Good afternoon. I’m pleased to welcome everyone back to the beginning of a new academic year at UA Little Rock. It’s great to see the students back on campus and feel the energy of campus life starting to return. While we continue to deal with pandemic-related challenges in the months ahead, I want to share with you my conviction that the pathway forward for UA Little Rock is clear and promising.
Let me start by naming the elephant in the room. Obviously, our enrollment is not where we want it to be. I know that some of you are worried about what that might mean for this year, so let me put your mind at ease. The headcount decline is not that far off from what we predicted based on enrollment trend analysis; and that analysis was done last spring before we knew that there would be a delta surge. The good news is that we budgeted for a decline. We projected a 6.4% decline and we have a 7.9% decline not including the Law School and concurrent which are both up. Our SSCHs have declined a little more than that because we have more part-time students this fall than we did last year. The revenue shortfall is likely to be around $2.7 million. We have more than enough federal CARES funds to cover this shortfall and that is precisely what the funds are for. Therefore, I do not anticipate any additional cuts to the FY22 budget.
Another bit of good news is that our residence halls are filled at nearly the same level as last fall, so we shouldn’t see a decline in housing revenue this year. Our new student enrollment (both freshman and transfers) is down this year, but only by a few percentage points, so it’s down less than projected and that may be evidence that we are making progress on the enrollment pipeline, which will have lasting positive effects on future enrollment. Our graduate enrollment is up by 1.6%, which is very good news.
As we think about how to address the enrollment challenges at this institution, it might be tempting to look for a place to lay the blame. While we do need to continue to analyze the data and look for opportunities for improvement, some variables may be beyond our control. We don’t yet know the full impact of environmental conditions and we need a little more time to figure that out. So I’m going to suggest that we strenuously resist the lure of finger-pointing because it simply is not productive. The energy we expend in arguing about who should be blamed could be better spent building up our assets.
I believe the best use of our energies going forward is in planning for the future with intentionality and positivity. This is the very moment we should be focused on strategic planning because this is the very moment we need to be focused on rebuilding UA Little Rock into the university we want it to be, and that it can be.
Think about the university as a habitat. We can live in this habitat in one of two ways. We can be passive and wait to see what comes up and hope that it will sustain us and serve everyone’s needs. Or we can be proactive in planning our community and plant a variety of crops that are sustainable, appropriate to the environment, and fully nourishing. That doesn’t mean we can’t experiment and try new things, but we need to make sure that we have the basic needs covered and that we are growing things that do well in this habitat.
I want to spend a few minutes talking about my vision for integrated strategic planning going forward and how it will help us focus on rebuilding our campus community. You may recall at the spring assembly I announced that we will be developing a new institutional strategic plan this year in preparation for our midterm HLC review in 2024. [share graphic]
I’m going to start by sharing with you a draft of what I’m calling the integrated strategic planning framework. In this framework, all of our planning activities are part of the same integrated framework that is anchored by our mission, role and scope, values and vision.
Everything we plan should be based on the essence of who we are as an institution. Our role and scope as a comprehensive metropolitan research university determines our institutional priorities, which I’ve shared with you on several occasions. From there we develop an institutional strategic plan that will integrate with all other planning. It will be time-bound, probably five years, and will have around five institutional level objectives with specific measurable and achievable goals that we intend to accomplish in five years. As we move out to the outer ring, you’ll see what we are calling component plans. This is not necessarily a comprehensive list and they certainly won’t all happen at once, but this is where our more detailed plans emerge to specify component area objectives, goals, and strategies.
So, here’s an example. Let’s say one of our institutional-level objectives is to improve the affordability of a degree from UA Little Rock. That speaks to our institutional priority of student access to higher education. A goal tied to that objective might be to lower the net price of attendance. Net price is essentially the sticker price of attending college minus the average discount. You might have read in the paper several weeks ago that we’ve been successful in lowering our net price by 11%. But let’s say our goal is to reduce our net price by another 15% in five years. That is specific and measurable. But instead of trying to list all of the strategies in all of the various areas that would be contributing to that goal, we would ask the component area planners to incorporate this goal into their own goals. Not every area would necessarily have a role in this, but it would likely be more than one area. Advancement would be setting goals to bring in more endowed scholarships, student affairs would be working in several capacities to get more students connected to more sources of financial support, and the student retention office would be working to reach more students with financial risk factors to direct them to appropriate sources.
Of all the component areas, academic planning is going to be a key component of our rebuilding efforts. Much of what we decide in other areas depends on what we envision for our academic future. Coming back to the habitat metaphor, we need to be intentional, we need to figure out what to grow and how we need to cultivate essential crops. Those decisions will impact how we develop our physical plant master plan, our research plan, our outreach plans, our marketing plan, and others. For that reason, I have asked the Provost to begin this conversation with academic groups simultaneously with the institutional-level strategic planning process.
As important as our planning efforts are in setting a vision and keeping us focused, we can’t wait until all the planning is done to take action. We need to use what we know now about our role and scope and our current set of circumstances to start rebuilding now. For instance, we know that we need to enhance student life on campus by supporting student organizations and services that have experienced disinvestment in recent years. We also need to address the physical state of the campus, which has also experienced deferred maintenance and disinvestment. These elements can impact our enrollment need immediate attention.
Here are a few of the things we are working on. Almost all of it is supported by private funds.
- First, In the area of fundraising in general we have set a goal of raising $20 million this year. At two and half months into the fiscal year, we are already nearly half the way there. This is an indication that we have done a good job in building good will in the community and we have been diligent in building partnerships with entities that have a stake in the success of our students and our institution. The people we’re talking to care deeply about the future of UA Little Rock.
- We’re using mostly privately raised funds to reinvest in student services that enhance the student life experience on our campus—including student organizations, student programs like the CLC, student activities, mentoring, gathering spaces like the Multicultural Center, etc.
- We have created UA Little Rock’s first true Career Center that will not only provide career services to our students, but will work with the campus to expand internship opportunities. This year we have a pilot program to provide student stipends for otherwise unpaid internships. This allows us to expand opportunities in the arts and humanities and in public service organizations that might not be in a position to offer paid internships.
- You already know about our retention initiatives operation and the CARE team that works with at-risk students. We will see an expansion of services in that area this year because the endowment that supports it has grown.
- After several years of cutbacks and deferred maintenance, we are using a combination of private funds, year-end savings, and CARES funds to address critical maintenance issues on campus as well as facility upgrades and beautification projects; all of these will directly impact the student and employee experience on our campus:
- Very thankful to the volunteers who have helped improve our grounds in time for students to return to campus, but we know that we need a more sustainable solution. Will be hiring a company to help our grounds crews clean up and enhance our campus grounds from top to bottom. We will likely seek an annual contract to keep it up. We know that first impressions are critical to families and prospective students visiting our campus, so this has to be a priority.
- We are building a new Learning Commons in the Ottenhiemer Library on the first floor that will house many of our academic student support services and will be a terrific environment for individual or group study; across the library plaza you will notice that SU-B is getting a make-over in preparation for TRIO and other student services to move in. I want to say thank you to the Provost for spearheading these efforts.
- We are developing more and more partnerships with local industry to upgrade our instructional spaces. This morning I had the pleasure of dedicating the new Clark Project Management Lab in ETAS for Construction Management. This is one of many of these types of investments we have secured, and more are on the way
- We have secured private funds to redesign the Library plaza itself into a more user-friendly environment that will have seating, shade, and a lot less brick. We are working on funding to expand that redesign all the way up and down the main campus walkway. Stay tuned, more on that later. But by next semester, you should see quite a few dramatic improvements in our living and learning environment.
- The work continues in preparation for a complete redevelopment of the Plaza shopping center area on the south end of campus. This will be a P3 project with private investment, but it will transform that part of our campus and give us a mixed-use environment to help us meet the needs of the university, our students, and the community we share in the University District.
There are a lot of other things I could list for you, but I’ll stop there and conclude my remarks by saying that we have the capacity to build the university of the future with intentionality and purpose. Focusing our efforts on this important task will be the best long-term strategy for bringing in more students and promoting their success than just about anything else we might consider. I hope you will join me in rebuilding our habitat.