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OPINION | REX NELSON: The change agent

by Rex Nelson | April 20, 2022 at 4:19 a.m.


As I walk in, I notice that Chuck Ambrose is already seated at Java Primo, a chic coffee shop in downtown Arkadelphia that's popular with the many college students in this town. Ambrose has been in Arkansas since November, but this is his first time here. It seems he has been a bit busy.

Saturday's column outlined the financial crisis that almost brought down Henderson State University. Ambrose's charge is to resurrect the school. That mission won't be accomplished without pain--huge budget cuts, faculty and staff members laid off, entire programs eliminated. Challenging, yes. Fun, no.

I've invited Henderson's new chancellor to meet me here. I will ask an obvious question to a man who was a successful college president for a total of 20 years at two institutions--Pfeiffer University in North Carolina from 1998-2010 and the University of Central Missouri from 2010-18.

"Why do you want to take this on at this point in your career?"

After leaving Central Missouri, Ambrose was president of KnowledgeWorks, a foundation focused on the future of education.

"There's a lot about this move that's providential," Ambrose says. "I think about the lessons I learned as a college president. I was only 36 when I became president at Pfeiffer. The first two years there were a challenge. Then, the Great Recession hit. I see this as a chance to take all of those lessons and use them one more time."

KnowledgeWorks, which is based in Cincinnati, empowers educators to embrace the individual learning styles of students while playing to those students' strengths.

"It's about transforming the way states deliver public education," Ambrose says.

When schools moved to distance learning at the start of the pandemic, requests for the foundation's help soared. As the pandemic lingered, Ambrose and his wife decided they missed being on a college campus. Righting a sinking ship at Henderson might just be the capstone of an already stellar career.

Ambrose learned that virtually every county in the south half of Arkansas is losing population. Henderson, he realized, could play a key role in turning that around.

"I've long been focused on student accessibility to higher education," Ambrose says. "We need a new model in which there are lower costs and an emphasis on ensuring that students complete their degrees. In Missouri, we created something called the Missouri Innovation Campus. We viewed it as the way higher education should work in the 21st century.

"We threw everything but the kitchen sink at things that keep students from crossing the finish line. After eight years of going 90 miles per hour, we ended up with the highest completion rates of any public institution in Missouri."

Ambrose wants to be a transformative leader, creating a model that other struggling colleges could replicate. He hasn't come to Henderson just to stop the bleeding. He tells me: "Patchwork innovation is sometimes a disincentive for true transformation."

In February, Ambrose took the rare step of declaring what's known as financial exigency, allowing him to reduce the number of programs and lay off tenured faculty. He's receiving national attention for his efforts thus far.

"Institutions are very hesitant to declare financial exigency, even when they're in dire straits, because they fear a downward spiral of bad publicity and a general loss of confidence in the school that often ensues," Michael Nietzel writes for Forbes. "In the case of Henderson, the question is not so much if exigency is needed, the question, as least as Ambrose sees it, is can exigency be a tool for transforming the university into an institution that better fulfills its mission of serving a primarily rural student body, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, and preparing them for careers they want and their communities need.

"HSU's budget woes are now well documented. It faces a projected shortfall of more than $12 million moving into the next fiscal year (even when relying on $6 million in federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds), a problem driven by years of enrollment losses. Last fall, it enrolled 2,919 students, a 7.7 percent decrease from the previous year. And in the past five years, of the 10,809 new students HSU enrolled, 47 percent have left without graduating."

Ambrose says more than 6,200 students have left Henderson without a degree in the past decade. Most still live in Arkansas, and Ambrose wants them back in school. He also wants to take advantage of the fact that Henderson is now part of the Arkansas State University System. He hopes to offer joint programs with ASU's flagship campus in Jonesboro and work closely with a nearby community college, ASU Three Rivers at Malvern.

"I can see the day when a class at Henderson has a student from Arkadelphia High School who's in a concurrent program, a student who's getting an associate's degree from ASU Three Rivers and a student who's getting a bachelor's degree from ASU Jonesboro," Ambrose says. "They're in the same classroom. You'll still be able to get a traditional four-year liberal arts degree here, but we'll do more workforce training and things like that. We're going to be different.

"We have three duties to the people who live in the rural area we serve. The first is to open the door to a college degree that's affordable. The second is to do everything in our power to get them across that finish line. The third is to make sure their degrees are useful to them as they go out into the world and try to make a difference."


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.


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