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A leading tourism, real estate and economic development advisory group known as Resonance Consultancy has placed Little Rock on its list of America's best cities. According to the report, Little Rock is ranked No. 7 on the America's Top 10 Small Cities for Prosperity list. The city ranks 23rd on Resonance's America's 50 Best Small Cities list.

Bloomberg has described Resonance's ranking as "the most comprehensive study of its kind. It identifies cities that are most desirable for locals, visitors and business people alike rather than simply looking at livability or tourism appeal."

Meanwhile, the October issue of Worth magazine included Little Rock on a list titled "10 Cities to Watch in 2020." The magazine had this to say about the capital city: "Its solid economy, low cost of living and general quality of life ... have attracted millennials who've made Little Rock surprisingly funky."

All such lists are subjective, but these rankings provide fodder for economic developers and tourism officials.

This month marks 30 consecutive years that I've lived in Little Rock after moving back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C. My wife and I found it a good place to raise our two sons (now 26 and 22) and likely will spend the rest of our lives in Little Rock. There are plenty of positive things going on. However, many of the civic leaders I know remain deeply concerned with the situation at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Great cities tend to have strong colleges and universities. Little Rock will never achieve its potential until UALR thrives.

On Aug. 30, UALR Chancellor Andrew Rogerson announced his resignation at a time of declining enrollment and large budget cuts. There wasn't a national search for his replacement. Less than two weeks later, the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees accepted UA System President Donald Bobbitt's recommendation that Christina Drale be named chancellor. In an administration filled with high-level vacancies, Drale had served as interim executive vice chancellor and provost since October 2018. She previously served as associate vice chancellor for faculty relations and administration.

Drale is a California native who earned her bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees from the University of California at San Diego. She's a career academic who's not widely known in the central Arkansas business community.

There's nothing wrong with university insiders, mind you. But the people I know in the business community were hoping for a high-profile individual who would go across the region, fire people up and sell the school--something along the lines of what late banker and lawyer Bill Bowen did for the law school that's now named for him. Bobbitt obviously felt that an insider was needed--at least for the next two years--to get UALR's financial house in order. The board authorized Bobbitt to enter into a two-year employment agreement with Drale.

Drale realizes she needs to win over skeptics. On the day I had lunch with her at the Donaghey Student Center on campus, she told me that she had begun her day at a breakfast meeting with the business group Fifty for the Future.

"One of my priorities right now is filling vacancies," she said.

The next day, Drale announced that the new executive vice chancellor and provost would be Ann Bain, who joined the university 32 years ago. Bain served most recently as dean of the UALR College of Education and Health Professions. Bain graduated from high school at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock in 1972 and then earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing from the University of Central Arkansas. After working as a nurse at several hospitals, she joined UALR in 1987 as assistant professor of nursing and received a doctorate in higher education administration from the school in 1998.

On Oct. 11, Drale named George Lee as the school's athletic director. Drale said Lee will serve a two-year appointment to help stabilize the department. Lee, whose wife Joni Lee is UALR's vice chancellor for university affairs, has worked for the athletic department (mainly on the budget) since 1996. He admitted that he's "more of a behind-the-scenes" person who will "analyze where we can do things more efficiently, how we can use the funds that we do have more efficiently, how we can increase our revenues."

Picking the bean-counter to head the whole department didn't sit well with some Trojan supporters. Prominent Little Rock attorney Kevin Crass said there was "no opportunity for input from the external supporters."

Drale was quick to note in our lunch meeting: "We have a lot of work to do in a short period of time."

In other words, she didn't believe there was time for national searches for provost and athletic director. The UA board will meet next month on the UALR campus, and Drale said members are "expecting to hear our plan for right-sizing the budget. We're taking a look at every piece of it and trying to have a more strategic approach. ... The key is developing a sustainable business plan for this institution."

While acknowledging that more cuts will be necessary, Drale said there's also a focus on increasing enrollment.

"We're reorganizing the financial aid office along with changing things in admissions and recruitment," she said. "These changes are going to make life much better in the long run."

For now, UALR has looked inward to solve the crisis. Bobbitt and UA board members will be watching closely these next two years to see how it goes.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 10/23/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: UALR looks inward

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