The Arkansas State University System board of trustees on Thursday unanimously approved cuts to Henderson State University that will eliminate 88 faculty positions and 25 degree programs, including in English, mathematics, biology and chemistry.
The cuts mark a drastic move that ASU System President Chuck Welch said is necessary to save the university from financial ruin and closure. On Feb. 3, Henderson State Chancellor Chuck Ambrose wrote a letter to the campus community in which he stated that the institution should declare a state of "financial exigency" after years of financial struggles, prompting a need for steep cuts.
The decision will mean $5.3 million in savings over two years for the university, mostly through cuts to faculty positions. Of the 88 positions to be eliminated, 67 are currently filled. Forty-four tenured professors will have their jobs cut, according to an executive summary of the plan the trustees approved Thursday. The affected tenured faculty members will lose their jobs in May 2023.
However, students enrolled in the programs to be phased out will be able to finish their degrees at Henderson State, Ambrose said.
The school is $78 million in debt, and Ambrose said he feared that without large cuts, Henderson State may have to close its campus in Arkadelphia, and the school's debt would be transferred to the state.
"After serving as a chancellor and president of a university for over two decades, I would not make changes that would affect this many people without the firm belief that this is our path forward to creating a reimagined Henderson that can work for students in south-central Arkansas," said Ambrose, who was appointed as Henderson State's chancellor in November.
"Without significant reductions in spending, we could not pay our debt service or our vendors and have enough cash remaining to cover our payroll through the month of June," Ambrose said.
At Thursday's meeting at the Arkansas State University System office in Little Rock, Welch outlined a history of financial mismanagement that put the school $78 million in debt.
ASU System administrators studied Henderson State's financials before agreeing to bring the struggling university into the system in 2019. Administrators found that Henderson State University was "literally on the brink of closing its doors," Welch said.
Welch said Henderson State is in debt because of numerous poor decisions by previous administrators, a situation that included budgets that overestimated revenue and underestimated costs; unpaid bills to vendors; and depleted reserves.
"We found a university that had massive problems in most every area of financial and financially related operations," Welch said.
To pay off some of the school's debts, the state of Arkansas agreed to lend Henderson State $6 million with zero interest, which the university almost immediately spent, Ambrose said.
Glen Jones, Henderson State's former president, resigned in July 2019 with the school struggling financially in part because of unpaid student account balances.
In December 2019, the ASU System board of trustees agreed to incorporate Henderson State into the ASU System.
The covid-19 pandemic hit Henderson State hard, but it was able to operate in part thanks to federal stimulus funds, which was a "Band-Aid" for the school's structural issues, Welch said.
"We lost enrollment, we lost housing revenues, we lost food service revenues, and we lost other revenue sources directly related to our inability to offer a full array of university services," Welch said.
CHANGES TO THE UNIVERSITY
Along with English, math, chemistry and biology, Henderson will also cut degrees in history, political science, communication and early childhood development. Though the university plans to cut 25 degree programs, that doesn't mean it will avoid teaching those subjects, Ambrose said.
"We will still teach math; we will teach chemistry; we will teach English, biology and art," Ambrose said.
However, in some instances, students will have to take classes at other colleges because Henderson State's course catalog will be more limited. Ambrose said some degree programs were cut, in part, due to a lack of demand from students. Last year, 16 students graduated with a degree in biology and only one with a degree in mathematics, Ambrose said.
The university will still offer a number of bachelor's degrees, including in psychology, aviation, social work, physics, nursing and education. But the cuts in some programs and not others has angered some faculty members, with some questioning why expensive programs received no reductions in staffing.
"I don't understand how English and biology and chemistry and math are not essential," said Richard Hawthorne, who said his wife teaches at the university and whose position will likely be cut.
During the meeting, several faculty members and their spouses addressed the board of trustees over a videoconference call, with most saying they understood the university had to make cuts but that they felt the administrators didn't include the faculty in the decision-making process.
"Other alternatives were not explored, and the strategy was to just eliminate the program," said Haroon Khan, a political science professor at Henderson State. "That is not leadership; that is poor leadership. A good leader will always try to rescue the university."
Discontent among the university's professors led faculty leaders to approve a resolution Wednesday expressing "no confidence" in Ambrose, said Fred Worth, a mathematics professor who told the board that he's in his 31st year as a faculty member at Henderson State.
The faculty senate resolution requested the "immediate dismissal" of Ambrose as chancellor.
Ambrose failed to follow "financial exigency" procedure as outlined in the university's faculty handbook, the resolution stated. The resolution also called for a delay in deciding on personnel and academic structural changes "until such time as the faculty has deemed them appropriate to the university's financial needs and in alignment with its mission."
Worth referred to a letter shared with board members -- and also with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette -- from Carolyn Eoff, who signed it as a "soon to be former" professor and chair for mathematics, computer science and statistics.
"I imagine this must be what a hostile corporate takeover feels like; everything Ambrose has done so far has been by administrative fiat," stated Eoff's letter, which went on to say that "plans for 'reimagining Henderson' have come entirely from him instead of the faculty, staff, students, and alumni."
Eoff also criticized the university's past leadership under Jones, the former Henderson State president, noting that the faculty under Jones twice issued votes of "no confidence" in the administration and that the votes went largely unheeded by trustees.
Her mother taught for 30 years at Henderson State, and she's been at the university for 27 years, Eoff stated in the letter.
"My personal connection to Henderson is deep. I am not an alumna, but it takes all my fingers and a few toes to count my family members who have degrees from HSU, including all three of my children," Eoff stated.
Henderson State provides a "vital" role in its community and for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, Cecilia Orphan, a researcher who studies higher education, said in an email to the Democrat-Gazette.
Orphan is part of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, which seeks to highlight the importance of regional and rural-serving colleges like Henderson State.
About 43% of Henderson State's students receive Pell grants, federal financial aid for students with exceptional financial need, and about one-third of students are "diverse and low-income," Orphan said.
In fall 2020, Black students made up 19% of the 3,163-person enrollment at Henderson State, according to federal data. About 64% of students were white, according to the data, while Hispanic students made up about 6% of all enrollment. Students of two or more races made up about 6% of total enrollment.
Orphan, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Denver, said "it is unusual to eliminate so many programs all at once," adding that budget problems for a university like Henderson State often relate in part to funding from the state.
She said states often don't provide as much funding to schools like Henderson State on a per-student basis compared with funding per student provided to some other public universities, like the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
"What this all points to is a very important question: What kind of education do low-income students, rural students and diverse students deserve?" Orphan said. "Do they deserve the same offerings as students at U of A that tend to be better off financially? Or do they deserve colleges with winnowed-down academic offerings?"
Many of the students who attend schools like Henderson State "are often committed to place," Orphan said, meaning that they are unlikely to attend college outside their home region.
The cuts to Henderson State, Welch said, are signs that leaders in the state see value in the rural public school in Arkadelphia, not that the university is ignored.
Welch said many in the General Assembly didn't want to "throw money at a problem," adding that the school needed to fix its "underlying" financial problems before the Legislature invests more in Henderson State. The university has until 2028 to pay back the state's loan.
Ambrose has said Henderson State will remain a university that offers four-year degrees, but he said the university can't afford to be a school that offers a wide range of degrees, even in the most basic subjects.
"Across the country, we have too many colleges and too few students," Ambrose said. "If we don't look different, then we're not going to compete."