New UAFS chief touts better branding, ‘first choice’ goal, and transparency

by Michael Tilley (mtilley@talkbusiness.net) 1,266 views 

University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley visits with UAFS students. (photo courtesy of UAFS)

She describes her first few weeks on the job as a “time of discovery.” Part of that discovery, said University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley, includes the belief that more people need to discover all the university has to offer.

Riley, who begin the job on July 1 to lead the institution with around 5,840 students and 914 faculty, is the first female leader of the university and its preceding institutions. She has an annual salary of $290,000. Before UAFS, she was the senior vice president for student affairs and university administration at Texas A&M University at Kingsville.

An expected UAFS sales pitch is part of her recent interview with Talk Business & Politics. The university is a solid choice for students, she says, with low tuition and small class sizes. The community offers many places for internships, and the number of student groups means students have numerous leadership opportunities, she explains.

“I don’t know why anyone would go anywhere but here,” Riley said after reciting a long list of what she believes UAFS has to offer.

But she follows that assessment by noting the different needs and wants of students. Her four children reacted in various ways to university visits but said they almost always knew immediately if a school was a good fit. Andrew, 21, is a recent graduate of the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. Sarah, 21, just graduated from the University of Texas and is off to grad school at Harvard. (Yes, Andrew and Sarah are twins.) Katherine, 20, is at New York University studying film and television direction and production, and Benjamin, 19, is at the University of Missouri studying sports journalism.

“They [student prospects] will know within the first 15 minutes of stepping foot on a campus if that culture and environment is something that excites and inspires them,” Riley said. “Some students will come here (to UAFS), and say, ‘This isn’t for me.’ And I’ll say, ‘OK. This isn’t for everyone.’”

University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley

Riley said her goal is to not only reduce the number of this-isn’t-for-me outcomes but increase the number of students who see UAFS as a “first choice.”

Part of that effort is to do more to boost morale among staff and faculty, noting that those who “do the heavy lifting need to be lifted up.” Riley said one of her early discoveries is “people wanting to be lifted up in their jobs.” She teased about the possibility of a program that recognizes staff, faculty, and community supporters “in special ways” One of those could be a “corporate partnership night at the ballpark,” Riley said.

Working with staff and faculty requires asking deep questions without “instilling fear,” but instead creating an environment in which people want to collaborate and get better, Riley said. She said her “attitude” in such discussions is, “How can we be accountable even if no one else is asking us to be. Because we owe it to ourselves to improve everything around us.”

And part of her message to staff and faculty is transparency.

“We have to be more transparent, folks. And let me show you what I think that means. That anyone can look in and see what we are doing, and I sleep well at night knowing that we’ve done the right thing by people. That’s important to me.”

The chancellor spent much of the interview outlining her desire to broaden the base and depth of UAFS awareness.

“Branding and telling our story,” was Riley’s quick and concise answer when asked about a deeper issue she wants to tackle.

That effort has several levels. The more than 900 people who work for the university have possibly an unlimited number of stories to tell about what the university does for students, Riley said.

“It’s obvious to me that people are doing good things, but they don’t either have the mouthpiece to use, they don’t have a seat at the table, or their voices are such they don’t know they can go out and tell the story. No one has empowered them. … I can’t wait to help craft some of those stories, so we aren’t hiding our lights under bushels,” Riley said.

Another level is the community. Riley said she has been amazed at not only how many people in the city have reached out to offer help, but at how the majority of feedback has been positive. Most want to tell her how vital UAFS is to the socio-economic development of the Fort Smith metro.

“But when we talk a little bit deeper about which actual things are important to them, they are not necessarily able to put their finger on it. It’s a feeling of pride. So what I get to do is to help us craft those stories around why you should be proud. Let us tell you about that in deeper terms,” Riley said.

Another level is to target prospective students. Riley said it is critical to develop a branding and marketing program that includes strategies to boost enrollment. She said the approach will not try to be all things to all people “but focus on what we can be good at.” Another part of that strategy is to situate UAFS so that more students enroll as a first choice and not just because the campus is local, relatively cheap, and convenient. It’s something she promised during her April 4 visit to the campus as part of the University of Arkansas System interview process.

Riley told Talk Business & Politics she has “not discovered enough yet” to know how long it will take for UAFS to be a first choice, but predicted that a ninth-grader in 2019 will be more aware of UAFS by the time they graduate.

“(I)f you ask them (ninth-graders) today, we’re not on the map for them. They don’t even know we exist. But they are going to because we are going to be strategic about how we communicate and where,” she said.

Riley initially wasn’t sure how soon the branding and marketing could begin. She’s learned in her three weeks that UAFS has a solid academic structure that ensures “reality” can drive the marketing. Without the educational health, a marketing plan would have had to wait, she said. Also, marketing leadership is now in place. Chris Kelly, the UAFS marketing director, was hired July 15.

“The branding and marketing, we’re going to be on that fast,” Riley said, adding later in the interview that she is “building on a home that already has a great foundation.”

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