Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

UA president – who would want this job?

Robert Shelton speaks during a news conference after becoming the new director of the Fiesta Bowl football game, at the Ziegler Fiesta Bowl Museum on Tuesday, June 14, 2011, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (The Arizona Republic, Pat Shannahan)

Who would ever have imagined that shilling for a college football bowl game would be a better job than president of one of the nation’s great state universities?

That’s what happened last week when Robert N. Shelton announced his new life challenge was to keep the Fiesta Bowl one of the top college bowl games in the country.


How bad could being the president of the University of Arizona be that a former physicist would leave academia to organize parades and solicit corn chip and beer sponsors as executive director of a football game?

Pretty bad.

Imagine being the CEO of a company in which minority stockholders control the governing board and they don’t like you and interfere in everything you try to do to run the company.

That’s the situation Shelton has found himself in the past few years. The state only contributes about 18 percent of UA’s operating budget but runs the show like it pays for 100 percent. Last year, student tuition eclipsed state support for the first time in the school’s history.

The unelected Board of Regents is supposed to give the universities some relief from Legislative meddling but the past several years it has micromanaged every dollar for every program, tying Shelton and the other university presidents in knots with unreasonable goals.

Shortly after Shelton became UA president, the regents gave the state’s universities an impossible task – they were to increase enrollment and increase the number of graduates and degrees conferred while at the same time making the universities’ bureaucracies more efficient and streamlining the number of programs and colleges all while getting less financial support from the state.

But every time Shelton tried to raise tuition to pay for it, the regents changed his plan and criticized him for it. He even got grief this year from some regents for not using all of a reserve fund (which the regents told him to create two years ago) to reduce the impact of a 20 percent tuition increase. He tried to hold some money back, since it’s clear more cuts to state funding are coming, but the regents made him spend all of it this year in a ridiculous one-time rebate.

It was the third year in a row Shelton has developed a budget that included tuition increases only to have the regents change it without warning at the last minute, often embarrassing him at public meetings, especially former Regent’s President Anne Mariucci, who barely masks her displeasure with Shelton and the UA.

Shelton’s replacement will face the same challenges Shelton faced when he took the job – a hostile Legislature; cratering state financial support; an increasingly politicized Board of Regents; the expanding university health system’s and medical school’s leadership and funding; expansion of the UA into downtown Tucson; university transformation and streamlining; improving student diversity; and skyrocketing tuition.

Any prospective replacements for Shelton might first want to see if there are any bowl games in need of an executive director.

It’s probably a better gig.

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