Good morning Trustees, President Bobbitt, and Guests.
In my first two months as Chancellor at UA Little Rock, we’ve made some important changes and are preparing to make additional adjustments to ensure a bright and sustainable future.
Before I describe those changes, I want to begin by saying a few words about the University’s mission and how that translates into what we see as our essential qualities now and going forward.
The role and scope for UA Little Rock approved by this Board identifies several important characteristics. We are a doctoral-level/research university that necessarily responds to the increasing need for graduate, professional, and doctoral education in a metropolitan environment in the Capital City. We are strongly committed to research and public service, particularly in support of, and in partnership with regional businesses, community organizations, government agencies, and other educational entities. We recognize our role and responsibility to help solve problems and generate growth in Arkansas.
We are an institution that serves a diverse student body. About half of our undergraduate population is of traditional age, and the other half is non-traditional; and in both categories we provide an opportunity for many first-generation students to reach their aspirational goals. A large percentage of our students are working adults who are coming to us to “up-skill”, finish a degree, or set a completely new course for themselves as they work to change careers or develop a natural talent. We understand the need for our students to have access to professional experiences through internships, service learning, client-oriented project-based learning, and original research with a faculty mentor. Now more than ever, it is imperative for us to help our students make connections between what they do in our classrooms and what they will do in their careers and their communities.
Last summer as then provost, I led a retreat for the deans council where I began by asking them to reflect on our identity as an institution. What did they believe were our essential characteristics? What is at the core of who we are. What emerged was a set of values that dovetails with our role and scope. First, we provide an educational experience that enables our students, however they come to us, (traditional or non-traditional, under-prepared or Donaghey Scholar, baccalaureate or graduate student) to develop their professional capacity and enhance their social mobility. Second, we are intentional about contributing to regional growth and wellbeing through our programs, our applied research, and through the education of Arkansans who will pay it forward and help build a stronger Arkansas. And the third essential characteristic, recently developed in earnest, is that we are dedicated to continuous improvement in our institution through professional development, assessment, strategic planning, and the recognition of excellence.
In short, the identity that came into view describes an institution that recognizes that as we strive for distinction in our research profile, our public service centers, and our educational programs, we also understand the transformational responsibility that we hold for our students and our community.
With that in mind, I’d like to briefly outline where I think we are as an institution, and where we are going.
It is no secret that UA Little Rock has many current challenges. Our enrollment, excluding high school concurrent declined 9% from fiscal year 18 to fiscal year 19, and had declined 16% for the six years before that. Through a series of enrollment manager turnovers, and sometimes, no enrollment manager, UALR failed to develop an enrollment management strategy or to address many of the myriad structural problems with our student-facing services. Meanwhile, the budget and planning process foundered. With the exception of a major restructuring in 2014, annual budgets were rolled, sometimes with across-the-board cuts and sometimes with increases, but with no mechanism for meaningful analysis, prioritization, or strategic planning. Consequently, even though we made significant cuts last year, our E&G budget is approximately level to where it was nine years ago when we had 3000 more students. Even factoring in inflation, we’re off the mark in adjusting our budget to current circumstances. There is still a lot to sort out and analyze, but I can tell you that as an institution, we focused on making critical changes to our operations and most importantly, developing a comprehensive institutional plan with clear priorities and expectations.
At this point, we are concentrating on changes in three critical areas: 1) Integrated planning, 2) enrollment management, and 3) budget integrity.
Prompted by our preparation for our HLC accreditation visit this coming February, we began working nearly two years ago to remediate all of the areas where we thought we would be vulnerable. We beefed up our assessment practices, we worked on getting our policies in order, we set up complaint lines and consumer sites, and created from scratch, a decision support data warehouse with dozens of dashboards to provide data at your fingertips. In a relatively short period of time we addressed every conceivable issue in criteria one through four. The one big deficit, however, was criterion 5 concerning the integration of institutional planning with the budgeting process. UA Little Rock, just did not have a history of true budget planning in the way that is now considered best practice. The summer before last, the HLC Steering Team insisted on bringing in a consultant for a summer retreat that would help us get started on building this process. From that retreat the Institutional Effectiveness Committee was created whose charge was to review budget units across campus for effectiveness, efficiency, and centrality to mission. It did that and submitted an extensive report with recommendations last February.
It took a while to get started on those recommendations, but now we have. And I’ll talk about some of those in a minute. But concerning integrated planning, we’ve taken some important first steps by asking the IEC to help us with budget reduction scenarios based on their analyses, and having them work with the campus community to gain broad feedback from stakeholders. Meanwhile, our new Executive Budget and Planning Director has created a new budget cycle planning process. And as you have already heard from the audit report, we have been addressing budget control issues to better align our budget practices with financial reality. We have a lot more work to do to create a fully integrated planning process, but we have done a lot of professional development in this area and are making progress. We have the HLC Steering Team members to thank for that. They are the ones who kickstarted this effort.
In that Institutional Effectiveness Committee report last February, the number one recommendation was to produce an enrollment management plan and to frankly get our act together in our student onboarding processes, which at that point were severely impaired. With new leadership in Student Affairs that is now becoming a reality. Our Financial Aid Office is now functioning properly and instead of taking months to package scholarships and financial aid, we are now getting it done within 24 hours of receiving required documentation from students. We have given them more training, more access to information they need, and have cross-trained our admissions and financial aid employees so that they can help each other help our students in more flexible and effective ways.
Our new assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management brought in last spring has focused on renewing relationships with high schools, community colleges, and community partners so that we are now back on track in that area and have started implementing on-site, one-stop application days to admit and scholarship students at high schools and other sites by invitation. We have expanded our recruitment inventory to include more targeted initiatives and more cooperative events with other units in order to leverage our resources to the greatest effect. These improvements appear to be showing results. As of this month, our undergraduate admissions for fall are up 52% and new freshman admits are up 156% compared to this time last year. We know these numbers may not hold through the spring, but we are cautiously optimistic that the changes we have made are having a positive impact. There will be more to come. And, we will have a comprehensive enrollment management plan in place by the end of this calendar year. It will cover our recruitment and marketing plans and will also include retention goals and strategies—some new and some enhanced versions of initiatives already under way. We also know that unmet financial need is one of the strongest predictors of persistence, so we are analyzing our scholarship portfolio to better address this need.Now on to the third area of budget integrity. As everyone who manages a budget knows, when your revenue falls short of your expenditures, there are only two things you can do: increase revenue and reduce expenditures. I am confident that we are on the right path to increase tuition revenue through better enrollment management, but it won’t happen overnight and we have to make rational projections based on prevailing trends. There are other potential sources of revenue we are looking at, but these will take time to fully develop. Therefore, we must work on a plan to reduce expenditures and we must do it strategically. We will do this in several ways and the specifics of each general strategy will be informed by feedback from the campus community and will be based on institutional priorities. Universities are often criticized for spending too much on administration. So, the first strategy will be to consolidate, reorganize and downsize to reduce administrative costs overall. A second strategy will be to downsize our physical plant by consolidating space needs and taking a few buildings offline. Third, we will continue the academic planning process with a goal of consolidating or eliminating programs with low demand. Meanwhile, our Institutional Effectiveness Committee is submitting budget reduction proposals for consideration by the campus community and the Provost is launching stakeholder focus groups to assess community needs.
We have a lot of hard work to do, but I want to emphasize that there are many individuals at UA Little Rock that have already been working hard to make this a better institution. We are ready for the challenge and I am optimistic about our future. We have an important role to play in this state and in this city. Our students come to us with many different backgrounds and in many different stages of life. Our commitment is to be here for them. To challenge them to dig deep, and to provide a pathway to success.
I’d like to introduce you to three of our students whose stories represent the essence of who we are as a university. Rebekah Wilson is getting a BFA in Art, Kyle Hooks is completing his MS in Computer Science, and Shibani Lal is getting a double Business degree in Business Analytics and HR Management. We have a short video for you to watch and then I’ll ask them to come forward and be recognized.
Rebekah, Kyle and Shibani; please come forward. Trustees, these students represent the power of educational transformation. We chose them not because they are extraordinary, although in many ways they are, but rather because they are typical students who exemplify what can be done with opportunity. They would be happy to take any questions you may have.
Thank you Honorable Trustees. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have for me.