2020: Focus on the Future

Text overlay- 2020: Focus on the Future over image of the Student Success Center, south facade

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We should not be satisfied with simply reaching our expected student retention and graduation rates but rather exceed those rates by at least 5%. This can be accomplished through our continued efforts in enhancing student success—we are on the right course.

Enhancing the success of our students is one of our highest campus priorities and we have made great strides over the last few years on this priority. Much of our efforts have concentrated on our undergraduate students. Our most recent data show that our first- to second-year retention rate is at an all-time high, as is our 4th, 5th and 6th year graduation rates. Perhaps most notably, over the last three years we have reduced the difference between our expected and actual 6-year graduate rates from 8% to 1%. This improvement is in large part due to the great work being done across campus in our individual academic units. New central programs have also been created to address the five major areas that shape student success: college readiness, the transition from high school to college, retention and persistence of students, timely graduation, and the transition from the university to the next phase of our students’ lives. We also intend to work hard to enhance the success of our graduate and professional students by developing and designing programs that specifically address their unique needs. All of these efforts are a direct reflection of our “one student at a time” philosophy.

The creation of a small student success center on Garland Ave to pilot some of the programs has helped us make progress on student success. Additionally, we’ve taken perhaps the biggest step toward attaining even higher retention and graduation rates by breaking ground on a 71,000-square-foot student success center in the heart of campus. Scheduled to be completed in 2022, this center will be a hub of services and resources to support students from the time they are admitted through graduation and the beginning of their careers. This center will allow us to more effectively coordinate a campus-wide network of student success efforts in a way that is bigger, better, and more efficient. The goal is to help the whole student, which includes academic, physical, mental and emotional health issues, as well as issues related to cultural and social adjustment.

As with the interim student success center on Garland Avenue, the new center will also serve as a laboratory for new ideas and pilot programs that promote K-12 college readiness, student recruitment, transition, retention, and graduation. As a member of the APLU’s southern cluster, we also have a platform for sharing data, ideas, and best practices with our peers, particularly through the Powered by Publics: Scaling Student Success initiative. The goal of this initiative is to work collaboratively “to increase college access, eliminate the achievement gap, and award hundreds of thousands more degrees by 2025.” We are serving as the lead institution for this effort. We also hope to hire tenure-track faculty in relevant departments whose research and scholarship are in the areas of student success, including the use of predictive data analytics and formal modeling to identify factors that promote student success.

In light of anticipated declines in the number of students graduating from Arkansas high schools over the next decade, we will also need to create a comprehensive and long-term plan for more strategic recruitment and enrollment of students. Our goal should be to create a 5-year plan that identifies factors like: academic areas we expect to either grow or retract, the balance we want to strike between undergraduate and graduate/professional students, the number of on-campus versus 100% online students, and the balance of first-year and transfer student admits. Needless to say, this will necessitate that we direct resources to support the enrollment plan we create.

We also have to make a stronger case for the importance of a college education. Even though demographic data show a future decline in available high school graduates here in Arkansas, data also show that our state has one of the lowest rates of high school students who attend college. If we increase this rate, more students will be available for recruitment to our campus. Thus, our recruitment strategy will necessarily mean targeting and encouraging students from areas of the state who have been underserved in past years. To do this, we will need to reevaluate our strategy for distributing financial aid to find ways to promote strategic recruitment and retention. And we will need to design retention programs and assistance targeting students most likely to struggle, including first-generation, transfer and underserved students.

Additionally, we must find ways to reduce the overall cost of education. A recent example of this is the Arkansas Transfer Achievement Scholarship, which enables students who graduated from a UA System two-year college with an associate’s degree to transfer to our campus and continue to pay the same tuition they paid at their two-year school. We need to find other innovative ways to alleviate the financial burden on our students and this means controlling the entire cost of education, including the cost of tuition, housing, textbooks, and fees.

Both students and the university benefit when students are employed on campus. As such, we should promote on-campus employment opportunities for students wherever we can. The data is straightforward: students who work on campus graduate at higher rates. The student success center is expected to provide upwards of 300 jobs, so this is a good step in the right direction. We just need to keep looking for opportunities to create student jobs in other areas of our operation, such as IT services, UREC, student affairs, and in our academic units.

Finding as much external funding as possible to support our students is important. For example, we should apply for and secure more federal grants, such as those offered by the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation to support student success initiatives, as well as find private foundation support. We also need to continue actively raising more private funds for new scholarships after the conclusion of Campaign Arkansas. While we expect to reach our funding goal of $10 million for the Advance Arkansas scholarship program, we still have a long way to go in meeting the overall needs of our students.

In the end, I do believe that we can be a national leader in promoting and enhancing the success of our students. More University of Arkansas degrees, at all levels, will help our students, the region, the state and our nation to prosper.

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We should be the premier resource in the state of Arkansas for delivering timely and relevant education and skills needed by industry and workforce in public and private sectors here in the state of Arkansas, through the creation of innovative academic programs for our students. This includes new and relevant programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels as well as post-baccalaureate certificates that provide additional education needed in areas like data science to healthcare law.

I have been in higher education for more than 35 years and our colleges and universities are currently facing the most volatile period of time that I can remember during that period. Many have begun to question our value and many stakeholders have growing and changing expectations about who we are, what we do, and how we do it. It is becoming increasingly clear that to stay relevant in this dynamic and rapidly changing world we need to evolve and adapt if we are to reaffirm our value to society and address the changing expectations of others. Corporations, businesses and whole industries disappear if they don’t remain relevant, and it seems clear that this relevancy is strongly tied to having a well-educated and modern workforce. That’s where we come in: our university must continue to provide the private and public sectors with well-educated graduates who make a difference in the world, in addition to the cutting edge research done on our campus every day.

Some things we have taught for many years will always have value: critical thinking, creative problem solving, the ability to organize and elucidate complex ideas clearly, and the ability to deal with change in a very dynamic world. Many of these important skills come from the solid exposure we provide our students through the liberal arts. Indeed, a solid foundation in the liberal arts is the cornerstone of a college education and is still important and sought after by those who employ our students after graduation. Therefore, it is important that this foundation be retained as we evolve and adapt to our rapidly changing world. And has always been the case, other skills needed by our students will be replaced by newer, more pressing needs and critical advancements in the workplace. Much of this revolves around advances in technology and the definition of what constitutes a particular job and a particular career. The challenge we face is to create curricula and programs that retain the best features of our existing foundational education while at the same time prepare our students for the realities of an ever-changing workplace.

Given the above, it seems imperative that we work closely and more directly with business and industry to modify existing degrees to meet current workforce needs, as well as develop innovative degree programs that respond to a changing world. This was the vision behind the recent establishment of a B.S. in Data Science here at the U of A. In response to a report released by Governor Hutchinson’s Blue-Ribbon Commission on the Economic Competitiveness of Data Analytics and Computing in Arkansas, three U of A colleges—Fulbright, Engineering and Walton—came together in consultation with industry, philanthropic and government partners to create a new, multidisciplinary, multi-pathway degree that will serve our students and private sector partners well. The establishment of this degree provides a great template for future collaboration and coordination between our academic colleges and industry partners, especially when clear state leadership has been shown. We need to constantly look for other opportunities such as this through better communication with our external partners and stakeholders. To this end, we plan to hire one or more private sector liaisons who will work closely with existing and potential private (and public) sector partners on how the university can design and offer a variety of post-baccalaureate educational opportunities that are innovative and timely. These liaisons will also play a key role in making sure that our private sector partners know more about the high quality graduates we produce while assisting businesses and industries in finding the talent they need from our pool of very talented graduates.

Earning a bachelor’s degree has traditionally been thought of as the end of most people’s formal education. However, given how rapidly people change jobs and sometimes whole careers as well as the rapidly changing demands people encounter in the workforce, lifelong learning and educational opportunities are needed now more than ever. It seems clear that in the future the initial degree won’t provide all of the skills needed for the rest of an individual’s working life. Indeed, perhaps one of the biggest changes we are seeing in higher education is the realization that baccalaureate degrees are increasingly becoming springboards into lifelong learning—the first step, not the last one. We need to be more involved in the lifelong learning process that is emerging. A big thing we can do is to create more post-baccalaureate certificate programs that provide additional education for Arkansans already in the workforce. Post-baccalaureate certificate programs typically include 4-6 courses that provide a great way to supplement your initial degree with new methods, ideas, and skills that can help you advance your career or simply stay abreast of the latest workforce trends.

Creation of post-baccalaureate certificate programs that provide additional education for Arkansans already in the workforce will continue to be important. We already offer a few of these programs, including the Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate (approved in 2018), Lean Six Sigma Graduate Certificate (approved in 2019), and the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages Graduate Certificate (approved in 2019). I believe that we are positioned well to become a leader in providing additional post-baccalaureate education. We can be more responsive to private sector needs by asking what is needed and not waiting to be approached by our potential private and public sector partners. We can be more responsive by creating methods for launching these educational programs as rapidly as possible. And, developing these kinds of programs and opportunities addresses another fundamental issue we are facing—creating new markets for the outstanding educational experiences we offer at the U of A as we face a declining number of high school students available for recruitment to campus.

Distance education is a way to make some of these post-baccalaureate education opportunities, as well as full degree programs, more accessible to people who are already in the workforce. One out of every 10 U of A students in academic year 2018-19 studied exclusively online. Over the same timeframe, four out of every 10 U of A students took at least one online course. Continued development of innovative distance programs will provide access, opportunity, and value. Indeed, we are making rapid progress. The university added 4 new master’s and bachelor’s degree programs and 6 new graduate certificate programs last year alone. Plans are also underway to develop between 9 to 12 new online programs in the near future. We’re taking a more strategic approach based on data that can identify viable, market-driven online programs that directly meet our constituents’ needs. This includes the creation of more professional master’s degree programs, as well as more bachelor’s degrees. And, to incentivize the development of new offerings, we will create a robust revenue sharing model that returns as much of the revenue as possible back to colleges where the programs originate. This revenue stream should be useful for supporting a range of activities in our academic units.

We also need to create additional 2+2 and 3+1 programs with other universities and community colleges around the state. Currently, the Bumpers College has a 3+1 in Poultry Science program with Arkansas State University and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, whereby students can attend those colleges for three years before transferring to the UA campus to complete their final year. This enables our institutions to be mutually supporting rather than competing, while also creating cost efficiencies. In recent years, the Walton College has developed several 2+2 programs, including with NorthWest Arkansas Community College, University of Arkansas, Pulaski Technical College, and North Arkansas College. The College of Engineering also has a 2+2 with UA Fort Smith for Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. These programs improve and expedite the transfer process, create opportunities, and help to ensure students aren’t taking classes that don’t transfer. It may also allow students to stay closer to home initially, save money, and make a commitment to earning their degree before transferring to the U of A for their final years.

I believe that it is also important that we bring the U of A experience to more off-campus locations instead of expecting students to come on campus for classes and programs. The executive education center in Little Rock that was created by the Sam M. Walton College of Business is an example. To this end, we should examine the possibility of creating a satellite campus to our north in Benton County to deliver courses and programs, especially post-baccalaureate opportunities, to employees of local businesses and industries. Many of these classes would necessarily be in the evening, and I believe we would find widespread interest if these classes came without an additional 30-minute drive to Fayetteville (and back) after a full day of work. In describing our student success efforts, we have always said that we want to meet our students where they are. In this case, we need to consider the viability of meeting them literally where many of them are: Benton County. And to ensure cost efficiencies, perhaps co-locating the Rogers Global Campus facility at the same site would make sense.

In summary, the ultimate message here is that we need to be flexible, adaptive, collaborative, and efficient in the creation and delivery of courses and programs if we want to increase our value and relevance to students – wherever they reside, and at whichever point they are in their lives and careers.

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We should be the graduate school of choice for students seeking to diversify and amplify their educational outcomes by providing graduate students with a background and opportunities to pursue a variety of career paths in addition to traditional academic careers

Our conception of student success has never been limited to the confines of campus nor to specific kinds of students. It’s my belief that the more we can prepare students to be successful before they get here, the more they’ll be able to take advantage of the opportunities they find here, and the better off they’ll be when they transition to the workforce or further education - the ultimate test of their education. There’s little virtue in awarding degrees to graduates who find their education and skills don’t match their career goals or the current job market. We think this is equally true for graduate students as well as undergraduates, and that’s why we’ve been giving more thought to the larger needs of our graduate students, including how we recruit them, support them, and prepare them for what’s next.

We know that not every graduate wants to pursue careers in academia, nor can academia absorb every graduate, so an attractive alternative is enabling our graduate students to pursue other pathways in their area of expertise - perhaps enabling them to be creators of their own jobs as well as job creators in turn. This means we should provide more opportunities to students who have interests in entrepreneurship, commercialization of intellectual property, grant writing, idea-pitching, and career exploration outside of the academy, either through formal course work or career advising. This also means providing educational and experiential opportunities in leadership, policy, management, finances and other areas that might be helpful in assisting our graduate students along whatever career paths they choose. Our graduate students are extremely bright and hardworking — they can have a great impact on our society in a variety of areas. That’s good for everyone.

One thing we want to do is restructure the 2002 gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to create more opportunities for graduate students with special interests in careers outside the academy. This includes students interested in public policy and public service, not-for-profits, and government agencies, as well as those interested in commercialization and entrepreneurism. In this last area, we’ve already had some real success. Dr. Carol Reeves, through her New Venture Development class in the Walton College, has been adept at turning graduate students into CEOs and CTOs of companies based on their research by pairing them with M.B.A. students who can help create a business plan. These plans are then honed through competitions. Over the years many have resulted in new startup companies. We should look for other ways to support students and offer them incentives to commercialize their research when it is desired, as well as help them use their outstanding research skills to become successful in any career path they choose.

We could best provide this help by creating a career center focused on graduate students. Perhaps because they are older and more experienced, we tend to assume they don’t need the same level of career counseling as undergraduates. While this may be true for many graduate students, others may be earning an advanced degree simply because they love the field. They may not have weighed their job prospects wholly or investigated whether there are enough jobs in their field to absorb the number of graduates. A career center focused on graduate students could help them strategize and better prepare for what’s next, whether it’s in academia or somewhere else where their education and research skills may be applicable and appreciated.

We should also strive to create professional master’s degree programs that are innovative and relevant. The impetus behind these programs is to provide students with new professional opportunities or to help facilitate the career advancement of working professionals. Unlike traditional Master of Science/Arts programs, where students are expected to conduct research, professional programs emphasize curriculum more focused on the everyday needs and realities of their profession. The Walton College has done an excellent job of developing these kinds of master’s programs. For example, a Master of Science in Economic Analytics was recently approved by the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Currently pending approval are a Master of Professional Accounting, a Master of Science in Finance, and a Master of Science in Supply Chain Management.

At the same time, we need to build non-academic career tracks into as many graduate programs as possible. We need to educate both traditional and non-traditional graduate students along a spectrum of residential programs, online programs, master’s-level, doctoral-level, graduate certificates, or micro-credentialing. This will ensure their education is right-sized for their needs. And as we get more of these pieces in place, we need to extensively market ourselves as an institution with multiple career path opportunities. I believe this would make us unique and distinctive, an innovative leader in graduate education.

Finally, we need to create a comprehensive recruitment strategy for graduate students. Elements of this plan have already been identified by the Graduate School and International Education. They include addressing diversity by building partnerships with minority serving institutions and international partners. To facilitate increased access, we would also adopt a more holistic admissions review process that better balances things like GPA, writing samples, resumes/CVs, letters of recommendation, interviews and standardized tests. We also need to help graduate programs and their faculty to not just attract high-quality graduate students, but also ensure they thrive. This means properly resourcing initiatives like a graduate student success office. And we need to build more attractive graduate student financial packages to include competitive stipends, tuition, benefits and fellowship opportunities. We are now working on a comprehensive overhaul of our graduate tuition structure, especially as it relates to increasing our competitiveness for recruiting students from other states. And, retaining highly educated students here in Arkansas once they have completed their U of A degree is a major goal. This is good for the state of Arkansas.

In sum, we need to expand and reframe our understanding of what graduate education is, who it serves, and what it prepares our students to do. Too often we presume our doctoral students are headed to careers in academia when there may be other equally attractive alternatives. Above all, we should encourage and not discourage our students to pursue their passions and interests even if they are outside our traditional academic world. After all, society needs these great minds in many different areas. We also need to be attentive to working professionals who may need anything from a freshening up of their skills through micro-credentialing to a full doctoral program that could lead to a complete career change. In doing so, we would be positioning ourselves to become a much desired destination for students pursuing traditional academic careers as well as a variety of other careers.

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We should strive to be a top-caliber research institution, among the very best, one that attracts increased funding from federal and private industry sources.

Since I arrived on this campus nearly four years ago, we’ve given great thought to how we can grow our research volume, increase our competitiveness for external grants and awards, and better distinguish ourselves as a research university. And in the intervening years we’ve made great strides together: increasing research expenditures by nearly $30 million, making roughly $3 million a year in grants available to our faculty for collaborative research, scholarship, and creative activity, and securing a $23.7 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to bolster research and economic development efforts, to name just a few accomplishments. Why is this important? Because in its purest practice, research and discovery seek to increase and spread knowledge, improve health and safety, reduce work or costs, and stimulate innovation. In other words, research makes the world a better place. And by extension, as a public research university, so do we. It’s a critical part of our mission as the state’s flagship and land-grant university.

So, what are some next steps we need to take to raise our research profile still higher, and in the process distinguish ourselves further as a great research university?

The key for us, I believe, is to create a more collaborative campus research environment that facilitates innovative research and pushes the boundaries of discovery. Indeed, we have identified building a collaborative and innovative campus as one of our guiding priorities—many, including myself, believe collaboration is the future of research and scholarship. As a significant step to advance this priority I propose that we create the University of Arkansas Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research or, the I3R, for the sake of brevity. So what do I mean by integrative research? To me, it’s when two or more researchers combine ideas, creative thinking, methodologies and approaches to tackle research problems, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. These researchers can be from the same field or from different ones, so long as they recognize the power of collaboration in research and discovery. Integrative work may include research that is truly at the intersection of traditional disciplinary areas or simply fields that lead to innovative discoveries and new directions that could not have been imagined or obtained had the investigators been working independently. New fields often emerge because of these collaborative and innovative synergies.

To promote integrative research and discovery, it is important to put innovative and creative researchers in close proximity to one another. And, in creating the I3R, we have the opportunity to address a major issue that is significantly slowing our development as a powerhouse research institution: we need more high-quality research space for both existing and, equally important, future faculty and students. As I announced at the State of the University address in October, we have begun planning for a new research building. This building will be unique—it will be the home of the I3R and be designed with collaboration and integrative research in mind. Our very early estimate is that there will be research space for 60-80 members of our faculty, depending on the exact research activity. This concept requires the construction of a research facility designed from the ground up to maximize integrative work and, more importantly, bring together faculty, students, and staff excited to work in this kind of environment. Some of these faculty are already right here at the U of A. And I believe others seeking this kind of fertile, innovative and interdisciplinary experience would be excited to come here because of the opportunities this unique environment would afford them. And, moving faculty into this building from existing spaces will free up badly needed space in our colleges and departments — space that can be renovated and modernized.

I envision the I3R as an umbrella research organization. It will provide programming that encourages and promotes integrative thinking and opportunities across campus to move in new directions of discovery previously unexplored or impossible to achieve. That’s why the I3R will need to be a university-wide institute and not owned or administered by an existing academic unit. As such, faculty, students and staff would have appointments in both the institute and in traditional colleges and schools, perhaps with salaries shared by the central institute and our existing academic units. I believe this is also an opportunity to recruit faculty with diverse research backgrounds, such as research productive individuals from industry, government laboratories and the business and entrepreneurial world.

I also think the four major areas of research we are focusing on for potential centers of excellence will provide a solid foundation to start. These are areas that are already strong but could gain a more prominent national and international reputation with additional investment. These areas include Bioscience and Bioengineering Research in Metabolism, Data Science, Food Systems and Technology, and Materials Research. We propose creating campus-wide Centers of Excellence in these areas using a hub-and-spoke model with all or some of the hubs located in the I3R Building under the I3R umbrella organization. Other areas could be added in the future as the research profile of the campus grows in stature. Critical to the I3R would be the commercialization potential that goes hand-in-hand with the innovative and integrative research. Thus, a portion of the I3R Building and programming would be dedicated to this function.

Needless to say, recruiting established researchers in our signature research areas will be crucial to our success. A good example of a recent hire in a signature research area is Dr. Justin Zhan, an Arkansas Research Alliance Scholar and professor of data science. His research interests include big data, information assurance, social computing, biomedical computing and health informatics. His work has been extensively funded by federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense and National Institute of Health. Zhan has also authored more than 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals and conferences and he also has experience working with the public and private sectors. In short, adding faculty like Dr. Zhan is how you build on existing strengths to increase capacity, as well as attract others of similar stature. It’s incumbent on us to target, recruit, and retain more faculty who can build on our signature research areas.

Another way to get the most of our research dollars is to pool resources, especially with institutions that have complementary strengths. That’s why I think we need to strengthen our collaboration with our sister institution, UAMS. Currently, we’re focusing on the development of an Institute of Health Sciences Research and Innovation. This partnership would include collaborative research space and labs to facilitate innovative, high-impact research that advances discovery and brings in critical dollars to our region and state, and perhaps intellectual property appropriate for further development. We think by pooling our talent, expertise, and resources, we can have a much bigger impact on the health and wellbeing of the state while at the same time raising the research profile of both our universities. With strategic investment, we could accomplish much more for research, health care and related education, with ancillary benefits related to innovation, commercialization, and the overall wellness of Northwest Arkansas. This is a huge opportunity, and we would be remiss if we did not do everything possible to make it happen.

Finally, we need to significantly increase the number of grant applications that go out to federal agencies as well as industry partners. The $23.7 million grant I mentioned above will be an asset in this. Among the goals outlined in the grant was not just increasing the size of our research awards, but the proportion of faculty receiving external funding. Our target is ambitious: 25% growth in external funding for faculty. We also hope to increase our industry awards from our current level of less than 4% of externally sponsored research to 10%. Fortunately, one of the provisions of the grant was the addition of grant development and support staff who, in addition to helping teams of faculty be more competitive for large, collaborative grants, can also help new faculty put together stronger applications for funding. This should help ensure that more and stronger applications are being submitted. At the same, the Chancellor’s Fund, which now has four separate tracks, is helping faculty develop and strengthen their research projects through smaller grants. Ideally, this will give their applications firmer footing if and when the time comes to pursue external support. The upshot is we think more and stronger grant applications will inevitably result.

As I mentioned, we’ve made great strides in growing our research enterprise over the last several years. This has convinced me that we can and will do much, much more. We have everything to gain by dreaming bigger, being bolder and pushing forward. Simply put, the work we do makes Arkansas, and the world, a better place. So let’s make the most of the opportunity.

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