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Phil Boas: UA budget crisis threatens the legacies of 3 Arizona higher ed leaders

The saga following the University of Arizona’s revelation that the school facing a massive budget crisis reached what Arizona Republic columnist Phil Boas called a point of no return last week.

Gov. Katie Hobbs sent a scathing letter to the Arizona Board of Regents and the university president demanding an in-person meeting and making it clear that many of the players at hand should take notice.

Boas joined The Show to talk more about it.

Full interview

LAUREN GILGER: First, tell us more about what the governor had to say here. And then I want to get into what your point was you were making in this most recent column you wrote about this.

PHIL BOAS: Well, there had been some sniping going on between the faculty at the U of A and the Board of Regents, and the governor came in in the middle of that with a statement that was really a game changer. It was so severe and harsh that you had to read it as really a vote of no confidence in the people trying to lead this recovery effort to shore up the budget at the U of A which has had real problems, systemic problems, and also problems of oversight, a failure to see them emerging and to do something about it quickly.

GILGER: Yeah, and you point out in here some of the sort of contradictions that the governor seemed extra angered by, I guess is probably the word: the university’s acquisition of Ashford University and sort of shifting messages about that, the threat of legal action from Regents Chair Fred DuVal against the Senate faculty head and the sort of squabble happening there. It seems like she’s sort of fed up.

BOAS: Yeah. I mean, these were flash words. And we talked about this as a group, an editorial board, but I was making the point that these are the kinds of words of no return when you use words like this behavior is appalling and unacceptable, when you say that the crisis is headed in the wrong direction and that the Board of Regents has failed in their oversight role and how the University leadership was clueless — those are very damning words coming from the governor. And so you don’t walk those back very easily.

If she has not made a decision to change the leadership on really the threesome that is leading this recovery, then she’s put herself in a position where people are going to expect her to move.

GILGER: So you think at this point, because of this, the governor kind of has to act, even though a month ago or so, she was saying she wasn’t going to call for the resignation of the University of Arizona President Robert Robbins. She wanted to kind of watch this play out and see what happened.

BOAS: Well, there’s a meeting set up for Wednesday where she’s going to be meeting with these leaders who are dealing with this problem. And I guess we'll learn from that on where this goes next.

But it’s not easy for the governor because the three people here — and we’re talking about Robert Robbins, who’s the president of the U of A; Fred DuVal, who had been the chairman of the Board of Regents, who’s stepping away from that role while remaining on the Regents; and then John Arnold, who’s the Regents executive director, he’s sort of stepping away from that role and continuing on as the interim chief financial officer at U of A.

These three men are people of the highest caliber in our state, some of the most accomplished people in the state. Just Robert Robbins, he is a cardiac surgeon. He was the former president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center Houston, which, if you don’t know, it’s the world’s largest medical complex. He was the former chair of cardiothoracic surgery at the Stanford Medical School.

John Arnold, He was Jan Brewer’s state budget director. He’s a former director of the Arizona School Facilities Board. He’s had a career in budgeting expertise in the public sphere.

And then Fred DuVal, of course, has been a top aide to former Governor Bruce Babbitt. He was an adviser in the Clinton White House. He was the first regent appointed by a governor of both parties.

These are men of very high caliber, very strong reputations, of real decency. And you’re making a decision about not just pulling them out of leadership here, but also having an impact on their legacy. So it’s a very tough decision for the governor. But she has laid down a marker with that very tough statement last Monday.

GILGER: This is — and you point this out in your column as well —this is the highest reaches of higher ed in our state. So it almost feels like something has to give here. I wonder what you think this says about the future of higher ed in our state and the board of regents.

BOAS: Well, it’s definitely harmed and damaged higher ed. And this isn’t just about the University of Arizona. It’s also about the Board of Regents, which has an oversight role and failed in that oversight role to see what was happening.

But the budget disaster here, to have so many of your departments that were overspending, and you had a budget system where nobody saw it or recognized it, there were no alarm bells going off. That’s a real crisis of leadership and a real problem for the state that they have to try to correct.

Now I think the three are honest, decent men, hard working and have a lot at stake in this. And they have been working very hard, kind of going on a transparency and accountability tour, talking to everybody in the state and trying to set this straight. But, you know, it’s a tough job. And the question before us all is, are the people who were in charge when this happened, are they the right people to be correcting it?

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.