The year 2020 was a year unlike any other, where the University of Arkansas at Little Rock faced major challenges that included a global pandemic that has redefined the education landscape.
“Throughout the year, we faced all of these challenges with determination and unprecedented levels of collaboration and collegiality no matter how exhausted we were,” Chancellor Christina Drale said during the Jan. 28 Board of Trustees meeting for the University of Arkansas. “That’s not to say there weren’t disagreements, but we rose above all of that to get the job done and I am very, very proud of the work of our campus community at all levels.”
Last fall, Drale outlined four priorities that highlight how UA Little Rock serves a diverse student body, offers degrees that meet the demand for professional and advanced level preparation in areas of critical need, and applies the university’s expertise and resources to public concerns and community wellbeing.
“I called upon our campus community to remember our core mission and focus on our institutional priorities in all that we do,” she said.
UA Little Rock has risen to the occasion to implement these efforts during this challenging time. The university has responded to the needs of the community and is meeting our obligation to support a diverse campus with programs that lead to careers for Arkansans.
Priority 1: Enhancing access to higher education and enhancing student success
UA Little Rock has made its first priority to meet the needs of new and future students by increasing access to higher education and enhancing student success.
Among the ways that UA Little Rock is meeting the challenges of the campus community include the creation of the CARE Team in 2020. This highly capable team of dedicated student advocates includes licensed social workers and other support specialists that assist students with a wide range of personal challenges that might otherwise derail them in their pursuit of a college degree.
Through generous donations that drive student success initiatives, UA Little Rock has created a fully endowed Office of Student Retention that provides proactive support for students through academic coaching, mentoring, crisis intervention, and life-skills training. Among other student success initiatives, UA Little Rock is reinvesting in the Student Experience Center with a newly reconstituted Multicultural Center.
With these new developments in student success initiatives, the university’s freshman retention rate has improved from 64 percent in fall 2019 to 74 percent in the fall 2020 semester, an increase of 10 percentage points.
With a goal of enhancing access to higher education, the university has improved the recruitment, admissions, and financial aid infrastructure to become more efficient, effective, and data driven.
“We enhance access through broadening financial assistance, better outreach across different populations, and by creating a more welcoming and inclusive learning environment,” 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.”
Priority 2: To develop, maintain, and strengthen the right mix of liberal arts and pre-professional undergraduate and graduate programs that will prepare our students for viable career paths or career enhancements
With priority two, UA Little Rock has invested in meeting the needs of the community by supporting a diverse campus with programs that lead to careers for Arkansans and meet the state’s growing business and industry needs.
During 2020, UA Little Rock held a series of focus groups with business and community leaders to understand their knowledge of the university and how UA Little Rock can help meet the needs of the community. Feedback from community members was used in the academic planning process.
UA Little Rock is placing an emphasis on career connection with the launch of a new Career Center this spring while creating partnerships with business, industry, government, and community partners to develop high-quality programs and to provide unique applied experiences that give students an advantage in their post-graduation endeavors.
To ensure that students are getting the best education possible, UA Little Rock is investing in more professional development for faculty members.
“We have long supported our faculty-led Academy for Teaching and Learning Excellence,” Drale said. “In recent years, we have been able to expand their capacity, and we now have an endowment for that unit. We are also supporting innovative training opportunities such as the Mobile Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching that promotes student-centered teaching practices.”
Priority 3: To develop, maintain, and strengthen a research and creative work portfolio appropriate to our Carnegie status and one that applies our talent and expertise to real life issues
As an urban research university, UA Little Rock is dedicated to addressing public concerns through innovative research and providing support and resources for the university’s researchers.
“For universities like ours, research is a way to engage our communities to develop new products, solve urgent problems, and contribute to the overall health and wellbeing of our society,” Drale said.
UA Little Rock has improved supporting grants and contracts through the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, is providing opportunities for professional development, incentives for pilot projects, and alternative funding sources for both sponsored and unsponsored research.
Since students play a key role in research projects, UA Little Rock promotes student researchers through the Signature Experience Program and other research mentoring programs. With a goal of developing more resources to promote research, UA Little Rock has launched a marketing campaign to profile research at the university. This campaign highlights and encourages student involvement in research.
Priority 4: To promote community engagement through our educational programs, our research and public service programs, and through Trojan Athletics.
UA Little Rock is fulfilling its public service mission by promoting community engagement through education, research, and public service programs. Community engagement represents a critical component of educating students.
“Our academic programs work with community partners who serve as clients for student projects, as internship and clinical placement providers, as sources of mentorship, and as investors in our educational infrastructure,” Drale said. “Our public service units such as our public radio stations and Children International engage our community constituents very directly and also provide internship opportunities for our students that help keep them engaged and successful.”
UA Little Rock’s Athletics program also demonstrates how student success and community engagement come together.
“Our Trojan Athletics program is a model of increasing educational access and enhancing student success,” Drale said. “Athletic scholarships give many students an opportunity to attend college they might not have otherwise, and the mentoring and academic support they get as part of their program helps them to be very successful students, second only to our honors students in the Donaghey Scholars Program in average GPA. At the same time, Trojan Athletics is the primary point of contact for many of our local community members and serves as an important reflection of our identity.”
This variety of community service activities and partnerships ensures that UA Little Rock maintains a strong connection with the community. UA Little Rock is partnering with the City of Little Rock on the Asher Avenue redevelopment project that will include a renovation of University Plaza.
“We are at the beginning of this effort, but we have assembled committees made up of campus and community partners who are exploring the possibilities of this development,” Drale said. “They will canvas the needs and wishes of students, neighbors, faculty, and other constituents to help us formulate a new vision for this important gateway into our campus.”
In her conclusion, Drale reiterated that times of crisis constitute an opportunity to reflect on what is important and focus on what is lasting.
“In spite of our considerable challenges this past year, we have not lost sight of what is important and eternal,” she said. “And although we still have much work to do, I believe the path forward is clear.”