By Joel Phelps
Thursday marked a new but uncertain era for Henderson State University as the elimination of numerous faculty and academic programs were finalized.
In a two-hour meeting Thursday, Henderson Chancellor Chuck Ambrose addressed the Arkansas State University System Board of Trustees and fielded questions from each trustee. The board also allowed public comment from nine individuals, many of them among the tenured faculty whose programs are being “taught out.”
After ASU System President Charles Welch provided a background on what put the School With a Heart to the brink of shutting its doors, Ambrose addressed trustees.
Ambrose called his proposal a painful but necessary process for the university’s long-term viability. “There is no way to minimize the human impact of the exigency process and the significant disruption eliminating academic positions has on our faculty, their families and our community,” Ambrose said. Without reversing the multi-year trends in enrollment, degree completions, financial stewardship and instructional cost management through a “significant restructuring,” Ambrose said Henderson’s solvency is at risk. “Put simply, surgical and incremental changes are not sufficient” to keep the school financially viable while serving its students.
Further, the chancellor vowed that the liberal arts core and academic rigor are not being “abandoned,” adding that Henderson will partner with ASU System institutions as well as Ouachita Baptist University “to broaden our definition of who our students are.” He promised that Henderson would not close or become a trade school. Ambrose said he also intends to recruit some 6,200 former students who had left without their degree or do not have access to their transcript to continue their education at another institution.
Steve Eddington, a 1984 Henderson graduate and the lone trustee with a Henderson degree, said he didn’t like the thought of cutting programs, especially when it affects students. He asked Ambrose to explain how students would complete their degree in that environment.
Ambrose said the plan was to implement a personalized approach to each student, a process he said has already begun. Also, including tenured faculty in the next year for the teach out and through partnerships, “we’re very confident we have the resources to provide personalized attention for every student to complete their degrees,” he said. “Does that mean every student’s best interest is to remain at Henderson? Faculty are already actively working with students to bridge what’s best for them.”
Trustee Niel Crowson inquired about non-academic expenses being cut. Ambrose said staff has become more scarce over the past several years and the remaining staffers have “shouldered a very significant impact.” Staff were furloughed in 2020, and the combination of all staff cuts total $2 million in net savings, he said. Administrative spending was also “flattened” as stipends were rolled back as part of the furloughs. Concerning athletics, Ambrose said there are open coaching positions “are getting to the point in sports sponsorship and staffing for health and safety the question would be [if we keep] athletics or do we not? We’re having to really think about staffing and attrition and open positions.”
Addressing Welch, Trustee Jerry Morgan asked what might have happened to Henderson had the ASU System not taken over in 2019. “If I’m going to be very honest,” Welch replied, “I truly believe that … the university would have failed to survive and likely would have closed by early 2020.”
To Ambrose, Morgan asked what options there are if the board didn’t approve the proposal. “I’ve asked that question a number of ways,” Ambrose responded. “What’s the alternative? I don’t have that … I believe Arkansas would be asking the question of what to do with 80 acres in Arkadelphia. I believe there would be $78 million in debt that would probably become the responsibility of the state of Arkansas” as well as a workforce issue of a closed campus.
Asked by Morgan to elaborate on the public’s concerns of Henderson becoming a trade school, Ambrose said, “I don’t really know what those terms mean. Those are labels and designations that perhaps once worked for college, but they certainly don’t work for our students.” Shifting the institution’s focus on the value of the degrees if offers, Ambrose said, “gives us the opportunity to redefine college in ways that produce a higher value proposition to the future students that we’ll serve.”
Following an approved motion, the board then opened the meeting to public comment. Trustees gave each speaker three minutes to address the board. They heard concerns from Timothy Barnes, Megan Hickerson, Haroon Khan, Richard Hawthorne, Fred Worth, Katherine Strause, Steve Listopad, a mother identified only as “Tammie” and Nathan Holloway.
Before voting on the proposal, Eddington addressed “the elephant in the room”, referring to a resolution of no confidence Henderson’s faculty senate passed on Wednesday. Welch said he had yet to get official documentation on that resolution, but it was understood that the resolution passed by a majority vote, with 13 assenting, six dissenting and five abstaining. The faculty senate is comprised of 29 faculty members.