Charles Robinson, the interim chancellor at the University of Arkansas' Fayetteville campus, told faculty last week that creating a greater sense of belonging for students must be a high priority for the institution.
According to your daily newspaper, Robinson told faculty members he reached this conclusion after visiting with potential students across the state, many of whom told him that they "could not envision themselves on our campus as students."
"That's a disconnect we have got to change," Robinson said. "When students come here, they must feel that they have community. They must feel they have people that they are connected to meaningfully."
Robinson clearly didn't like hearing what those potential students had to say. But it's not the first time we've heard those sentiments expressed. Surely Robinson, who has been at the UA for more than 20 years and became interim chancellor last summer following the abrupt resignation of Joe Steinmetz, has heard it before, too.
What he and the university's leadership can and will do about it remains to be seen.
Concerns about campus community may seem counterintuitive given the explosive growth on the hill over the past several decades. Enrollment at the UA has nearly doubled in the past 40 years, while the state's population has increased about 30% over the same period of time. The UA had just over 29,000 students enrolled this fall, compared to just under 15,000 in 1980.
So how does the state's flagship campus grow by leaps and bounds, yet, at the same time, fail to connect with at least some portion of its primary pool of potential students?
That's a question a 21-member committee appointed in July by the university will tackle. It's also the topic of an August survey sent to the school's staff, faculty and -- most importantly -- students in August. And, as Robinson said last week, it's a priority of his.
We're pretty sure the question will have multiple answers.
The UA has long struggled with making its student body more diverse. This fall, 9.7% of the school's enrollment identified as Hispanic and 4.7% as Black, while nearly 72% of students identified as white. According to preliminary U.S. Census numbers for 2020, 70% of Arkansans identify as white, 8.5% as Hispanic and 15% as Black. Clearly there's a lot of work left to do there in creating a community at the UA that looks like Arkansas as a whole.
Robinson said he's got some ideas on how to go about it. He talked about the percentage of out-of-state students enrolling at the UA. It's been a sore point with some people in Arkansas that nearly half of the students each year come from other states. This year, nonresident students made up 42.9% of the total enrollment, which is up by 2 percentage points over fall 2020 enrollment figures.
Robinson pledged to convert some of that growth in out-of-state enrollees to first-generation and low-income Arkansans. A UA spokesperson said that will take the form of additional scholarships and aid, financial literacy training and additional tutoring.
And then there's Arkansas' unique nature by virtue of geography and culture, which may contribute to the difficulty in creating the community the UA desires. The state's Northwest corner is far different in climate and topography than most of the rest of Arkansas. It also grows more urban and densely populated by the day. And, it's 200 miles from the center of the state. A drive to Fayetteville can be five to six hours from the most distant corners.
All of Arkansas' regions have their particular charms, but no one can say they are not vastly different. Moving from one region to another can be unsettling, even if you're staying within the state's borders.
It's also worth noting that Arkansas, for a small, primarily rural state, has a lot of four-year colleges to choose from -- 10 public and 10 private. Add to that a plethora of community colleges across the state, and few people have to travel all that far to get to a college somewhere.
Robinson and UA campus leadership can't do anything about that, nor would they want to. But the relatively easy access to some level of college and campus life might make it simpler for college students to decide to stay closer to home in surroundings with which they are familiar rather than to trek off to Fayetteville.
That makes convincing a student who lives four to six hours from campus a little tougher than it might be in, say, Iowa or Nebraska.
Still, we applaud Robinson's sentiments and hope he has success, if for no other reason than a university campus should be a place where people feel welcome and connected despite differences in outlook and background.
"The truth is we don't have to share the same political ideas, the same ideas on social issues, to know that we're all Razorbacks, and we're all welcomed and are part of this campus community," Robinson said.
He's right. But that won't make it any easier to accomplish.
WHAT’S THE POINT: Connecting UA’s Fayetteville campus to potential students across the state will require multiple solutions.