The University of Central Arkansas employee who approved renewing a scholarship worth thousands for then student Cameron Stark without proper documentation resigned suddenly Tuesday.
Larry Burns, special projects director for Enrollment Management, turned in a resignation letter at about 11 a.m. Tuesday. He is the third employee connected to Stark to leave UCA abruptly.
In his resignation letter, Burns said he had a "new career opportunity" that is not specified. When asked, he said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he didn’t want to give specifics about his new "opportunity" but said it is in the private sector. He did not have time for a two-week notice, he said.
The resignation is not related to an ongoing scandal at the university involving Stark and two internal audits — one of which was released this past Thursday. The audits spotlighted questionable employee actions with scholarships, cost of attendance adjustments, keys to academic buildings and security issues.
On Tuesday, Burns said officials have made strides in fixing problems shown in the most recent audit.
"The audit was the first time anyone had ever told us how things ought to be done," Burns said. "There were never any written policies."
Burns said he had been looking for a different job for months. He plans to return to school to complete his Ph.D., something he couldn’t do in his current position at UCA. The change of jobs is what is best for his family, but the timing might not be as good for UCA, he said.
Burns’ decision to leave comes after former Chief of Staff Jack Gillean resigned suddenly June 15. Around the same time, Stark was arrested for using Gillean’s keys to break into buildings and steal exams to cheat on tests. In October, Gillean was charged with four felonies, including commercial burglary, for allowing Stark to use his keys, according to an affidavit filed in the case.
This past January, Assistant Director of Financial Aid for Scholarships Andrew Linn was fired after an investigation into his relationship with Stark and his approval of a cost of attendance adjustment in 2010 that allowed Stark to get more federal loan money. Linn said in email Tuesday that he did not violate any policies or federal or state laws in place at the time.
Linn also reported the June break in and identified Stark in a video for police.
An audit noted Burns renewed Stark’s scholarship — worth about $32,000 over four years — for the 2011-2012 school year even though Stark had not completed the required hours. The move was made for a "medical exception" without supporting documents. Burns told auditors the "scholarship was renewed but was unable to provide supporting documentation or evidence of supervisory approval," according to the audit.
During the Audit Committee meeting Thursday, Burns said the problems auditors found in how employees handle scholarships were "just errors." Previously, during an interview with Associate General Counsel Katie Henry, Burns said he renewed Stark’s scholarship after Stark said he suffered depression, according to an audio recording attached to Linn’s personnel file. UCA released the file after the Log Cabin Democrat submitted a Freedom of Information request.
The renewal was common practice among employees at the time, he said in an audio recording. Stark had a "great" grade point average, Burns said.
"At the time (the renewal) would have been a no-brainer," Burns said in the recording.
On Tuesday, Burns said the renewal was "very ordinary" and the state higher education department renewed a state scholarship the same year for the same reason. He had asked for the documentation but it never made it into Stark’s record.
Linn said in email that no employees should have been reprimanded based on the auditors’ findings. Burns said employees did what they could with what they had and shouldn’t be reprimanded, although he did not want to talk about Linn’s case.
In email, Linn said, "It appears that the UCA administration is using the departure of staff involved in the financial aid and scholarship audit to distract from the other inexcusable breaches of security reported in the same audit."
Burns’ resignation Tuesday is immediate. He was not escorted from the UCA campus, spokeswoman Fredricka Sharkey said in email. He had worked at UCA for more than six years, he said. He earned a base salary of about $45,788 at the time of his resignation, UCA documents show.
On Tuesday, Burns turned in two keys and began moving out of UCA housing. He has four more keys to turn in Wednesday, Sharkey said.
Burns said in his letter he had not "been asked to resigned." Linn was asked to resign and was fired after refusing.
Officials at UCA do not plan to comment on Burns’ departure or its timing, Sharkey said in email. Sharkey and spokesman Jeff Pitchford said Thursday no one from Enrollment Management or Financial Aid had been fired or reprimanded since Linn.
Burns said he is leaving on good terms with UCA.
On Monday, Julia Winden Fey, associate vice president for Enrollment Management, praised Burns in a memorandum to Robert Parrent, vice president for Enrollment Management. The memorandum — attached to Burns’ resignation letter — went over background information about the problems UCA has had with awarding and processing scholarships in the past few years. That includes employees who didn’t know scholarships were part of their responsibilities, a lack of training and administrators’ lack of direction. She wrote Enrollment Management staff had never had any training on processing scholarship renewals, even as technology changed.
The December audit detailed a lack of policy, oversight and communication at the university leading up to the resignation of Gillean, according to the report. That includes not questioning Gillean about his missing key.
Winden Fey said UCA’s broad-based approach to scholarships created problems, including overspending that was corrected in 2009, the lack of "common standards" and lack of a "targeted, planned approach to scholarship spending." Staff had previously been directed to create new scholarships immediately and carefully review "whether a student had not met the maintenance criteria for a scholarship," Winden Fey said. They were supposed to "make awards for which no awarding criteria nor maintenance criteria nor even set amounts were given," she said in the memo.
UCA also failed to fund a position to help centralize scholarships or to fund bringing in a consulting firm, Winden Fey said.
Victor Green, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said auditors investigated, reported their findings and officials have made changes to better handle and oversee the processing and awarding of scholarships.
"I think the issues we’ve seen ... probably won’t happen again," Green said.