Declines signal needed change

Last week, The Commercial published an editorial in which we praised efforts by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff to advance its STEM (science, technology engineering and math) curriculum. While holding fast to those sentiments, a recent report concerning precipitous declines in UAPB enrollment gives us pause concerning the larger enterprise.

According to figures just released by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, UAPB’s fall 2013 enrollment includes 2,615 students — a drop of 7.5 percent from the fall 2012 enrollment of 2,828. Altogether, UAPB’s enrollment has declined by 17.9 percent since the fall 2011 semester. The ADHE report also reflects a 2 percent average decline in enrollment at the state’s two- and four-year colleges and universities this year, compared with 2012.

A rate of decline that borders on four times the state average is unacceptable. While all universities have enrollments that ebb and flow, a loss of almost 18 percent in two years speaks to deep-seated problems at the school. A few more years of mass exodus like this and there won’t be any UAPB.

This unpleasant truth should give us pause to reflect upon those things about the institution that merit expansion and those that need to be discarded. In recent months, the new university administration has called for a more racially and ethnically diverse campus community. This is a crucial first step toward sustainability.

While we may assign deep value to the historical roots of the institution, the reality of modern education does not permit a strong tether to that aspect of the school’s past. The competition is just too stiff. Students who might otherwise choose UAPB may go elsewhere if they perceive UAPB to be backward looking or ham-strung by history.

Second, athletics is not the answer. While many members of the community and alumni family are devoted fans of the school’s athletic teams, we must remember that the school’s primary mission is to educate, not entertain. UAPB is a school that has a football team, not the other way around — this is a lesson the good folks in Fayetteville would also do well to remember.

Third, nonchalance in the face of program failure cannot be tolerated. The exemplar of this is the perennially failed UAPB nursing program. It’s not that we believe the university to be incapable of running a successful, accredited nursing program — it’s that it has not yet managed to do so on a consistent basis. Perhaps more than any other failure at the school, this squandered resource symbolizes the institution’s resistance to meaningful change.

Whether the university community has the wherewithal to make the necessary changes, one thing is certain: change will occur. Change is inevitable. Every generation of students since Socrates led classes around the parapet have obliged teachers to adapt. What was true in ancient Athens is true today in Pine Bluff.

This then also gets us to the unpopular question of remediation. While we acknowledge the absolute right of every American to be offered an education, college cannot be used as a catch basin for remediating the deficiencies of high school. This means higher standards, tougher admissions, more challenging curricula and a better focus on the core mission of the institution.

While everyone likes the football team and homecoming, if UAPB doesn’t change course in short order, its vaunted halls of academe could soon be little more than an alumni clubhouse. It need not to come to that. There is time for change, but the change has to be real. When that happens, the students will return.