The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is a different kind of university. It is a metropolitan university. Most states have at least one metropolitan university, and some states have several. These institutions often are not well understood.
What is a metropolitan university?
Located in or near the urban center of a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) with a population of at least 250,000, a metropolitan university is defined by the following:
- Has a mission that includes teaching, research, and public service;
- Serves a diverse student body—in age, ethnic and racial identity,
and socioeconomic background—reflecting the demographic
characteristics of the region;
- Responds to community and regional needs while striving for
- Serves as an intellectual and creative resource for the metropolitan
region to contribute to economic development, social health, and
cultural vitality, through education, research, and professional
- Shapes and adapts its structures, policies, and practices to enhance
its effectiveness as a key institution in the lives of the metropolitan
region and its citizens.
Most of the nation’s metropolitan universities have appeared on the scene since the Second World War. A college education was becoming more valuable, and with the growth of the national population, state leaders across the country were compelled to address the reality that their population centers needed, but often lacked, a public university. So it was in Little Rock in the 1960’s, where the response was not to start a new campus but to take Little Rock University, a small private institution, and change it into a state-supported institution through merger with the University of Arkansas. Thus, after several years of conversations, studies, and negotiations, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was created and got off to a fast start in 1969.
The nation’s rising group of urban campuses, including UALR, serves students much different than the 18–24 year-old students of the traditional campus who are primarily white, live in campus housing, and enroll full-time.
These metropolitan universities have also been different in their relationships with their communities, seeking a close, as opposed to a minimal, town-gown relationship. These newer universities often have paralleled the earlier example of the land-grant university and its research and extension activities which focused on the challenges faced by farmers and rural communities. Metropolitan universities focus a significant amount of research and extension activities on the challenges faced by people living in urban areas.
A Unique Institution of Higher Education
From the time the University of Arkansas at Little Rock became a state-supported university in 1969, there has been official recognition that it is different from other colleges and universities in Arkansas. (The statistical profile in the following chapter will highlight a number of differences.)
Given its location in the state’s urban center, UALR was expected not only to enroll traditional-age full-time students but also to enroll non-traditional students who held jobs, had families, were older, and might be enrolled part-time—with significant numbers of them being minority students and women who could not move away to attend college. There was also an expectation from the start that UALR’s academic programs, undergraduate and graduate, would serve the wide variety of higher education needs of the urban area.
In addition, there was an early recognition that the university should share its intellectual resources to help solve community problems and otherwise advance the metropolitan community. Dr. G. Robert Ross, UALR chancellor 1973-l982, is remembered as an early proponent of the concept of “urban mission” at UALR. During his tenure, a time of rapid growth in the number of faculty, Dr. Ross strongly advanced the notion that “public service” was an important faculty role, with public service defined as the application of the faculty member’s disciplinary expertise to external problems and issues. Under his leadership, UALR began to organize outreach units, such as a new Center for Urban and Governmental Affairs, and to modify policies to make it easier for faculty to engage in public service beyond the borders of the campus.
During the 1970’s the official statements of mission and role and scope adopted by the campus, the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, and the Arkansas State Board of Higher Education (now renamed the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board), all began to reflect UALR’s uniqueness as an urban university. In 1981, UALR published a monograph entitled “The Urban University: Present and Future.” The monograph included a reflective essay about
UALR by Dr. Charles E. Bishop, president of the University of Arkansas System, in which he noted that central Arkansas was “a major metropolitan center which has had no comprehensive university within it.” He encouraged the campus to pursue its urban mission. The monograph also included an essay by Dr. Ronald Williams, president of Northeastern Illinois University, focusing on urban universities and the importance of partnerships with their communities for mutual benefit.
Rise of Urban/Metropolitan Universities
Developments at the campus in Little Rock mirrored developments elsewhere in the nation. Evidence of the broader trends can be found in actions of the national higher education associations. In 1979 the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) established within the organization a Division of Urban Affairs. In 1985 the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) adopted a policy statement entitled “Urban State Colleges and Universities” in which it noted, “Between 1960 and 1985, approximately sixty-five new, comprehensive, urban public higher education institutions have opened their doors.” The AASCU paper also stated, “The public service function is particularly important for publicly supported urban colleges and universities. These institutions are partners in the economic, cultural, and social lives of the cities.”
Perhaps the strongest evidence of the growing importance of this rising group of institutions was the establishment in 1989 of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (CUMU) whose membership 15 years later had grown to 75. An Arkansan, Dr. Paige E. Mulhollan, then president of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, was one of the primary leaders in the establishment of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities.
The name of the organization—including both “urban” and “metropolitan”—shows that some members preferred “urban” as the adjective and others preferred the newer “metropolitan” designation. For most purposes these two terms are interchangeable.
Dr. Charles E. Hathaway served as UALR chancellor from 1993-2002. Before coming to UALR, he had helped organize the new national organization and played an important role in drafting the new organization’s declaration of purposes. In 1995, when releasing a strategic planning report, Dr. Hathaway said:
The future of UALR depends on the response of the faculty to both the historical values defining a university and the relationship of our university to our metropolitan area…we affirm that we not only accept the academic and scholarly obligations expected of all excellent universities, but that we intend to extend the university into the Little Rock area to create a model of excellence.
In Little Rock, Dr. Hathaway articulated the model of the metropolitan university so clearly and implemented it so broadly and successfully that community leaders strongly embraced the model with the close university-community relationship that benefits both.
Hybrid Institutions of Higher Education
In the world of plants and animals, a hybrid combining characteristics of dissimilar parents may be stronger and sturdier than either parent and better adapted to its environment. So it appears to be with metropolitan universities. They are hybrids, strong and sturdy. They are dynamic and complex institutions that provide a broad range of higher education services that fit the needs of the complex metropolitan environments that they were established to serve.
Dr. Harold Enarson, president emeritus of Ohio State University and also Cleveland State University, served as a planning consultant to UALR and issued a report in 1991, A Report to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Stakeholders in the University. In his report Dr. Enarson might have been the first to refer to a metropolitan university, such as UALR, as a “hybrid” institution of higher education.
“Hybrid” is a helpful description because it suggests the complexity of metropolitan universities with multiple components in their missions. There are four frequently cited institutional models in American higher education—the liberal arts college, the community college, the land-grant university, and the research university. Metropolitan universities, including UALR, incorporate elements of all four models:
Liberal Arts College. UALR embodies the dominant characteristics of the liberal arts college with its strong undergraduate curriculum that requires broad knowledge assured by a general education core along with an area of depth represented by the major course of study. Teaching is a key component of the liberal arts college.
Community College. UALR also shows characteristics of a community college serving a significant number of traditional students while also serving nontraditional students who may be older, have a family, hold a job, and commute to classes. More than most universities, UALR provides access to higher education to a very diverse student body that includes well-prepared and not-so-well prepared students. Access, particularly for nontraditional students, is a key component of the community college.
Land-Grant University. UALR represents the urban version of the land grant mission with a strong public service orientation and an emphasis on outreach that extends university expertise into the metropolitan community and beyond. Public service—outreach—is a key component of the land-grant university.
Research University. As UALR has matured, research has increased in importance. In the Carnegie Foundation’s national classifications, UALR is now in the “doctoral/research intensive” category. UALR faculty and staff have generated more than $20 million annually in external funding since 2001. Research is a key component of the research university.
Persons in or outside of higher education who assume a university must be only one of the four types of institutions—an either/or expectation—sometimes feel that a metropolitan university does not have a clear mission, that a university must be one or another of the four types. But metropolitan universities are clear about their missions, and one source of evidence is the striking similarity of the official mission statements of the metropolitan universities across the nation.
The reality is that UALR always has served—since it became state-supported in 1969—and probably always will serve multiple purposes. It is not one of the four models. It is a hybrid that embodies all four of the dominant strands in the history of American higher education.
The 1990’s: The Push for University Engagement
Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. The urban/metropolitan campuses imitated the outreach model of the land-grant universities, developing a variety of ways to engage with their wider metropolitan communities which were reminiscent of the ways and means land-grant institutions engaged with farmers and rural communities.
Recently, with encouragement from outside, a number of non-metropolitan institutions have begun to imitate the metropolitan universities by increasing their engagement with their surrounding communities.
In the last decade of the 20th Century, “engagement” became a widely used term in higher education primarily because of the interest and actions of national foundations and federal agencies. The story should actually begin with a development in 1989:
- Campus Compact formed in 1989 as a coalition of schools that were institutionalizing service learning as a teaching method that integrated service
and community awareness into academic programs. (UALR is a member of the compact.)
- In 1990, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities published
J. Wade Gilley’s Interactive University, a discussion of the respect, collaboration,
and support created when universities develop an “others-centered” mindset in
addressing the needs of the communities where they are located. (The message of
this book resonated with UALR readers.)
- In 1990, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, led by Ernest
Boyer, published Scholarship Reconsidered, a call for reexamination of ideas of
scholarship in modernizing the role of universities in responding to societal
needs. In this influential book, Boyer noted that “scholarship” and “research”
had unfortunately become virtually synonymous. He urged acceptance of a
broader definition of scholarship including discovery, integration, application,
and teaching. (At UALR in the mid-90’s this book was the basis for two years of
organized discussions of faculty roles and rewards and produced revisions in a
number of college and departmental promotion and tenure guidelines.)
- In 1990, the National and Community Service Act was adopted to provide funds to
develop service learning in the curricula of colleges and universities.
- The Urban Community Service Program (Title XI) was created in the U.S.
Department of Education in 1992 to fund community partnership and research
work at urban universities, much like the land-grant charter decades before.
- Also in 1992, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
began a new program called the Community Outreach Partnership Center grant
(COPC) to help colleges and universities establish meaningful partnerships with
their local communities through research, teaching, technical assistance, and
training. (UALR received a COPC grant in 1997 to work with the Oak Forest
- In 1994, HUD opened the Office of University Partnerships to promote
partnerships with universities as a key to growth and improvement of urban
- In 1996, the American Association of Higher Education published its series,
Service Learning in the Disciplines. The series provided “how-to” guides for
hundreds of colleges and universities to implement service learning on their
- In 1997, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation commissioned a study of the future of
colleges and universities in American society. The study led to a six-part series
that began with the report, Engaged Institutions, which addressed the need for
universities to respond to society’s needs.
- In 2002, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities published
the Stewards of Place report, providing a guide for universities that want to merge
their agendas with the agendas of the regions they serve.
The definition in Stewards of Place of publicly “engaged” institutions provides a good description of UALR:
The publicly engaged institution is fully committed to direct, two-way interaction with communities and other external constituencies through the development, exchange, and application of knowledge, information, and expertise for mutual benefit.
This definition also fits other metropolitan universities that are members of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities.
Whether many other universities will, like the metropolitan universities, in fact become “engaged” universities remains to be seen. As listed above, there have been significant external organizations and government programs encouraging it, but whether there will be much lasting impact across higher education is not yet clear. To change from a more traditional, inwardly focused institution to one that exhibits sustained commitment to community engagement through its policies, practices, organizational structure, and performance is a challenging undertaking, one that takes time to accomplish.
Selected Planning Implications
A university can be located in but isolated from its city. In contrast, UALR sees the larger community’s well-being and its own well-being as intertwined: as one advances or suffers, so does the other. Therefore, UALR is committed to involvement with the metropolitan community, to deep engagement. Yet the metropolitan university—the new hybrid that combines the four major historical strands of American higher education—is still relatively new to the scene and not fully understood either inside or outside higher education. The planning implications of this chapter mostly flow from that underlying reality. Evaluation categories applied to metropolitan campuses, both inside and outside higher education (such as in the media), as well as funding models at the state level, remain biased in favor of traditional campuses.
Here are planning implications of this chapter:
- Within the state, particularly in the higher education funding arena, UALR must
work persistently to increase understanding of UALR’s role, contributions, and needs.
- UALR faculty and administrative leaders need to develop language, figures of speech, and data that more effectively communicate to off-campus audiences the nature of the university and the achievements of faculty and students in teaching, research, and public service.
- At a hybrid institution of higher education, a one-size-fits-all system of faculty roles and rewards is inconsistent with accomplishment of the institution’s mission. UALR faculty and administrative leaders need periodically to review policies on faculty roles and rewards to assure that they are up-to-date and consistent with the institutional mission.
- In light of the shaping impact of national policy, UALR should work through appropriate higher education associations, such as the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities, to achieve at the federal level understanding and support of the important roles that metropolitan universities such as UALR play in the urban areas of the nation.
- Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities promotional brochure, 2004. For more information, go to
http://cumu.uc.iupui.edu.[back to text]
- The Urban University: Present and Future, University of Arkansas at Little Rock Monograph Series, 1980, p. 4.[back to text]
- UALR 2000: Creating the Future Together: A Quest for Excellence, p. 2.[back to text]
- Stewards of Place, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 2002, p. 9.[back to text]