The Richmond Register

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June 23, 2012

Now we know who’s boss

RICHMOND — When the International Town and Gown Association conducted its annual conference June 4-8 at Eastern Kentucky University, the EKU Center for the Arts was touted as an example of what campus-community partnerships can achieve.

The Madison County Fiscal Court aided in funding the center, and a “community operations board” with a community majority was created to oversee it. Community members of the board, a majority, represent all three local governments.

Town and Gown conferees from across the United States and even a few other countries left Richmond impressed by the center and the partnership behind its origin and operation.

If they had stuck around for a few days, they would have gotten a more revealing picture.

On June 11, the EKU Board of Regents met to adopt a university budget. The meeting was interrupted by an unusually long executive session called to discuss personnel issues, among other matters.

After the closed session, the regents adopted a curiously worded resolution affirming President Doug Whitlock’s authority over university employees.

Although no individual employee was named, one person in question almost certainly was Debra Hoskins, executive director of the EKU Center for the Arts.

The next day, Skip Daughtery, Whitlock’s executive assistant, and Gary Barksdale, the university’s human resources chief, went to Hoskins’ office and told her she was no longer employed and to vacate the premises.

Whether the university or the board had authority over Hoskins' employment remains a matter of dispute. Harry Moberly, the former state representative largely responsible for acquiring state funds for the center and drafting the law creating the operations board, believes the board has primary authority over center employees. A memorandum of understanding between the two reinforce that, he maintains.

Even if the board were only an advisory body, however, common courtesy and a spirit of partnership would have led the university to at least consult or inform the board of its reasons for terminating Hoskins.

Instead, the university moved in high-handed fashion to fire Hoskins and then inform the board of its actions without even a hint of explanation. When a majority asked for explanation and showed intent to challenge the action, it was rudely rebuffed.

Board members, as well as the community, were left wondering why the popular Hoskins was let go so soon after an apparently successful first season for the center.

The uproar over Hoskins’ departure and the way it was handled won EKU no fans. Whitlock, backed by the regents, seemed determined to show the community board just who the boss is and to teach its members not to question his actions.

Board members could justifiably ask whether their service on the board is worthwhile if the university is going to disdainfully leave them out of truly important decisions.

Who would want to take part in recruiting a new director if that person may be subject to what could appear to be summary, or even arbitrary, termination.

After the university bared its teeth in the move against Hoskins, it took some real guts for three of the university employees on the board to support both Hoskins and Moberly in roll-call votes June 14 and 19. It will be interesting to see how their careers fare.

Hoskins was the EKU Center’s second director to leave in 31 months. The first director, Katherine Eckstrand “resigned” effective Jan. 31, 2011, after less than 14 months.

Although jobs in the arts world may be few, given the lack of job security in the EKU Center job, it will be interesting to see what kind of person is attracted to apply and who is hired.

While the board could go to court and ask for adjudication of its dispute with the administration, Moberly and board members who support his interpretation of state law appear to have accepted the accomplished fact they had been handed.

Moberly even acknowledged that the university has legitimate concerns about the liabilities it could incur through an employee it does not control.

No one wants to see the $32-million arts center fail, and the university is taking full advantage of that. As Moberly commented during the community board’s June 19 meeting, the uproar over Hoskins’ dismissal and the way it was handled shows how important the arts, and especially the EKU Center, are to the people of Madison County.

In the meantime, the university has a serious community relations problem on its hands. Madison County is rife with rumors about why Hoskins was fired and who was behind the decision. Inquiring minds want to know.

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