Arkadelphia native and current Southern Arkansas University President Trey Berry will return to his hometown as the next chancellor of Henderson State University, effective Jan. 1, HSU announced Wednesday.
"It is home -- I literally grew up on [the HSU] campus, and those people were my family and mentors -- but it's also the attraction of building upon the talents of the people there," said Berry, who has been SAU's president since 2015. "My wife and I are always looking for the next challenge, but this is not just another career move. It's a calling for us -- it's in our hearts -- and we're in it for the long haul."
"We want to help Henderson State -- and, really, Arkadelphia -- reach full potential," he added. "We feel we can make a difference."
Earlier this year, Chuck Ambrose announced he would resign as HSU chancellor effective Sept. 15 after serving in that job since November 2021. Bob Fisher, a Henderson State alumnus who served as Student Government Association president and later dean of the School of Business, has been interim chancellor since Ambrose departed. Fisher is a true interim, and was not a candidate for the chancellor position long-term.
Chuck Welch, Arkansas State University president, has known Berry for many years and has "lots of respect not only for the job he does, but for the person he is." Welch added that Berry has always been quick to assist in various statewide education initiatives that Welch has also been a part of. Berry "also knows HSU well, what it could be, and what needs to be done," Welch said.
Though history with Henderson State was not a prerequisite for the chancellor's job, when a candidate like Berry has those ties, and his resume is filled with "so many accomplishments," the choice to offer him the position isn't a difficult one, Welch said. "He's a builder -- he's done a great job across the board at SAU -- and we're at a point now where it's time to build at Henderson State."
At SAU, Berry has overseen the largest fund-raising campaign in the university's history, resulting in endowment growth of about 48%, from $31 million to $46 million, and enrollment increased 24%, to the highest level in SAU's history, with 5,128 students this fall.
This fall's freshman class is up 14%, while graduate enrollment remains stable. SAU has students from 73 of the state's 75 counties, according to SAU. This fall, 1,800 Muleriders are living in on-campus housing, a 4.5% increase from last year.
Henderson State fell 15%, from 2,519 to 2,139, in enrollment this fall, but outperformed a budgeted loss of 20%, according to the ASU System.
In May 2022, the ASU System board of trustees unanimously approved cuts to Henderson State that eliminated 88 faculty positions and 25 degree programs, including programs in English, mathematics, biology and chemistry, to address financial calamity at the university, but HSU has since regained financial footing and actually added two new degrees this fall, a Bachelor of Science degree in natural sciences and a Bachelor of Science degree in secondary education with a focus on math education.
Berry said he will be "laser focused on enrollment growth, both undergraduate and graduate," at Henderson State, and he believes some of SAU's successful strategies can transfer to HSU.
For example, "we recruit on a personal level here -- the president's office is an extension of the admissions office -- and it takes that personal [touch]," Berry, who served various roles at Ouachita Baptist University, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Monticello before moving to Magnolia, said. "Everyone who comes to campus needs to feel welcome and important."
Berry's energy and personal engagement are among his strongest attributes, Welch said. In addition, he's "very data driven, but he's also a heart-and-gut guy."
Under Berry's leadership, SAU added 21 graduate degrees and certificates, including a new doctoral program in education leadership. SAU also placed teachers in 34 school districts last year.
Henderson State may add degrees and programs, too, especially if they are unique, because programs available in few other places attract students not only from Arkansas, but across the nation, Berry said. "Henderson State already has aviation -- it is the place for aviation" (and the state's only university program for training pilots) -- "and we'll try to find other areas like that."
It's imperative for universities to distinguish themselves with destination programs that are sustainable, Welch seconded. "I've stressed to all of our campuses, 'Don't try to be everything to everyone.'"
ENERGY AND ENGAGEMENT
Berry's HSU contract, which includes an annual salary of $300,000 -- Ambrose made $250,000 annually -- runs through June 30, 2029. The ASU System board of trustees will be asked to formally approve his hire and contract, along with other personnel actions, at the next scheduled trustees meeting in early December.
Berry's family has a storied history with Henderson State, with his father, Clyde -- a member of the HSU Hall of Fame --serving as head football coach, baseball coach, and kinesiology professor at various times during the 1960s through the 1980s. Clyde Berry Field is the home of HSU's baseball team, according to the ASU System. Trey Berry's wife, Katherine Simms Berry, is also from Arkadelphia, and they have an adult son, Tanner, as well as a daughter, Berkeley, a high school sophomore.
Ambrose believes the HSU chancellor's position is now an attractive job, as "you look at Henderson State very differently than you did two years ago," he explained earlier this fall when he announced his plans to resign. "The campus, which is in good shape, is ready to get back to the fundamentals -- recruit, enroll, and support students" -- and the next chancellor will benefit from the "Reddie Spirit" Ambrose witnessed firsthand, he said, as "the campus comes together even in hard times."
Berry plans to appeal to the Reddie Family, particularly HSU alumni, because they are often the best recruiters, he said. "I want to help everyone see all the possibilities of HSU, and it's going to be a team effort to build up that 'Reddie Spirit.'"
Welch received numerous positive messages from people associated with HSU in various capacities Wednesday praising the hire of Berry, he said. "People are buying in and engaging."
Fisher also praised the hire in a news release from Henderson State on Wednesday, calling Berry "one of America's most outstanding university presidents."
"We are excited that he will be bringing his innovative, entrepreneurial and enthusiastic leadership to Henderson" State, Fisher added. The university is in Berry's DNA, and "we celebrate that this DNA has brought him to Henderson, where we say welcome home to him and Katherine with arms wide open," he said.
Founded in 1890 as Arkadelphia Methodist College, Henderson State was on the verge of financial calamity when its board voted unanimously to merge with the ASU System in 2019. Facing an immediate budget deficit of at least $5 million in 2019, the university's president, Glen Jones, and finance chief, Brett Powell, resigned.
Henderson State had only seven days of cash on hand with more than $64 million in operating expenses.
But by the following year -- with the aid of ASU System leadership -- operating expenses had been reduced to $61.98 million, resulting in 38 days of cash on hand, with additional reductions in 2021 trimming expenses to $56.56 million with 42 days of cash on hand.
In January 2022, Henderson State still had a $12.5 million shortfall for the fiscal year ending that June, with long-term debt of $78 million that required annual debt service payments of $6.9 million. Consequently, Ambrose began instituting furloughs and administrative salary rollbacks to meet payroll and debt service payments; two months later, the ASU board of trustees certified Henderson State's recommendation of financial exigency, which allows for terminating tenured faculty.
Accounts payable decreased from $6.93 million to $1.38 million while personnel services and benefits decreased from $30.77 million to $23.5 million in fiscal year 2022, but the cuts were painful, with Henderson State going from 25 department chairs to four program directors and from four deans to one dean of the faculty. The number of full-time employees dropped from 330 in January 2022 to 230 by that September, with estimated payroll savings in fiscal 2024 of nearly $9 million.
"Going back to 2019, the situation was extremely dire, and [Ambrose] has an exceptionally difficult job -- I'm not sure how many others could have done it -- and then [Fisher], with his HSU connections, wanted to help us, too," which has kept HSU's momentum going, Welch said. "The faculty and staff of Henderson State, too, have been through a difficult time, so I'm really happy to give them some energy and excitement with" Berry's hire.
A 'bittersweet' choice
Berry, who has a Bachelor of Arts in History from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, and a Master of Arts degree and Doctor of Philosophy in History from the University of Mississippi, hopes to begin making phone calls to HSU faculty and staff this week to start listening to their views on the university's path forward, he said. "I like to hit the ground running, but also listening to everybody, and hopefully we can shorten the learning curve come January."
Welch and Berry "spent hours" discussing Henderson State, both its strengths and past struggles, so Berry comes into the role with "eyes wide open," Welch said. The fact that Berry is willing to leave "an established, well-run university to build at Henderson State is a vote of confidence in" HSU.
Southern Arkansas University tied for 86th for regional universities in the South in this year's U.S. News and World Report college rankings, while Henderson State University tied for 110th in that category.
There "were no surprises with Henderson State; we knew what was going on" over the past several years, Berry said. He spent a dozen years in Magnolia -- first joining SAU as a dean -- so leaving is "bittersweet, because these people have become family, but we're going to a new family, and they'll become our family very quickly."
Welch watched Berry "struggle" with his decision, because he was excited by the prospect of returning home to HSU, but he also "wanted to do right by SAU," he said. "That just reinforced to me that he was the right person, because he cares so much about leaving a place better than he found it."