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Nelson says he won’t serve as UA system board chairman

Nelson won’t take system board helm by Bill Bowden | June 9, 2023 at 5:05 a.m.
Sheffield Nelson (left), vice chairman of the University of Arkansas System board of trustees, and Donald Bobbitt, president of the UA System, are shown in these file photos from 2019 and 2023, respectively. (Left, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.; right, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Sheffield Nelson said he won't serve as chairman of the University of Arkansas System board of trustees next year because he can't work with Donald Bobbitt, president of the UA system.

Nelson said he told the board as much at a private meeting in April.

"I told them I could not work with someone who had deceived me that much," said Nelson, who is currently vice chairman of the board and next in line to be chairman.

Normally, the board chairman works closely with the UA System president. Trustees are usually appointed to 10-year terms and serve as chairman their last year on the board. Nelson's term on the board expires in 2025.

Nelson said the board was blindsided in January when it learned through an Arkansas Times article that Bobbitt had been working on a plan for a nonprofit organization affiliated with the UA System to acquire the University of Phoenix.

The board ultimately voted 5-4 on April 24 to reject that deal.

"I cannot imagine things being carried out for a year and a half in secrecy and not tell a single board member what was going on and then be approached to vote on it ..." Nelson said during that April 24 meeting. "I think it's a mess we don't need to get our feet in. ... This company we're talking about is Phoenix, and it's not good. It's got a terrible reputation. ... I think it's a dog we should walk away from.

"This wasn't for a can of beans or a loaf of bread. This was for $500 million," Nelson said Thursday.

He said Bobbitt had been working on the deal for over a year, and the board should have been informed much earlier.

"It was very much an intent to circumvent the board of the University of Arkansas," said Nelson. "He had deceived us at every point. ... It was just the worst example of subterfuge I have ever seen."

"I respectfully disagree with the notion that anyone was intentionally uninformed," Bobbitt said in a statement late Thursday. "Throughout my decade of service as President I have always strived to keep board members aware of any issue and have had an open door for communication, and the Phoenix affiliation is no different."

Ed Fryar of Rogers, another UA trustee, said the board was informed much earlier -- in 2021 and periodically thereafter. Fryar said he corrected Nelson during one of the April board meetings (there were two).

Fryar said he first learned in May 2021 that a broker had approached the University of Arkansas about the possibility of acquiring the University of Phoenix, which has extensive online course offerings.

"Dr. Bobbitt talked to the board in June or July, a month or two months after that, and let the entire board know," said Fryar. "Sheffield was on the board at the time."

Fryar said Bobbitt updated the board on a regular basis concerning the progress.

"So, anybody who has been on the board for at least two years has known about it for two years," said Fryar.

Nelson said he'd never heard any mention of the University of Phoenix or plans to acquire a large online university before January. If Bobbitt had mentioned it in earlier meetings, said Nelson, it was in vague terms that didn't reveal the size of the deal that was in the works. He noted that Fryar is also on the board of Transformative Education Services Inc., or TES, the nonprofit created to acquire the University of Phoenix.

Fryar said TES was set up because the trustees didn't want the acquisition of the University of Phoenix by the UA to in any way affect the UA's credit rating.

"We didn't want UAMS or UA-Fayetteville to have to spend more money to finance a future building project on that campus because of the acquisition of the University of Phoenix," said Fryar. "Because of that, the University of Arkansas could not be the one that acquired the University of Phoenix. Also, it's my understanding ... that the University of Arkansas could not purchase the University of Phoenix directly anyway. There's something in the law or the constitution that prohibits that."

"We've shared information and ideas about our aggressive online growth plan with trustees and the public in different stages for many years as it has evolved," Bobbitt said in a written statement late Thursday. "Some trustees have asked a lot of questions and lent expertise in various ways. In this case, I had a long conversation on the phone with Trustee Nelson answering his questions about the potential affiliation."

"I never had an in-depth conversation with Don Bobbitt," said Nelson. "He's confused me with another board member because I never had one."

Nate Hinkel, a spokesman for the UA System, provided some additional background details in an email late Thursday.

"Like most complex negotiations within organizations, the UA System does not always make it a practice to share specific details of negotiations or plans until they are complete and at a stage to begin meeting obligations for approvals and appropriate public and internal discourse," wrote Hinkel. "In this case, conversations were had with various people, including trustees, at different times over the course of the negotiation back to when it started nearly two years ago."

Growing the UA System's online presence has been a priority for Bobbitt since he was hired in 2013, according to Hinkel.

"He acted on this through the creation of the UA System's first online institution in 2015, the success of which captured the attention of others in the online learning landscape nationally," wrote Hinkel. "This led to the exploration of many other opportunities for growth, and ultimately the acquisition of Grantham [University] in 2021 that was unanimously approved by trustees, along with the idea that momentum would continue to grow the System's online presence.

"This idea, along with many of these growth opportunities, have been discussed at length in public meetings and with trustees for years. Dr. Bobbitt has also said during the entire process, many times publicly, that support of the board was necessary to moving forward with a potential affiliation with University of Phoenix."

Print Headline: UA trustee reveals friction with Bobbitt


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