benefit our campuses, divisions and units across the state.” 

As part of Monday’s meeting, the board included in the minutes an email sent Sunday by former General Counsel JoAnn Maxey that confirmed the policy in question was updated as part of general counsel’s ongoing review of policies and that Bobbitt played no part in the decision to update that policy or most policies updated during her tenure. 

Maxey also said she was certain the University of Phoenix proposal was not the impetus for changing this policy. 

“I am disheartened Trustee Nelson or anyone else would suggest that I or anyone in the general counsel office would be part of any plan to deceive the board or to do anything that would be harmful to the University,” she wrote.

The board will meet at 1:30 p.m. July 6 to discuss Bobbitt’s contract, which expires in December.


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.