I asked my 18-year-old grandson, who is in his freshman year at an out-of-state university, if he gave any thought to applying and attending the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
He said, "No, I never gave it a thought, nor did any of my friends, most of whom enrolled at UA-Fayetteville."
When I asked him why he gave Little Rock no consideration, he added, "It just wasn't on my radar screen, it's more of an extension of high school, rather than what I think of as college. And quite honestly, I don't think attending UA-Little Rock and living there would be much fun."
Granted, those are the thoughts and words of an inexperienced 18-year-old, but clearly something is wrong with this picture. Consider that over the last decade UA-Fayetteville has flourished while UA-Little Rock has floundered. Enrollment at Fayetteville has soared from roughly 15,000 to almost 25,000, and so has its endowment.
Meanwhile, enrollment at UA-Little Rock has fallen from approximately 12,000 students in 2010 to just over 7,000 today. The endowment at UA-Little Rock is just a small fraction of that in Fayetteville, and while tens of thousands support the flourishing athletic programs at Fayetteville, a typical Trojan basketball game attracts fewer than 2,500 and, as we all know, the only college football played is by others, as UA-Little Rock has no football team.
I am convinced that the viability of a city and its region is inexorably tied to its main institutions of higher learning. Virtually all great cities have several things in common, including a vibrant downtown, one or more companies that consistently invest time, leadership and money in the city, and dynamic individuals that dedicate their energy and money to build downtown and vibrant universities. Nashville has Vanderbilt, Austin has the University of Texas, Chattanooga has UT-Chattanooga, and of course Fayetteville has UA.
Little Rock continues to "teeter on the brink" between becoming a truly outstanding medium-size city (think Chattanooga, Greenville, S.C., and Lexington, Ky.) or a city that is losing population, has a declining downtown, has lost its battle with violence and crime and is watching its infrastructure crumble (think Jackson, Miss., and Shreveport). Interestingly, Chattanooga, Greenville, and Lexington each have dynamic, growing universities in their midst; Jackson and Shreveport, not so much.
The success of UA-Fayetteville and northwest Arkansas should be applauded and encouraged by all Arkansans, and in no way am I arguing against such. But Arkansas is big enough and has the capacity to support two outstanding universities in the UA system: Fayetteville and Little Rock. It is time for the governor, UA Board of Trustees, and the state Legislature to recognize funding and support should generally go in equal amounts to each university.
Perhaps UA-Fayetteville continues to focus on and attract out-of-state students, while UA-Little Rock builds its enrollment and support by focusing on in-state student body growth.
To achieve such equality will take time, money, and commitment from several institutions. In addition to the Legislature and UA System Board, the city of Little Rock must share this vision and get more involved. Support is needed not only from City Hall but also from the private sector.
Achieving equality at UA-Little Rock will clearly take time, but the effort is not only worthy, I believe it is attainable.
UA-Little Rock may never have 25,000 students and a major conference football team, but it can have academic programs and a campus life that attract students from throughout Arkansas and adjoining states. Success at UA-Little Rock will help stabilize and even grow the surrounding neighborhoods in which it resides, attract more outstanding educators and students, and significantly add to the viability of Little Rock and all of central Arkansas.
We as a city and state can and should make it happen. The time to start is now.
Jimmy Moses of Little Rock is the chairman of the board of Moses Tucker Partners.