Riff Raff: A cash and culture change in Russellville

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,455 views 

About three decades ago, Arkansas Tech University let me graduate. My attendance was problematic for a few ATU leaders, and, likely, I was not the only person celebrating my graduation. Somewhat as a result, my post-graduation engagement with ATU has been nil.

But a few months ago, the folks at Russellville-based ATU said they’d just raised $42 million toward a $55 million capital campaign goal. It was the first – yes, the first – large fundraising campaign in the university’s more than 113-year history. ATU President Dr. Robin Bowen, her leadership group, and the ATU Board of Trustees began the campaign well ahead of March 2020. Co-chairs for the ongoing campaign are Stephanie Duffield, chair of the ATU Board, her husband Luke Duffield, and attorneys Jim Smith and Rebecca Hurst from Fayetteville.

The initial goal was $25 million. Early donations were impressive.

“So we thought about it and decided to go up to 40 ($40 million) instead of being happy with a safe number,” Bowen said in a recent interview.

And then they moved the target to $55 million.

Comfortable is not part of Bowen’s style. She prefers change to the comfort and security found in routine. But change is hard, especially during a global pandemic that for two years turned a significant part of higher education into a figure-it-out-as-you-go enterprise that for Bowen includes around 12,000 students, more than 500 full- and part-time faculty, and an operating budget of more than $170 million. Bowen has faced pushback, primarily in a late 2021 no-confidence vote by the ATU Faculty Senate. The pros and cons of that vote and actions or inactions resulting in the vote are not addressed here. Y’all can discuss that elsewhere.

My assessment of what Bowen and others are doing different thanks to the campaign may one day prove naive and overblown, but there’s a better chance the historic capital campaign will provide significant new opportunities for thousand of students, especially those who are the first generation in their family to complete college. Around 93% of ATU students are from Arkansas, and many of those from the rural parts.

In that recent interview, my first campus visit since 1992, Bowen and Stephanie Duffield often mentioned the need to serve first-generation students better. To be sure, Bowen was not born into anything resembling wealth. She was 7 when indoor plumbing was introduced to the family home. She faced homelessness through a series of tragedies outside her family’s control. Her mother’s teaching degree kept the family on its feet, leaving Bowen with an unassailable belief in education. And grit.

Likewise, Stephanie is not a product of privilege. While not facing the extent of Bowen’s hardships, she is acutely aware of how education and access to education are vital in any effort to improve the socio-economic status of rural Arkansans. Grit, she submits, needs opportunity.

Of the new programs and services resulting from the campaign, please humor me with a few notes on two aspects of first-generation student support that interest this old Wonder Boy.

The first is the chance for folks to see the world around them. Patrice and Stan Miller gave $5.3 million to the campaign to create the Miller Center for Global Engagement. Stan graduated from ATU with a bachelor’s degree in political science and earned a law degree from Vanderbilt University. He is now the managing partner of Little Rock-based Pinnacle Legacy Law.

The fledgling center is a tremendous asset with the ability to provide, for example, a poor farm kid from Newton County a semester of meaningful study in Europe. Or Japan. Or Canada. The center will include a language lab and establish a lecture exchange program with other universities.

You’ll never convince me education is ever complete without travel. A lot of it. And far away. Mark Twain knew this when he wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Travel is an antidote for our early biases, because, to quote Twain again, “One gets large impressions in boyhood, sometimes, which he has to fight against all his life.”

“This will absolutely change the student experience,” Jason Geiken, Arkansas Tech University vice president for advancement, said in our meeting.

Second, the campaign has improved the university’s relationship with alumni. Luke Duffield said paid and volunteer ATU leaders began receiving “transformational feedback” during the campaign. What they learned was primarily two-fold. Many alums had never given because they were never asked. Alums who gave to the campaign were also interested in giving their time and lessons learned – through mentoring – to help students and help educators better connect students with outside opportunities. Luke, a Hendrix graduate, said what ATU is now doing to better connect to the alumni network is not new to many universities, but ATU had not in previous decades adequately focused on the key resource.

“So now you’ve created this really, I think, focused culture of giving back. I mean, we, or at least I, had no idea of some amazing people out there who are (ATU) graduates. Sure, we were asking them for money, but it didn’t take long to see they had, and have, so much more to give. … I think more than anything, connecting them (students) with all these successful graduates will be a real game-changer,” Luke said.

Despite not always being made to feel welcome while I was there, my belief for years has been that ATU is the most underrated university in the state. Such belief may, in the near future, be in error; that ATU will earn a reputation in and outside the state for best meeting students where the world is and, more importantly, where it’s going. And that it will do so while being affordable for a rural Arkansas kid who has never seen a college diploma on the wall in the home of their raising.

When leaving ATU after the interview, it hit me that what I was seeing was not so much a campus as it is a launchpad. Such was my initial superficial effort to absorb the discussion with ATU leadership about how they are working to use cash to improve the culture. And vice versa.