UA Little Rock chancellor dealing with ‘enrollment cliff’ as she positions for campus changes

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,620 views 

To make up an $11 million budget shortfall, UA Little Rock Chancellor Dr. Christina Drale has embarked on a rare path of “retrenchment” aimed at re-evaluating the school’s programs, personnel and mission. At this juncture, it may be easier to say what will remain versus what may go away.

“The process is really sort of in the middle of things right now, so I don’t want to say that we’re going to eliminate this program and not that program,” said Drale, who appeared on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics. “I can tell you what we are going to keep in terms of general areas. So, we’re definitely going to maintain a liberal arts core that supports our general education. We’re definitely going to maintain graduate education because we think that is an important part of our mission for Central Arkansas and for being a metropolitan university. We’re going to maintain our research profile, so we’re going to remain as a Research II institution. Those things are going to remain.”

Sudden and massive shifts in enrollment have been the primary driver of the financial challenges facing UA Little Rock, but many other schools across the state and U.S. are dealing with similar prospects.

“Universities across the country are dealing with a demographic shift and a landscape shift in enrollment. Lots of universities are seeing declines in enrollment, and we’re no exception to that,” said Drale, who has been with UA Little Rock since 2006 and served most recently as Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost.

She said fewer students entering college, population declines in younger generations, and changing educational habits are all contributors to higher education’s finances.

“There is a demographic shift, and you’ve probably heard people call that ‘the enrollment cliff,’ coming. So, we’re looking at that. In truth though, it’s not so much a decline in high school graduates but a slowing of the growth of high school graduates, which ultimately means that there’s going to be a smaller pool of high school graduates for the current number of higher ed institutions that we have,” she said.

“The other part is that a lot of students are simply not choosing to go to college, and that really surprised us because over the years we’ve been able to count on a steady population of students coming into the higher ed system. It used to be that enrollment was easier to predict because it was stable, it was steady, you could follow a really consistent trend analysis. Now, enrollments are kind of all over the map. And instead of just looking at a high school contingency, you’re also looking at all of the other populations that are stopping in and out of college, and it makes enrollment predictions a lot more complex,” Drale added.

In late January, Drale formally notified the UA Board of Trustees that she was beginning the process of “formal academic planning,” a higher education mechanism known as “retrenchment.” Formal academic planning retrenchment occurs when faculty, tenured or untenured, are to be terminated as a result of established planning activities, according to University of Arkansas board policy.

The board’s policy also states:

“In the implementation of retrenchment, fair and humane treatment of faculty, staff, and students is of great concern. Serious efforts shall be made to relocate affected faculty and staff in other parts of the program area or in a different program area of the same campus or division. Similarly, currently
enrolled students will be permitted, through special arrangements, to complete a program of studies begun before retrenchment was implemented.”

Drale expects to move through this re-evaluation process and finish by May. By academic standards, Drale said retrenchment will be done with “lightning speed.”

“What retrenchment does for us is it gives us a mechanism to make strategic business decisions in an academic environment. So, what we really need to do is to right-size our budget to match our revenue, and we need to do that in a strategic way,” she said.

Drale has formed campus-wide groups to look at priorities and she’s been tapping into the external community of leaders to focus on UA Little Rock’s future.

“What we’re going to do is to just make sure that what we invest in are our top priorities and our strengths and the things that the community also wants to see us support,” she said.

You can watch her full interview in the video below.