This is part of an ongoing series about tenured professors who chose to spend their career at Henderson State University.
By Joel Phelps
Randy Duncan admits that desperation initially drew him to Henderson State University. After teaching one semester at Birmingham-Southern College, he learned the university was cutting that position. Likewise, Henderson was desperate for a communications professor as the only one it had left suddenly. Both Duncan and the communications department thought his time at Henderson would be temporary.
Duncan settled in for the long haul, however, as 35 years later he’s still a professor at the School With a Heart. He was one of 88 faculty members affected in last week’s decision by the Arkansas State University System Board of Trustees to cut faculty positions and liberal arts programs.
A native of New Orleans, Duncan said he never thought he would adjust to life in a small town like Arkadelphia. But making “good friends” and teaching “lots of interesting students” along the way changed Duncan’s tune early in his career. “I never thought I would be happy living in a small town,” he said. “I’ve adjusted to that pretty well.”
He realized early on that Henderson was different than larger universities. “I liked being at a teaching institution where I wouldn’t have pressure to publish,” he said. He’d earned his masters degree and doctorate at universities where undergraduates never got to know their professors. Students’ main points of contact were graduate assistants. When Duncan first accepted the position at Henderson he took on the debate team as its coach. One of those original debate team students happened to be Bishop Robert Rudolph Jr., one of the ASU trustees tasked with the difficult decision to approve the cuts proposed by the chancellor and financial exigency committee.
Over the years, Henderson professors like Duncan maintain friendships with former students well after they graduate. A couple months ago, another former student and debate team member from the early ‘90s dropped by Duncan’s office just to check in. “There are some students you stay in touch with,” Duncan said. “Ninety percent of the time the idea of being the School With a Heart really was true. People who stay here tend to be very student-centered, even the professors who set high standards and fail a lot of students. They want students to succeed.”
Alumni likewise care for their former professors, even when the tables turn and the professor could be looking for a job. When former student Ivhar Buendia heard the news that faculty were in trouble of losing their jobs, he offered to write Duncan a letter of recommendation for his next endeavor. Duncan said he has gotten lots of emails from alumni inquiring about the emotional impact of their professors’ careers coming to an abrupt halt. “My answer to that is I’m OK,” said Duncan, a tenured professor who’ll stay another year to teach out the programs that are being phased out. “I get another year, and I was thinking about retiring a couple years down the line. I’m concerned about the younger faculty who’ve found their home in Henderson. Those who didn’t have tenure yet had to pack up their office last week.”
Once his time at Henderson is done, Duncan plans to transition to communication consulting. He’s also been involved in consulting related to the comics studies he teaches. He co-curated a major Marvel Comics exhibition that’s traveling the country. “I’m probably going to be doing more of that kind of stuff,” said Duncan, hopeful for a trip to Dubais in the next couple of years with that traveling Marvel exhibit.
Duncan said he hopes he’s made “some little positive impact” on his students’ lives throughout his career. During a career than spans three and a half decades, Duncan said he’s “gotten to know and care for a lot of people who work here. I know I could have made more money if I had gone somewhere else, but it was a great 35 years.”
He added: “In general, it was a career well spent.”