UAPB: Looking forward while looking back

I too join those welcoming Laurence B. Alexander as the new chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. His combination of top notch credentials, experience and youthful vigor will serve the university and our community well. His “outsider” status will also help counter the campus’ tendency at times to be excessively inward-looking during an era when American higher education has become more global in its focus, but at the same time more involved with the communities in which they are located and serve.

Ultimately, however, forward progress at UAPB will depend on a variety of other factors and actors. These include the robustness of the nation’s economy and the availability of federal dollars needed to support research and student aid, strength in Arkansas’ overall economy, and the maintenance of our lottery-funded tuition program.

Other players with pivotal roles include the state’s broader higher education bureaucracy, the governor and legislature, and elected officials here in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County. The chancellor, of course, will lead the charge in seeking out those resources and forming those alliances needed to take UAPB to the next stage of its development. And I am convinced that he will succeed.

Yet, any bold move forward must be tempered by a truthful attempt to come to grips with UAPB’s previous attempts forward. Those efforts were shaped during the past as much by the state’s legacy of “separate but equal” policies and politics as they were by the fits and turns of the national and state economies. And while most of us in the south have shifted to a “forgive and forget” and “let bygones be bygones” approach to thinking about our past, I am forever mindful of Mississippi writer William Faulkner’s insightful dictum that “the past is not history; it’s not even past”.

Former Chancellor, Lawrence Davis, as part of his retirement agreement, is barred from discussing his past experience with state officials apropos UAPB. I am not bound by such an agreement. Here is my take. Many other states in the south, remembering their segregationist legacies, have moved during the past four decades toward efforts to more fully equalize the funding streams that flow to their state’s historically white and black (HBCUs) universities. Those attempts at remedy have begun but have been much less robust and consistent over time here in Arkansas. UAPB remains chronically underfunded by the state legislature and the board of trustees of the University of Arkansas system.

It is true that it is difficult to erase decades of underfunding, and many HBCUs in other states remain with sub-par physical facilities and under-paid faculty. But bold attempts forward have been made in many states including our bordering states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. I recently attended a meeting at Houston’s Texas Southern University. Although it faces the same kinds of student remediation issues confronted by UAPB, the campus buildings are modern and physically appealing, the campus is well landscaped, and overall funding is increasingly on par with the predominantly white campuses of similar size in the state. I was told that much of the improvement has been facilitated by allies (of all races) of the campus serving in the state legislature.

Currently, the area around the campus is attracting upscale housing and new residents, including many faculty and staff who previously lived elsewhere. This change is due in part to actions taken by the city of Houston. Some years ago the city closed off a busy street thoroughfare dividing the campus and began to upgrade the streets, sidewalks and other amenities in the area. The bottom line from an educational efficiency vantage point is that students have found the campus an attractive place to study, and enrollment stands now at nearly 10,000.

A model for UAPB? Clearly it is. Let’s go for it.