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The mysterious think tank: will the Arkansas Institute finally come out and play?

AN INTRIGUING PACKage has been stowed in the state's closet for more than two years now.

It's big and heavy, wrapped in countless glittery layers. Shake it, squeeze it -- it's no use.

For those who can't stand the wait, it's called the Arkansas Institute.

Bits and pieces get out. A new executive director, Wayne Boucher, 58, was hired last month. The first president, 30-year-old Bill Halter, resigned last spring.

But, for now, that's about all the information you get.

The Arkansas Institute is the state's first and only public policy center, a place where the socially conscious intelligentsia can gather to solve the three great questions: What is wrong with Arkansas? What is right with Arkansas? How can we repair the former without fouling up the latter?

It is a think tank -- an organization designed to cut through the bull and systematically solve the problems that have been shirked by self-preserving myopic bureaucrats.

Although the institute has existed since October 1990, no studies have been announced. No reports have been issued.

That's not so unusual, it seems. A think tank, which survives on the credibility of its intellectual product, is not built overnight.

"To just believe that what you are going to do is raise some money and just go do a study is a gross over-simplification," says Walter Smiley, chairman of the institute's board of directors. "The people that have done this before say it can take up to three years."

The Arkansas Institute made a major step in the last month by hiring Boucher, a Michigan native who has been immersed in the think tank environment since he joined the Rand Corp. in the mid-1960s.

"Research organizations are very strange critters," says Boucher, brandishing a rakish cigarette holder.

"The Arkansas Institute will be looking at problems in a very unusual way," he says. "I should think it would be very unusual that we would say a problem is purely economic ... purely technical, or purely demographic.

"They are multidimensional, complex problems that people stay away from because they are so tough."

In other words, it will take time, so have patience.

It Takes Time

Boucher gives a fairly pleasant "no comment" when asked about the institute's plans.

He says the board will be setting the institute's priorities in the next few months. Up to now, it has been narrowing the field.

In 1990, after deliberating on the issue for more than five years, the National Advisory Board of First Commercial Bank recommended the institute be established.

Led by William Bowen, former chairman of First Commercial Corp., the board set its sights on a three-year funding commitment of $500,000 and decided to incorporate when $350,000 was raised.

Bowen single-handedly raised $1 million in cash and pledges from about 100 individuals to serve as the institute's first endowment. With interest, it was expected to cover the first three years' operating costs.

Smiley, the founder and retired chairman of Systematics Information Services Inc. of Little Rock, was chosen by Bowen as chairman. In turn, Smiley chose North Little Rock native and Rhodes Scholar Bill Halter as the first president of the institute.

Halter seemed promising. He had previously served as an economist for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and as chief economist for the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. In another stint, he had been a management consultant for McKinsey and Co. in Washington.

But Halter spent only six months on the job before departing under hazy circumstances. He is now back in Washington, and there seems to have been very little accomplished at the institute during his tenure.

Halter would not return telephone calls for this story.

"I think the past is almost irrelevant here," says Bettye Caldwell, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock educator and a member of the institute's executive committee. "I think most of its problems are solved."

Caldwell acknowledges there was a time "when not a lot was being done" at the institute and the office staff was accordingly cut back. The staff now consists only of Boucher, one policy analyst and a receptionist.

The troops are ready for marching orders.

"We have three or four ideas," Smiley says.

The details are left to the imagination.

One Possible Example

Will the institute, for starters, tackle the hairy problem of consolidating Arkansas' 321 school districts into something more manageable? It seems a worthy task, but it's only one among hundreds.

In Boucher's systematic approach, there would be more to consider than teacher-to-student ratios, duplicative administrative costs and diverse test scores in the various districts.

He would want to consider the possible disintegration of small towns if their schools are lost, the logistics of bus transportation and the impact of satellite distance-learning programs.

Further, the institute would question whether schools as we know them will exist at all in 20 years.

What will the Japanese and Germans be doing in their schools? Will the state need more manufacturing or service workers? What science classes will be essential and which will be completely forgotten? Will the governor be a Democrat or Republican? Will we be in an economic recession or expansion?

It is the art of considering everything.

When a study is finished, there is still the daunting task of selling it to government policy-makers.

Boucher notes that it took 247 briefings to get a Rand Corp. study on the proper placement of strategic bombers accepted as U.S. policy. The Arkansas Legislature could be just as tough.

The institute's 52-member board was established early on, bringing together captains of industry, leaders of the church, educators and government officials.

They can't keep the wrapper on this operation for long.

Boucher says that in mid-year the institute probably will issue a report on how Arkansas can increase its share of research and development grants. That little project has been under way since last October, he says.

Smiley is not so sure the research will lead to a report.

Also, in a few months Boucher hopes to begin issuing what he calls "occasional papers." They will be topical essays by noted experts in the state that will fill in the gaps between major research projects.

No doubt, the future of the institute rests on the quality of these early ventures.
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Title Annotation:policy center in Arkansas
Author:Haman, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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