FAYETTEVILLE -- Terisa Riley, a senior vice president at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, has been announced as the top choice to lead the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt will recommended Riley for the chancellor post, subject to approval by the University of Arkansas board of trustees, the UA System announced Tuesday.
Riley, 49, was one of four finalists to visit the Fort Smith campus.
If approved, she is expected to begin July 1, arriving in Fort Smith after 12 years working at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where her former boss for about 10 years, recently retired university President Steven H. Tallant, described her as "an incredible problem-solver."
Riley is senior vice president for student affairs and university administration. Tallant said Riley has also handled budgets as chief financial officer and has overseen more than $100 million in construction projects.
"She is able to sit down and handle complex issues. She's incredibly good under stress," said Tallant, who retired in February.
Yet finishing college wasn't a given for Riley, as she explained in a public talk April 4 during her visit to Fort Smith.
"I worked three jobs all the time," Riley said. By her junior year at the University of Missouri, "I truly did not think I would be able to stay in college," she said.
When she was struggling, a friend suggested that she try to become a resident assistant at a campus dorm, Riley said.
It was a lifeline that, to hear Riley describe it, also led to something more.
Up to that point, "I didn't know this was a career path, that it was a possibility to work with college students, to take down barriers to their success," said Riley, who described herself as a first-generation college student.
Riley, who said she grew up in Rolla, Mo., went on to earn two degrees from the University of Missouri at Columbia -- a bachelor's degree in communication and a master's degree in higher education administration. She earned a doctorate in higher education administration from Saint Louis University.
In her talk, she noted how students at UAFS come from "sometimes very modest means."
Federal data show that 56 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates at UAFS in 2016-17 received Pell grant aid reserved for low-income students. In the fall of 2016, UAFS enrolled 941 first-time, full-time students, according to the state Department of Higher Education.
"As a person who benefited so much from getting that credential, I absolutely am a firm believer in all of the research that's being done in social mobility and regional comprehensive institutions," Riley said, referring to a common description for schools similar to UAFS.
Riley would replace former UAFS Chancellor Paul Beran, who left last year to become the executive director and chief executive officer of the South Dakota Higher Education Board of Regents.
UA System spokesman Nate Hinkel said an annual salary for Riley has been set at $290,000. Beran, the UAFS top leader from 2006-18, in his final year earned a yearly base salary of $224,910.
Riley, at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, earns yearly pay of $250,000, according to a database of government salaries maintained by the The Texas Tribune.
In Kingsville, Riley has served as president of the executive board for the Kingsville Chamber of Commerce, among other civic positions.
"She's engaged in her community in a very healthy way," Tallant said. "She will not only care about that university, but she is going to care deeply about Fort Smith and how she is part of the leadership of that community and how she is going to do the best job she can to help everybody."
Speaking by phone Tuesday, Riley confirmed the accuracy of her reported compensation and said she's excited to join the Fort Smith community.
She said she didn't hesitate to accept when offered the job by Bobbitt in a phone call Friday afternoon.
"I knew after my time on campus this was a great fit. The people there were just lovely and warm and welcoming," Riley said.
In a statement, Bobbitt said that among the finalists, Riley "rose to the top with the clear vision and palpable energy needed to help continue the strategic growth and upward trajectory of UAFS."
In the fall of 2018, UAFS enrolled 6,531 undergraduate students and 26 graduate students, according to data published by the university online.
The university's total enrollment made it the state's sixth-largest public university, according to data from the state Department of Higher Education. In the fall of 2018, UAFS enrolled 998 first-time, full-time students, the fifth-largest total among the state's public universities, according to the state Department of Higher Education.
According to UAFS data, in the fall of 2018 about 19 percent of the school's undergraduates were concurrently enrolled in high school.
In her April 4 talk, Riley discussed the career path that led her to Fort Smith, stating that she has been "working throughout my career on the trajectory to become a university president or chancellor."
She also spoke about her family. "I am a mom. I have four of the best children ever born," Riley said. But with all four in college as of the fall of 2017, she said she no longer felt a need to stay in Kingsville as a "home base," and so she began pursuing different jobs.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Riley said she decided not to apply to lead Texas A&M University-Kingsville because "I feel like we've accomplished so much here, I'd like to take what I learned from this position" and use the experience elsewhere.
Other finalists invited to Fort Smith were Philip K. Way, provost and vice president for academic and student affairs, Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania; Marilyn J. Wells, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, Minnesota State University, Mankato; and Robert Marley, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, Missouri University of Science and Technology.
Edward Serna, serving as interim chancellor at UAFS, was announced recently as a finalist to lead the University of Maine at Farmington. Serna also is vice chancellor for strategic initiatives at UAFS.
Metro on 04/17/2019
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