Graduating associate dean says ‘it’s all about the students’

A well-known associate dean at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock said he is looking forward to helping the “most important people on campus” after completing his college education.

Richard Harper II, associate dean of students, graduated May 11 with a Doctor of Education in higher education administration. He wears many hats on campus, serving as the immediate past president of Staff Senate and the advisor to the Student Government Association.  

“Now that graduation is over, I plan to continually live by my professional motto,” he said. “I’m here to positively impact the lives of students. The other motto I live by is that students are the most important people on campus. Without them, there would be no purpose for us to be here. I will continue to advocate for students and make sure our services are high quality and continue to be an asset for higher education.”

Although he usually attends graduation as a member of the administration to show support for students, Harper said he enjoyed taking his administrative cap off for a day to enjoy his graduation just like any other student with his immediate family, cousins from Mississippi, and godparents from Texas.

“This year, I was just a student, and I loved walking across the stage in front of my friends and family and just cherishing the moment,” he said.

Harper’s students have known of his doctoral aspirations and have been calling him “Dr. Harper” for some time, motivating him to complete his degree sooner rather than later.

“Since I am currently SGA’s advisor, it’s a very cool experience, but also scary, that I get to help shape and mold our student leaders for the future,” he said. “A lot of the students were calling me Dr. Harper before I was done and that served as motivation. I want to inspire and motivate the students as well. If you work hard, stay focused, and do the right thing, you can achieve anything you want, whether it’s in education or in life.”

Harper graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Central Arkansas. He came to UA Little Rock in 2011 to pursue a Master of Arts in higher education administration. After working two years as a graduate assistant in the Office of the Dean of Students, Harper was hired full time as the assistant dean of students.

“I was recruited as a graduate student by John Kuykendall, a faculty member in the higher education department at the time. I got a graduate assistantship, and I’ve been here ever since. I’m happy to be graduating and glad that chapter has come to an end. It’s been a lot of hard work, and it’s great to see my hard work actually be approved by my dissertation committee.”

Harper’s dissertation, A Wrong Made Right: A Qualitative Cross-Case Comparison Study Examining Program Influences On College Readiness, Persistence, and Student Success Outcomes at a Predominantly White University and a Historically Black College,” explored the outcomes of the implementation of the Charles W. Donaldson Scholars Academy at UA Little Rock and Philander Smith College.

The Donaldson Scholars Academy helps students who are at risk due to socioeconomic disadvantages or other factors improve their academic achievement and prepare for college. The programs include ACT Prep Express, which helps high school students in Pulaski County Special School District, Little Rock School District, and the North Little Rock School District prepare for high school graduation, the ACT, and college. The academy also participates in college fairs, hosts meetings with school counselors, facilitates college and ACT prep sessions, and offers fall retreats.

Richard Harper receives a Doctor of Education in higher education administration from UA Little Rock on May 11. Photo by Ben Krain.

Students can participate in the Summer Bridge Academy, a three-week residential program that prepares incoming freshmen for college-level work by eliminating the need for them to take remedial math and English courses. Students who complete the program and attend UA Little Rock, Philander Smith, or University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College are eligible for a $2,500 annual scholarship that is renewable for up to four years.

“This program is a direct result from a 30-year plus desegregation school case,” Harper said. “Part of the settlement was that all the parties agreed that $10 million worth of funds be utilized to increase student success for minority students from Pulaski County Special School District. The students graduate high school, then come to the Summer Bridge Academy, and then they can get up to $10,000 in scholarships for four years to attend UA Little Rock or Philander Smith. I call it a pipeline to student success.”

Harper said he was interested in studying what makes the program successful so that it can be replicated at other colleges.

“I believe that program can be replicated and can really change the narrative of underprepared students coming out of school districts,” Harper said. “When you look at this program, you see how many lives its touching, how many scholarships are awarded, and how many remedial classes are bypassed. How do they get students to bypass remediation, believe in themselves, and matriculate through college? These students are graduating at rates higher than other colleges.”

Richard believes that factors like experiencing college life through the Summer Bridge Academy helps incoming students alleviate many of their fears about college. Having mentors that help them adjust to college, clearly outlined goals and expectations to progress in the program, and a group of peers to share their experiences all help students succeed in college.

“High school students are often told that if you don’t get a high enough ACT score or do well enough in school that college is not for you,” Harper said. “You almost get trapped in another life. If you get these students in a specialized program that helps with academic, social, and financial problems, it exposes them to a different way of learning. We found that students respond well to that. They bypass remediation, do well in their college courses, and persist to graduation. At the end of the day, that is what we are here for.”

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