University Assembly – Chancellor’s Report

Good afternoon, it’s a pleasure to see you all here and to welcome those of you joining us virtually.

I want to begin with several thank you’s and acknowledgments.

For the last four years, Amanda Nolen has led the Faculty Senate as well as the Assembly through a number of challenging tasks and has done so with wisdom and compassion. Along with the Executive Committee, she has played a critical role in representing the faculty voice in restructuring, faculty governance, pandemic protocols, and strategic planning to name just a few of our most significant initiatives. I know that Dr. Nolen will continue to make significant contributions to this institution in the years to come, but I want to take this opportunity to say, Amanda, thank you for your excellent leadership.

I also want to thank Melody Weigel, Cody Henslee, and Rosalie Shahan for their very capable leadership of the Staff Senate. Not only have you continued to bring assistance and recognition to your fellow staff members, but you have increased the level of engagement with the Faculty Senate to promote your common goals and strengthen your voice. I commend you for that.

I want to thank the leadership of the Student Government Association and the Graduate Students Association over the last few years—Katie Zakrzewski, Landon DeKay, and Ashley Chamberlain with the SGA; Natalie Snow, Brandon Burdette, Rebekah White, and Christine Jones with the GSA. You have had the difficult task of maintaining student engagement in spite of the pandemic, and you have done so admirably. For instance, idea of initiating a racial barriers committee came from students and the committee maintains a significant student involvement today. Thank you for all that you do and have done for your fellow students at UA Little Rock.

There are many others, too numerous to mention, who have stepped up and shown true leadership over the last few years. From recruitment and retention initiatives to new academic programs, new grants, new partnerships, and new infrastructure—UA Little Rock has been on the move, thanks to all of you who rose to the challenge of keeping our institution strong and relevant in the face of challenging circumstances.

Finally, I want to thank the members of my leadership team, old and new, for their courage and creativity; and for coming back to work every day even when sometimes it seems like running away with the circus might be a more attractive option.

I’m going to devote the rest of my remarks today discussing what we’ve accomplished and where I think we’re going from here, but before I do, I want to say a few words about the budget because I know many are anxious about that. Based on an analysis of what we’ve spent so far this year, we expect to end FY22 solidly in the black and to post another net position gain. We were helped a great deal by federal CARES funds, but we also had a lower level of spending because of reduced travel, events, and supplies due to the pandemic.

In preparing for next year, we had hoped to be able to do another careful variance analysis like we did last year, but due to problems with the Workday budgeting software as well as a staffing shortage in the budget office, we weren’t able to get there. So, for the FY23 budget we are essentially rolling over the FY22 budget with adjustments based on confirmed information and historical trends. We will submit a balanced budget for FY23 and will continue to work on the budget detail into next fall. In addition, as we head into the new fiscal year, we will be completing our new institutional strategic plan, which should guide us in making budget adjustments going forward. We continue to have a healthy reserve and are in no danger of not meeting our obligations.

And now I’ll turn to our other initiatives.

It’s no secret that in the last two and a half years, I’ve been rallying the campus community around four institutional priorities that represent our institution’s role and scope and thus, our commitment to the State of Arkansas. My goal in doing this is to bring into sharp focus the value proposition that UA Little Rock brings to the table. That is, that our institution is indispensable to the future of Arkansas, particularly central Arkansas. Why is it indispensable, why does it matter that we are here? It matters because we are in the best position to build relationships within our own community and to build pathways to careers for our students. We are in the best position to build a strong workforce and a strong economy in our own community; and to ensure that Little Rock is a place where people want to live and work. That’s not to say no one else can do that, but we have an opportunity to do it best for central Arkansas; and we must embrace this advantage to secure the future of this institution and for the benefit of all. We cannot take it for granted that everyone knows this value proposition. We have to reinforce this message every day in what we say and more importantly in what we do.

Our four institutional priorities are centered on reinforcing this message. Enhancing student access and student success brings more students, particularly those more likely to be disenfranchised, into the higher education pipeline and into a supportive environment where they have a chance to get to the next level of success. This is good for the community, it’s good for business, and it helps build a sustainable future for central Arkansas.

The relevant academic programs that we offer are responsive to the needs of our community, they are experiential so students make stronger connections to their career path, and they can be accessed in a variety of formats to reduce barriers to education. Our quality academic programs prepare a high-level professional work force for an advanced and diversified economy.

Our research portfolio does three important things for Arkansas. First, it largely addresses real-world issues making significant contributions to public wellbeing. Second, our applied research can often be commercialized and turned into businesses that help build our economy. Third, it gives our students, even at the undergraduate level, the opportunity to work and be mentored in a research environment giving them a significant advantage whether pursuing advanced study or a specific career path. You need only attend our annual research expo, such as the one last Friday, to understand what this opportunity does for our students and their level of preparation. The work these students do is simply stunning. And it wouldn’t happen if research was not a part of our mission.

Finally, our public service is the very essence of community-building and community strengthening. From the University District Partnership, to Children’s International, to the Small Business Center, to AEDI, to MidSouth, to Public Radio and more. We invest our time and treasure beyond the boundaries of our campus to provide much needed services that would not likely be available otherwise. This too is part of our value proposition because not only does our public service make valued contributions to the community, but by integrating these services with our academic and research activities, they help us expand our research portfolio and provide additional opportunities for students to learn by doing.

So, how have we worked on these priorities in the last few years? What have we accomplished?

Obviously, we have struggled with enrollment declines in recent years, but we have worked very hard to make improvements in both recruitment and retention, and in particular, we’ve made progress on improving affordability. We know from surveys and other data that cost remains the primary barrier for students entering or staying in college. For many years, UA Little Rock raised its tuition and fees every year to address rising costs and flat state funding until we got to the point where we became the most expensive public university in the state. It has been my goal to change that, and we have. We have held our tuition constant for the last three years and will do so again next year in spite of pressures on our budget. In addition to that, we have greatly increased our capacity to award need-based scholarships adding tens of millions of dollars to our endowment through private gifts. When you put these two things together we have been able to lower our net price of attendance by 13.5% in two years, and we are now in the middle of the pack cost-wise. We’ve made big improvements on virtually every step of recruitment through new technology, new protocols, and new personnel. I’m happy to report that as of Wednesday, new freshman applications are up 20% for this fall.

We are also beginning to invest in the recruitment of non-traditional students. You may have seen in the news recently that we are partnering with Amazon in their Career Choice program that covers the cost of tuition. We already have 76 applications from local Amazon employees for the fall semester. Starting this summer, thanks to Donaghey funding, we will be hiring a full-time non-traditional recruiter to work with companies and others to recruit more non-traditional students. Also, thanks to Donaghey funding, we have a new graduate recruitment program called the “get your feet wet” scholarship. This program is designed to encourage college seniors who might not otherwise consider going to graduate school to try it out and get their first course for free. We brought in twenty-five new graduate students this year and we’re doubling the size of the program for next year.

We are making strides in retention support. This slide shows just some of the initiatives we’ve invested in, largely through grants and gifts. The highlighted programs are new. We have greatly expanded our capacity to offer mentoring, coaching, and intervention services to all of our students. Through the Child Care Connections program we are now able to offer child care funding to PELL-eligible undergraduates. Our new Career Services Center is now in full swing assisting students with internships, job searches, career preparation and other critical services. We are also increasing our investment in student activities and clubs to enhance the campus experience and provide additional learning opportunities.

In the category of student success support, I also include investments we make in our living and learning environment because students (and all of us) benefit by having up-to-date, functional, accessible, and welcoming environments both in our educational spaces and our shared congregational spaces. You no doubt saw our recent communication about a variety of campus improvements, but let me share a few more. We are in the process of transforming the center of campus into the true heart of our campus that it should be. We have completely remodeled the first floor of the Ottenheimer Library transforming it into the new Learning Commons housing our various tutoring centers and providing more space for student learning. We have refurbished the first floor of SUB formerly occupied by Rhetoric and Writing and brought in previously far flung student services like TRIO, McNair and PEAW so that most of our student services will be concentrated in the center of campus. We are about to begin a remodeling project on the second floor of Ottenheimer to provide optimum space for our new Multicultural Center. Student Affairs has invested over $1 million in campus living and the DSC to make much-needed upgrades in those facilities. New signage is in the works and will be in place over the summer.

The newest project that will help tie all of this together and improve the connections to the rest of campus is a $5.5 million Donaghey-funded redesign of the library plaza and the north-south campus walkway. The new Trojan plaza will feature bistro seating with a natural tree canopy for shade, various plantings with seat walls, a raised stage area, and space for outdoor art installations. Oh, and by the way, all of the brick pavers will be removed and replaced with a mobility-friendly alternative. The current north-south campus corridor, which was built in different phases with different materials and different designs will be completely replaced with a unified design and a spectacular border of flowering native trees. This project will begin in late summer and probably take about a year, but I guarantee you, it will be worth the wait. This project will be transformational for the look and feel of the campus and will greatly enhance the living and learning experience of our students.

In the recent campus survey on values, we asked faculty, staff, and students to comment on what makes us unique, what, we do well, and what we could do better. The answer to all three questions included academic programs. Respondents identified us as unique in our program variety and flexibility. They said we particularly do online education very well and that we do a better job than others in providing opportunities for internships, research with faculty, and community engagement. This slide provides a graphic of some of the many educational partners we have at UA Little Rock that invest in our programs and help us offer some of the best experiential learning in the state.

Some survey respondents felt that we should expand these opportunities across more of our programs, and I couldn’t agree more. I’d like to see every department and school on campus have a career path-oriented advisory board that can help them build their community connections, update their curriculum, expand their internship base, and develop new sources of investment. Industry and community partnerships are the key to growth of programs and the key to ensuring relevance to our constituents.

Building on another of our strengths, I’d like to see all programs provide opportunities for students to work directly with faculty on projects—research, creative works, community initiatives—whatever it is, this is an important part of what makes us better and we need to make sure every academic program is doing this in some form.

As chancellor, I am committed to investing in our academic programs to build on our strengths and meet the needs of our community. Last year I asked the Donaghey Foundation to fund an internship expansion program so we can offer paid internships in organizations and agencies that are important career-path partners, but that don’t have the means to offer paid internships. We have funding for 20+ internships now and we’ll expand that as needed. Departments that are interested in developing these types of internships can contact the career center for more information.

To help programs build capacity, the Provost and I will work with academic units and deans to identify strategies for building better career-path connections as well as potential sources of investment. Meanwhile, the Academic Strategic Planning Committee is hard at work analyzing our academic portfolio and preparing goals that reflect the kind of educational experiences and opportunities that will ensure our relevance into the future.

Our research portfolio is growing and we continue to work on several fronts to secure more funding for this priority. Our grant awards have been growing steadily and we are developing donor sources to supplement this, for instance with incubator funds to develop new areas of research. You’re probably familiar with our biggest grants through MidSouth, Nanotechnology, Information and Computer Science, and Emerging Analytics. I applaud the hard work of those units and I’m pleased to see that they continue to grow and thrive. But I want to bring to your attention to a recent grant that I believe has the potential to bring another discipline into the spotlight and strengthen our connections with the community. In December, we learned that we are one of eight universities to receive a grant from Forward Arkansas, a non-profit organization established to improve educational outcomes in the K-12 system. Thanks to project leads Kent Layton and Sarah Beth Estes, we were awarded a $100,000 planning grant to grow our teacher education program and increase the number of teachers in Arkansas, particularly in high-need locations. This will help produce the kind of program capacity I just mentioned and will help us make a stronger contribution to the supply of teachers in Arkansas. This is a great example of why it matters that we are here, and why research is a vital part of our mission.

You may be interested to know that we invest very little of our regular institutional funds in our public service operations. These units run mostly or entirely on grants, contracts, and gifts, and yet, they provide great value for our campus in the form of community engagement, experiential learning opportunities, and research collaboration. One example of this is the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center. The ASBTDC provides consulting and training to people across the state who want to start or grow a small business, but in addition to that, they also facilitate what they call the real-world classroom, which brings faculty, students, and small business clients together to work on projects to help those clients prosper.

Another example is the University District Partnership, which serves as a revitalization program for the neighborhoods surrounding the UA Little Rock main campus. It works with our 501(c)3, the University District Development Corporation to rehab or rebuild houses in the district for income-qualified first-time homebuyers. This year we are building seven new homes, the most we’ve done at once since the unit was formed in 2006. In addition to the great work they do lifting up the University District, they also provide experiential learning opportunities for our students. Each semester the UDDC works with the Innovation Clinic at the Bowen Law School to have law students assist in acquiring titles to donated property. This fall, they also worked with students and faculty from the Social Work and Public Administration programs to interview community stakeholders in preparation for redeveloping the University Plaza.

These are two more examples of why it matters that we are here. So, take heart. We’re doing great work here—indispensable work, and we can do more. Help me spread the word that UA Little Rock is the community’s best educational partner. Best in educational opportunity, best in flexible, career-path education, best in community engagement. And let’s continue to build on these strengths.

I want to conclude by showing you a video that illustrates a lot of the things I’ve been talking about—particularly the value of our location, the value of industry and community partnerships, the value of experiential learning, and the profound experience it produces for our students. If you watched the video I presented at the last Board of Trustees meeting, you will recognize some of the voices of our community partners, but in this video, we’ve added the voices of some of our students. Please enjoy.

Thank you, and I will be happy to take questions.

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