Steve Haycox: University shows lack of integrity in Cobb case

In the 2000 film Finding Forrester, Sean Connery plays an aging, reclusive writer, William Forrester, who befriends a bright, aspiring African-American high school student from the Bronx, Jamal Wallace, played by Rob Brown. In keeping a promise he made to Forrester, Wallace jeopardizes his future at a prestigious private school by refusing to defend himself against a charge of plagiarism. When Forrester publicly reveals the reason Wallace jeopardizes his career, the promise he made, the head of the school faculty overrules the teacher who brought the plagiarism charge. His words have special import: in dismissing the charge the faulty head says, "Integrity counts for something."

There wasn't much integrity on display in the recent debacle involving the dismissal of the University of Alaska Anchorage athletic director, Dr. Steve Cobb, the results of which jeopardize the independence of the University of Alaska, perhaps represent an injustice to Cobb and others, reveal the hypocrisy of the University's assertions of moral principle, and render it a laughing stock before the public.

Who is Ashley Reed? He is one of Alaska's top ten legislative lobbyists, a well-known figure in Alaska politics both respected and feared. He is not above flaunting his capability to influence the political process from behind the scenes. He is apparently also a hockey fan who likes to see his hometown college team win. That's something the UAA team has had a hard time with in recent years. Reed apparently decided to do something about that.

As most who follow the news even cursorily know, members of Anchorage's "hockey community" were very vocal in criticism of what they consider a failed hockey team, the team coach, and athletic director Cobb for not doing enough about it. Most particularly, they asserted that Cobb didn't care enough about hockey and didn't understand the role it plays in generating support for the University. Members of the Alaska State Hockey Association and the UAA Hockey Alumni Association inserted themselves into the process of hiring a new hockey coach, apparently deciding that because it was under Cobb's direction, that process was flawed. Especially troubling was a report that the hockey coach had struck a player in anger during a practice session, and that Cobb had not dealt with the incident adequately. All of this played out publicly.

It's unclear why anyone would be surprised that the protests of hockey fans would attract the attention of local news and sports media. The business of reporters is to find news, and in any college town in America, replacing the coach of the premier sports team and the college's attempts to keep the fans happy is news. But Ashley Reed, apparently unhappy over the hiring process and perhaps the publicity, seems to have signaled his unhappiness widely. Before long, Governor Sean Parnell wrote a letter to University President Patrick Gamble, expressing his concern and displeasure over the publicity, and calling for action. What sort of action he didn't say. But within days, UAA Chancellor Tom Case fired Cobb.

Article VII, Section 3, of the Alaska Constitution creates the University of Alaska Board of Regents as an autonomous state agency with the authority to hire its own president without the approval of the governor or legislature. The purpose of that autonomy is to protect the University from political pressure from people who don't like what it is teaching or doing. But, of course, such autonomy depends on the people in the University showing the courage to use it. The proper response of President Gamble to the Governor's protestations was to tell the Governor to mind his own business. The proper response of UAA Chancellor Tom Case was to tell President Gamble to keep his nose of out the internal hiring decisions at UAA.

What happens now if Ashley Reed decides the University isn't paying enough attention to petroleum engineering, or to tourism management training, or if he doesn't like the criticism being written by current faculty in the English Department or former faculty in the History Department? He might well say those are of none of his concern. But of course, the protection is gone now.

Integrity is supposed to count for something, and it does, except when it doesn't.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.