Chancellor Christina Drale provided her vision and priorities for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock during the University Assembly on Oct. 9.
“The state of UA Little Rock in 2020 is good and getting better. We have a clear course ahead of us, and I look forward to making that journey with you. I would submit to you that the singular lasting value that we must hold dear is the transformational value of education,” Drale said. “As an institution, we are called upon to find a path to sustainability so that value is not lost to our community and the students we serve.”
After looking back on a year of “great struggle and upheaval,” Drale outlined four key priorities that will help UA Little Rock move forward to the future. The first priority is enhancing access to higher education and enhancing student success.
“We enhance access through financial assistance, better outreach across different populations, and by creating a more welcoming and inclusive learning environment where our employment profile reflects the diversity of our community,” Drale said. “We enhance student success by ensuring the high quality of our instruction, and by building a sustainable student support infrastructure that is timely, responsive, and effective.”
The second priority is to develop, maintain, and strengthen the right mix of liberal arts and pre-professional undergraduate and graduate programs that will prepare UA Little Rock students for viable career paths or career enhancements.
“We do this by maintaining a solid liberal arts core as the basis of our general education and by making sure that our academic programs have demand, both from prospective students and prospective employers,” Drale said. “Whether it is a liberal arts program or a pre-professional program, we must be able to demonstrate the value of the credentials we offer.”
Based on the university’s role as an urban research institution, Drale’s third priority is to develop, maintain, and strengthen a research and creative work portfolio appropriate to UA Little Rock’s Carnegie research classification.
“We do this by supporting grants and contracts through our sponsored research office, but also by providing opportunities for professional development, incentives for pilot projects, and alternative funding sources for unsponsored research,” Drale said.
The fourth and final priority is to promote community engagement through educational programs, research and public service projects and programs, and Trojan Athletics.
“By maintaining focus on this aspect of our role and scope, UA Little Rock ensures that we maintain a strong connection to our community and that the value of having an institution like UA Little Rock in Central Arkansas is readily apparent to all,” Drale said.
Budget, Resources, and Enrollment
Increasing enrollment is a vital institutional objective. It represents increased educational opportunity, attainment, and resources that allow UA Little Rock to fulfill its mission and purpose as an institution of higher education. The challenges facing the university include a global pandemic, a national demographic decline in college-age students, and lower funding for higher education due to COVID-19.
“This puts greater emphasis on increasing revenue from other sources and a continuing emphasis on lowering costs,” Drale said. “We are still seeing the effects of a cultural shift on the value of higher education. This year, 51% of our applicants chose to go nowhere for college. While some of that is undoubtedly COVID-related, we were seeing that trend already emerging last year. The emergence, this year, of a global pandemic, has made life harder for all of us, but in a real sense, it mainly exacerbates conditions we were already dealing with, and will continue to face.”
In order to lower costs and balance the budget, UA Little Rock has applied structural reorganization in both academic and non-academic units to reduce administrative costs and used academic planning retrenchment. In the last year, UA Little Rock has developed a comprehensive enrollment management plan and transformed the recruitment, admissions, and financial aid operations.
“Vice Chancellor Cody Decker and his team have increased their effectiveness and reduced time to admission and scholarship from several months to just about 24 hours,” Drale said. “We had record increases in new student applications, admissions, and scholarship applications.”
At the start of fiscal year 2020, UA Little Rock had a net position loss of around $11 million. With COVID-19 related losses and costs and planning for a decline in enrollment for fiscal year 2021, UA Little Rock could have faced a net position loss of $23 million for this year. Through budget cuts, restructuring, retrenchment, the university’s best year in fundraising, and beating SSCH projections by around 5 percent, UA Little Rock is looking at a potential net position loss of $6.5 million.
“As you all know, the internal condition that was most pressing when I became chancellor last September was the rapidly growing loss in net position,” Drale said. “I am pleased to report that we are making good progress on rectifying this problem.”
Drale outlined several next steps to improve UA Little Rock. These include using funds from the UA Little Rock Foundation to build infrastructure for student success through an endowed student retention office with an intervention team, coaches, and mentors. Additional funds from the Donaghey Foundation have been reinvested in Student Affairs success initiatives, the Multicultural Center, and the Chancellor’s Leadership Corps. Donaghey Foundation Funds will also initiate a new Career Center that will open in January 2021.
UA Little Rock is launching several new diversity initiatives with the intention of improving the campus’s learning and working environment. This includes the formation of two new committees: the Racial Barriers Committee and the Chancellor’s Race and Ethnicity Advisory Committee.
“These committees are designed to uncover unintended barriers to access and inclusion and to help us find ways to improve our environment for all people of color,” Drale said. “We have also launched a campus read project for faculty, staff, and students to participate in book discussion groups and to keep the conversation about racial equity front and center.”
Drale will also hold more race and ethnicity forums with students, faculty, and staff this year to keep the conversation alive and relevant on campus.
“I’m pleased to report that Chief (Regina) Carter and our Public Safety office have enthusiastically embraced my recommendation to start meeting with students informally in a positive setting to talk through any issues they may have and to collaborate on campus-wide initiatives. They have already met with the SGA Executive Council and will next meet with students in an open forum this fall. I will hold my next open forums on race and ethnicity on November 11 and 12.”
In community outreach projects, UA Little Rock is partnering with Fifty for the Future, the Chamber of Commerce, and area school districts to support the Ford Next Generation Learning model to help students better prepare for post-secondary success. Additionally, the university is partnering with Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott to reimagine the Asher Avenue corridor and revitalize University Plaza.
The university had its most successful fundraising year to date, bringing in nearly $48 million. University officials are emphasizing endowed scholarships, endowed professorships, program support, research support, and sustainable capital improvements.
“For the first time this year, you are going to see a Holiday Wish List Campaign that allows academic departments to identify specific items for donor support,” Drale said. “This will bring in a lot of new donors and help departments connect with them in a more intimate way. In marketing, you will see more emphasis on supporting specific programs rather than generic institutional branding. We want the community to connect with individuals and their experiences at UA Little Rock, so our strategy there now reflects that.”
UA Little Rock will continue the process of rigorous program assessment and accountability to ensure that the university is not resting on outdated assumptions. As university officials begin the budget process for fiscal year 2022 in November, Drale will move UA Little Rock toward a zero-based budget model.
“We cannot expect students and community members to invest in us if we cannot verify our effectiveness and relevance,” Drale said. “Moving forward it will be important for us to continue turning the ship towards a more intentional planning and budgeting process that is transparent and participatory. I look forward to working with the IEC and the campus community to re-evaluate our historical allocations and move towards a zero-based budget model where alignment to institutional priorities are clear.”
Additionally, university personnel will rewrite the institutional strategic plan next year to more clearly delineate means and ends and identify measurable gains.
“The ultimate measure of our success will be that we have programs that students want to enroll in, and that we have graduates who contribute to their communities and that employers want to hire,” Drale said. “The measure of our success will be a reputation for excellence and vital relevance to the community.”
You can read Chancellor Drale’s full University Assembly speech here.