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Speculation Swirls As University Of Arkansas Chancellor Abruptly Resigns

A file photo of University of Arkansas Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz, who announced Thursday that he would resign the following day.
Beth Hill
Arkansas Business

University of Arkansas Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz resigned Friday, about 24 hours after announcing in an email to faculty, students and staff that he would take the abrupt action.

Steinmetz did not elaborate Friday in the hours before leaving office. UA System President Donald Bobbitt has not announced an interim chancellor or what would happen next.

KUAR News spoke with Kyle Kellams, news director of our partner station KUAF in Fayetteville about the situation. Both stations are part of the University of Arkansas System, but have editorial independence.

KUAR’S MICHAEL HIBBLEN: Steinmetz was only the sixth chancellor there, so most have stayed for quite a while. He was on the job for a relatively short five years. In the letter, he wrote about the many challenges in trying to manage a university in today's polarized society. Obviously, a lot of people are talking about this. What have you heard? What's been made of this?

KUAF’s KYLE KELLAMS: Well, you use the word surprise, and it was definitely a surprise. I don't think many people in the university community saw this coming. It was an email university-wide that came Thursday, late Thursday, and that alone was a surprise. But the fact that the resignation would take effect basically 24 hours later was an even bigger surprise.

There's been no official word as you and I talk from the system or the campus. I know that the chancellor in his letter mentioned the polarized situation. You have to remember that the last time you and I talked two weeks ago, we were talking about the recommendations the chancellor had made about the [Former Gov. Charles] Brough and [Former Sen. J. William] Fulbright name connections and [Fulbright] statue on campus. No indication that's what led to this, though there was some conflict, I guess, between the campus and some legislators and maybe some [members of the ] Board of Trustees, but we have no idea that was it.

I last interviewed him about five weeks ago. We were talking about a seminar the Honors College was having about how the university reacted to the pandemic. During that interview and briefly afterwards, when we concluded our on air conversation, he was talking about plans for next year. So at least five weeks ago, there was no indication to me whatsoever that resignation was on his mind. So, it remains something of a mystery here on the hill.

But the comments were very brutal from some state lawmakers. On the other hand, many were critical of him saying it didn't go far enough to simply move the statue elsewhere on campus and keep the name of the College [of Arts and Sciences] up there.

And although this is a dangerous barometer to use, if you went to Twitter last night, you saw the reactions from people who thought he had not gone far enough in the moves and should have advocated for the removal of the Fulbright name from the College of Arts and Sciences, and those who weren’t happy he is leaving because they thought it was part of the canceled culture. So a little insight via Twitter to just how polarizing we can be in 2021.

His announcement came within hours of a special meeting of the UA System Board of Trustees. We only know it was to discuss a personal matter. No names were mentioned or action taken.

Yeah, so people can, I suppose, speculate and draw whatever conclusions they want to leap to. But at this point, we don't know anything for certain.

And UA System President Donald Bobbitt said no immediate action has been taken, no interim chancellor or what's next.

Right, and the schedule that I have seen, is that at some time in the coming week, we'll know more at least about the process of an interim chancellor. But in the past, and I've been working here for more than 30 years, in the past, there was enough time to where before the retiring or resigning chancellor left, you knew who the interim chancellor was. We're without a chancellor, interim or otherwise, for at least a few days.

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