President Steve Rook of the College of the Ouachitas said he will begin meeting with the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University system presidents in the coming weeks to discuss which organization the college would like to join.
Southern Arkansas University also remains an option for the college to align with, said Bill Fowler, a member of the College of the Ouachitas board of trustees. The college has been conversing with SAU representatives since Ouachitas officials began considering joining a system about two years ago.
“We’re certainly not trying to exclude anyone,” Fowler said.
The college’s board of trustees voted unanimously last week to align with a larger university system.
“There was no dissension,” said Fowler, a trustee who has been on the board for about five years.
The board plans to make a decision by January or the beginning of February, Rook said. After the selection, it would take at least a year and a half to join the chosen university system.
The college will have to follow several steps. College of the Ouachitas will have to change legislation within its own college mandates. The college’s accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission, will need to approve the change, the step which will take the longest amount of time.
The coordinating board of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education will have to approve the merger, and the College of the Ouachitas and a university system board would have to vote their consent.
The UA and ASU systems both released statements confirming that there have been conversations between the systems.
“We were very pleased to learn that College of the Ouachitas board of trustees believes in the benefit of joining a system,” ASU President Charles Welch said in a statement.
And SAU indicated it would welcome talks with the college, too.
“We’re very happy to be considered in the search for the alignment of College of the Ouachitas,” SAU President Trey Berry said.
College of the Ouachitas, a public community college in Malvern, wants to become part of a larger system because its state insurance causes its liability to increase to $5.2 million, which is an inaccurate representation of the college’s liability, Rook said.
“We’re the only school it affects to this extent,” Rook said.
This liability could impact the college’s ability to obtain loans and bonds. Because of this, while the law has been in effect, the college has received loans from area lenders who are familiar with the college.
College officials have been considering joining a larger system to gain the system’s insurance and abandon the state insurance that, when tied with federal law, raises the cost of their insurance, Rook said.
But integrating with a system will mean that the college’s board will lose its governing power. The board would still function and offer advice to the system board, but the system would make the ultimate decisions about the college, Fowler said. This effectively takes the power from a local team based out of central Arkansas and gives it to a statewide group.
To make this transition easier, college officials will “really look to see which system fits best with the college,” Rook said.