Walker’s comments cause debate; UAPB/SEARK work together, officials say

State Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, questioned the need for both Southeast Arkansas College and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in the same city, indicating SEARK might be taking students away from UAPB.

During the meeting of the Legislative Council and the Joint Budget Committee in Little Rock Wednesday, Walker said he planned to address the relationship of the schools in the upcoming legislative session.

“I’m trying to understand what the Legislature had in mind when it allowed SEARK to build there in the first place,” Walker said Wednesday. “Obviously there was not a motivation to strengthen UAPB. There’s just no justification for having a competitive institution with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff there.”

Walker said he believed there may be an unspoken motivation to elevate SEARK to equal or superior status to UAPB.

“That’s not right and I’m sure it’s part of the motivation of the people who elevated SEARK to a junior-college status,” Walker said Wednesday in an interview after the meeting.

Walker said that the proximity of the schools coupled with similar course offerings for freshmen and sophomores created a situation that he believed was attracting students to SEARK who would otherwise have gone to UAPB.

School reactions

UAPB Interim Chancellor Calvin Johnson and SEARK President Steve Hilterbran both highlighted the history of collaboration between the two Pine Bluff institutions of higher learning.

“Dr. Hilterbran and I have met several times to come up with ways that the two schools can work together and collaborate,” Johnson said. “I am optimistic about doing things together. We are still in the discussion stage. I think that part of what Representative Walker is talking about is the history of SEARK as a vo-tech school. I have no problem with that.”

“I am sure that some students are going to SEARK instead of UAPB for one because it’s cheaper, but I don’t have the data right now to see exactly why students transfer,” Johnson said.

“I look forward to working with Dr. Hilterbran and his staff to help both schools to be as efficient as possible,” Johnson said. “I look forward to having our staffs meet to look at possible ways to reduce costs through collaboration. Based on what I’m hearing, we’ll have to do that as we all are having to do more with less. We are working with SEARK for the benefit of both student bodies.”

Hilterbran said SEARK functions in tandem with UAPB and not in opposition to it.

“We work very closely with UAPB,” Hilterbran said. “Most of our students end up going to UAPB and we work closely with them to provide a seamless transition between the college and the university. We really do serve a different mission than the university does here in Pine Bluff. We provide a lot of job training and job skills and we work to prepare students to earn the career readiness certificate.”

Hilterbran said that SEARK stands ready to serve its students and the community through teaching practical job skills and job training.

“We do offer courses and degrees that will transfer to UAPB but our percentage of completions have gone up in certificates of proficiency and technical certificates,” Hilterbran said. “The percentage of associates’ degrees has gone down slightly as we pursue ways to help expand the workforce here in Pine Bluff.”

Hilterbran said that SEARK is continuing to explore partnership opportunities with UAPB.

“I meet regularly with Chancellor Johnson to discuss these issues,” Hilterbran said. “Most of our students here at SEARK live close by and if they want to go on from their associate degree it is logical that students can transfer to UAPB so that they don’t have to pay for housing and meals as they would at a university in another city. We fit together hand in glove.”

Reaction by legislators

District 5 state Sen. Stephanie Flowers, a District 25 state senate candidate, noted that before becoming part of the university system in 1972, what was then AM&N College offered a range of vocational and technical courses to its almost entirely black student body.

“When I was young I remember you could learn to be a bricklayer, an auto mechanic and the industrial arts,” Flowers said. “Once it became part of the university system that focus shifted.”

Flowers said that some of the courses offered by SEARK that are similar to UAPB courses are necessary for the completion of remedial course work by entering students.

“All institutions have a high remediation rate,” Flowers said. “High school students need to come across that stage with a diploma that will make them ready to go into the workplace, ready to receive vocational training at SEARK or ready to pursue a four year degree at UAPB. We have so many students graduating who aren’t ready and who must take remedial courses and pass them in order to move on.”

Flowers said that the same situation affects UAPB and SEARK so both institutions must offer remedial courses to many entering students.

“I appreciate Representative Walker’s concern for our institutions, but I believe their purposes are distinctly different,” Flowers said. “A lot of students at SEARK receive certificates in the trades. They offer a nursing school and a technological center. The mission is clear for both schools.”

District 16 state Rep. James Word also believes that both institutions serve a need in the community.

“I don’t think that SEARK is part of the enrollment drop at UAPB,” Word said. “The drop is mainly due to the downturn in the economy. It takes less time to get a degree at SEARK and it costs less money. They offer things that UAPB does not offer.”

Word said that not all students are in need of a four year degree.

“SEARK serves a need in the community,” Word said. “We still need trained mechanics and plumbers and other skilled trades for the essential services that we need in this community. UAPB gets it share of students but they need to set up a way for students to get academic credit through online courses.”

Retiring District 23 state Sen. Jerry Taylor said that some degree of competition is good.

“I’ve always found that competition is good in higher education or anywhere else,” Taylor said. “I am a supporter of SEARK and believe they fill a niche so I disagree with Representative Walker on what he said.”