Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Benton) filed SB812 on Wednesday that would change the requirements for the director of the Department of Higher Education to remove the requirement that the director be an experienced educator in the field of higher education.

If you recall, this was the hold up in Gov. Beebe hiring former Sen. Shane Broadway for the position.  Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) and Rep. Allen Kerr (R-Little Rock) pushed for an opinion from Attorney General Dustin McDaniel on the directors qualification which eventually lead McDaniel to issue an opinion that effectively prevented Broadway for being hired.

Although Hutchinson admits the bill will clear the way for Beebe and the Board of Higher Education to hire Broadway as the director, he says this is not the motivation for his bill.  Broadway currently serves as the interim director and the director position is vacant.

“I think Shane is doing a good job and am happy to help him but that’s not the specific reason,” said Hutchinson. “This job requirement was placed in the code by Democrats to thwart Gov. Huckabee. It was wrong and unnecessary then an it’s wrong to continue that practice now.”

Roy Ockert – of Jonesboro Sun fame – gave a bit of background on this in a column he wrote last year for the Arkansas News Bureau. He wrote…

(Act 1114 of 1997) was written partly in reaction to the appointment by Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Lu Hardin, a politician and lawyer with a little part-time teaching experience, as director of the higher ed department.

The Legislature, dominated by Democrats, wanted to keep politics out of educational appointments. Later Hardin was appointed president of a state university, and we all know how that came out.

If the bill becomes law, then there is little doubt Broadway – who is doing a fine job as interim director – will be moved up into the spot.  But there is a question as to whether policy shifts should be done with a specific person in mind.

Hutchinson denies this is the case, but it is hard to see how it is at least not part of his motivation.  The assistance for Broadway will no doubt endear him with voters in Saline County where Broadway remains extremely popular.  And Hutchinson knows he likely faces a difficult primary with Rep. Ann Clemmer waiting for him in 2014.  Clemmer probably has about 99.9% of the female vote sown up after Hutchinson high-profile girlfriend problems.

But Hutchinson defends the change on policy grounds claiming the requirement limits the field of potential candidates to those with higher education experience and makes the price tag for the director’s salary even higher.  In addition, he says the role is primarily an administration role and so the higher education experience should not be a requirement.

Those currently working in the field of higher education might have a different view.

UPDATE – I spoke with Broadway this evening who made some good points on the change.

First, he explained that the Higher Education Board has changed from a “governing board” – that directs the day to day activities of the colleges and universities – to a “coordinating board” – that coordinates policies and laws from the state and legislature with the different institutions.  In this role, being an “experienced educator” is not as important.

In addition, he said that the hiring of the most recent director Jim Purcell ended up requiring a $50,000 bump in the salary and even then he left after only a few years for an even higher salary in Louisiana. The tight budget does not have room for another salary increase, so the new rules would help find a director without increasing the budget.

As for if he will be a candidate if the rule is changed, Broadway was not sure.

“It depends. I am certainly considering it, but I am not sure what the circumstances will be whenever that happens,” said Broadway.

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Jason Tolbert
Jason Tolbert is the moderator for his opinion blog, The Tolbert Report. He can be reached by e-mail at Jason@TolbertReport.com. Follow him on Twitter: @TolbertReport.