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Letters to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia say cuts to faculty, educational offerings are a mistake

Alumni, parent objections voiced by Jaime Adame | May 11, 2022 at 7:11 a.m.
FILE — Henderson State University is shown in this 2019 file photo.

ARKADELPHIA -- Trustees on Thursday approved academic restructuring at Henderson State University, but not before receiving written comments from alumni and others who opposed the elimination of some 25 academic degree programs.

Henderson State Chancellor Chuck Ambrose in February began calling for deep cuts and major changes to address a budget shortfall, depleted savings and what he has called a "not sustainable" percentage of student accounts going unpaid.

Ambrose on May 2 in a letter to the Arkadelphia campus outlined his proposal to phase out degree programs -- including in English, mathematics and biology -- and eliminate 88 faculty positions.

The cuts are to result in salary savings of $2.55 million in fiscal year 2023 and an additional $2.79 million in fiscal year 2024, according to the Arkansas State University System, which officially added Henderson State as its seventh member institution in February of last year.

The ASU System Board of Trustees unanimously approved the academic restructuring.

A total of eight speakers -- each given three minutes to address the board -- shared their opinions on the restructuring during the online meeting this past Thursday, but others submitted written comments released to the Democrat-Gazette under the state's public disclosure law.

"Under Chancellor Ambrose's plan no longer would students who plan to attend medical school, veterinary school (like my daughter), dental school, pharmacy or law school have a place at the University... majors that are most common for those students would no longer exist," stated a comment submitted by Jennifer Billingsley, identified in the message as a "concerned parent" of a Henderson State student.

Ambrose's plan states that while degree programs are being phased out, academic disciplines included in those programs are to "continue to be incorporated through the general education and interdisciplinary studies curriculum to enhance outcomes for all students."

Jeff Hankins, a spokesman for the ASU System, in an email on Tuesday said the university's curriculum, with what are to be known as "meta-majors," will "support all of these pre-professional programs."

"The Meta-Majors will broaden career pathways and competencies," Hankins said. "For example, students will utilize math, biology and chemistry to obtain a degree in population health management that can prepare more students to go directly into the workforce or go on to graduate or medical school."

Ambrose's proposal described how the approximately 40 remaining degree programs -- of which about 28 are undergraduate programs -- are being organized into four "meta-majors": Health, Education, and Social Sustainability; Applied Professional Science and Technology; Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and Arts and Humanities.

In other comments to trustees, Charles Still, who identified himself as a current Henderson State student, wrote to "plead and encourage you to vote no on getting rid of Henderson's Criminal Justice Degree."

"It is a degree plan that is integral to the furthering of everyone studying law enforcement and is a key stepping stone for those looking to further their education into law schools, and where else than Arkadelphia, and more importantly, where else than Henderson to do just that?" Still wrote.

Criminal justice, like other degree programs being phased out, will continue to be offered for current students and those incoming in the fall.

"We will utilize a combination of instruction on the Henderson campus and in some cases may work with our educational partners," the university states on its website to describe how students will be supported in programs being phased out.

Amanda Ritter-Maggio, in a letter to trustees, identified herself as a member of the university's Alumni Advisory Board and also as a former teacher at Henderson State.

Ritter-Maggio stated she had heard Ambrose speak over the past months. Ambrose became Henderson State's chancellor in November.

"I have heard [Ambose] say time and again, 'You have to decide which parts of Henderson are worth saving.' On Monday, I saw all those parts -- music, English, history, drama, dance, communications, fine art -- wiped away," Ritter-Maggio said.

Ritter-Maggio called it understandable that "HSU needs to tighten its belt if it wants to survive at all."

"However, gutting the majority of the core college faculty is not the answer. How in the world will Henderson be able to attract students without faculty on campus?" Ritter-Maggio said, adding later in the letter that eight members of her immediate family "attended, graduated from, or are currently attending Henderson."

A declaration of "financial exigency," as specified in Henderson State's faculty handbook, allows for the elimination of tenured faculty positions, though some faculty members have said the university has not followed proper procedures.

The 88 positions being eliminated included 21 currently unfilled. Out of the 67 filled positions, 44 are tenured faculty who can keep their jobs through the 2022-23 academic year.

As of the spring semester this year, Henderson State had 237 instructional positions, including 157 full-time positions, 47 part-time or adjunct faculty, 29 staff or administrators who teach and four noninstitutional employees considered a part of the instructional position total, said Tina Hall, the university's vice chancellor of advancement.

As of April 29, Henderson State had 337 total full-time employees, Hall said.

Several other commenters also expressed opposition to the elimination of programs.

Tricia Thibodeaux Baar, in a message to trustees, referred to "my alma mater" and described concerns about students foregoing college.

"I believe this reimagining is a mistake which would create an educational desert in a region where so many students from rural districts desperately need the opportunities associated with traditional college," Baar said. "The shift to a focus on career training (away from intellectual and personal growth which broadens rather than narrowing graduates' choices) would deny these students a chance to experience the wealth of subjects and ideas that so often reveal to them to their future paths."

Hankins, asked whether eliminating academic programs reduces opportunities for students, said in an email: "The academic restructuring is specifically designed to better serve our students and increase the likelihood that they will graduate with a degree that leads to a successful career."

The university "simply can no longer financially support every program," Hankins said.

"Henderson will continue to have very robust degree offerings in areas such as business, health professions, education, aviation, social services, and engineering. These graduates are, and will continue to be, major contributors to the regional and state economy," Hankins said.

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