Chancellor Drale’s University Assembly Address
Good afternoon. I’m pleased to welcome all of our new faculty, staff, and students to UA Little Rock this fall, and to offer my heartfelt gratitude to everyone in our Trojan family for all that you do each and every day.
At today’s assembly you’re going to hear some encouraging enrollment news from Cody Decker, you’ll hear about our new faculty and other academic news from David Montague, and you’ll hear about the spectacular success of our capital campaign from Christian O’Neal. So, I won’t steal their thunder by talking about those topics in substantial detail. Rather, I’d like to focus my remarks on where I think we are at this moment in history and what the future may hold in store for UA Little Rock.
As you know, over the last several years, this institution has made significant strides to improve its performance in all areas, to demonstrate its value proposition to all stakeholders, and to respond effectively to a legion of extraordinary environmental challenges. In that time, we have demonstrated that we have the capacity to problem-solve, to think innovatively, and to adapt and change to produce better outcomes.
Last fall, we were able to increase our freshman class by 29% reversing a downward trend of many years. With such a big increase in one year, we worried a bit that we might not be able to sustain the same size of freshmen class this year and would backslide. So, we doubled down and continued to innovate, and this fall I’m happy to say, we held steady on freshman enrollment bringing in the same size class as last year. This is critically important because as those larger freshmen classes move up each year, it should increase the overall size of our student body and help stabilize our enrollment. And this year, as you know by now, we finally halted a thirteen-year decline and posted a 1% increase in FTE enrollment. This is a big deal and we can be very proud of this accomplishment.
Nevertheless, we cannot rest. Sustaining this forward movement is going to be our challenge. The higher education landscape is highly volatile at this time and we must continue to analyze the trends and adjust our strategies accordingly. We must ask ourselves what will it take to push forward to a state of sustainable equilibrium? For instance, we’ve done a lot of work on improving the affordability of education for our students through fundraising and partnerships. Our net price has gone from being the highest among public 4-year institutions in Arkansas to now being one of the lowest. We have also made great strides in providing more flexibility and points of entry in the types of credentials we offer and the modality of attaining them. Accessibility is a foundational value and goal of this institution. It is the first among our institutional priorities. But is it enough? I would argue that the answer to that question is no. It is certainly an essential ingredient, but insufficient by itself in the formula for sustainable success.
Another area we’ve been working to enhance is the experience that people have when they engage with this campus. Experience is the theme of our second institutional goal, specifically to cultivate an engaging campus community. There are a lot of things that go into this—the physical space must be compelling, indoor and out, it has to facilitate engagement as well as being attractive and functional. As you know, we’re working on this in dozens of different ways such as the Trojan Way project, the Library Commons, the Grove, and upgraded labs and classrooms to name a few. Our campus looks better than ever and it’s improving every day.
Customer service and communication for all constituents, internal and external, has to be excellent in order to build and maintain positive relationships. We’ve taken significant steps forward in several key areas, but this is the kind of work that is never completely done; there is always room for improvement and we will continue to identify and pursue those opportunities.
A critical part of the UA Little Rock experience is the cultural environment. The campus must not just tolerate, but celebrate the rich diversity of backgrounds and perspectives that our students and employees bring to the campus community. We don’t have to agree about all things, but as our guest speaker, Monica Guzman, said last spring, we should be fearlessly curious about each other and recognize that this is a valuable asset for ourselves, for our campus, and for our community. It improves our ability to be a collaborative, problem-solving organization, and facilitates better retention because everyone can feel a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. We’ve been working on this goal as well, and I want to thank Melvin Beavers, the Diversity Council, and the newly renamed Committee on Racial Equity for Students for their help in promoting this initiative. It’s clear that we have more to do, but I think we can all agree that the way that people experience our campus, physically and interpersonally is another essential ingredient in the formula for sustainable success.
Still, are these two ingredients enough? I don’t think so. The last ingredient that I’ll talk about today concerns our purpose for existing—the educational product we offer that results in our students’ educational attainment; our third institutional goal. We can have an affordable product in a cool environment, but if the product itself is not compelling, the first two things don’t matter. Once upon a time, universities based their curriculum on traditional, mostly medieval categories, and change was very slow. But that was OK because the needs of the elites who attended those universities didn’t change very fast either. Today, we have a different kind of student body, and not only has the pace of change increased exponentially, but the institution that does not have its ear to the ground for the approaching needs of society will be the institution that fades away.
UA Little Rock’s current value proposition is that our career path programs across the curriculum, and our experiential learning opportunities, enhanced by our research status, our industry partnerships, our community engagement mission, and our location in Arkansas’ capital city, give our students a significant advantage in building a future.
I believe we are making good on that proposition in a wide variety of programs. And new initiatives like the CyberLearN program, and the teacher education residency program are strengthening our proof of concept in critical need areas. I invite you to listen to the student and alumni testimonials we’ve been recording over the last year if you have any doubt of that. They will blow you away.
And this is, I have no doubt, the key to our future. Much like we’ve done with accessibility and the campus experience, we need to double down on our efforts to develop innovative and compelling educational opportunities that serve tomorrow’s needs and distinguish our institution as an educational leader. This is the last and perhaps the most challenging essential ingredient in the formula for sustainable success. It can be difficult to let go of familiar patterns and take risks. But we have clearly demonstrated that we are up to the task. We have the capacity and the talent, and the plan to grow again, to thrive, and continue to build a sustainable future.