Informed, not owned, by history

Over the past year the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff has gotten a lot of media coverage. As regular readers can attest, the coverage has not always been positive. Fortunately, that disquieting negative trajectory has begun to correct itself.

Last week several members of the local community echoed UAPB Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander’s commitment to a more racially and ethnically diversified university. If the institution is to grow and prosper, a radical shift from traditional enrollments will be required.

Influential people throughout the community now proselytize the iron necessity of this change. Described as a “UAPB super fan,” Alonzo “Bubba” Pettigrew Jr. — a longtime car salesman here — has been a leading voice in the move for greater racial diversity.

“Everywhere we go, everyone we talk to says, ‘What took you so long?’” he said. “People hadn’t asked before, but things are changing in Pine Bluff. We’re living in a time of cultural change, and we don’t need to be exclusive. We need to be accepting of everyone else and inclusive if we’re going to move ahead,” Pettigrew told The Commercial.

He could not be more correct. No one can take UAPB’s proud place as a Historically Black College and University from the campus community. Nor could anyone or anything deprive the school of that legacy. This said, celebrating one’s history and being owned by it are two fundamentally different paradigms.

While a number of people — Pettigrew included — understand the value of using college athletics as a form of outreach, this cannot be the only avenue of expansion. To be clear, if UAPB had no athletic programs, no band, no fraternities, no sororities and no homecoming festivities, it could still perform the core mission of a university: educating students. It would still have classrooms. It would still have professors. It would still have a library and laboratories. It would still have the ability to take bright-eyed freshmen and transform them into workers, scholars, professionals and leaders.

The university administration needs to focus and build on that fact. Because UAPB has such a notable social legacy in the community, it is too easy to forget the real purpose of the institution.

That said, the community has its own share of obligations in this equation. To begin with, the neighborhoods surrounding UAPB, while improving, are not typical of most college towns. Go to Athens, Ga. (UGA) or Oxford, Miss. (Ole Miss) or Columbia, S.C., (USC) and you’ll see a legion of coffee houses, restaurants, book stores, and quaint shops ringing the schools. These merchants provide three things: positive entertainment outlets — not predicated on alcohol sales — places for students to have jobs; tax revenue from the sales they make. In short, everybody wins.

Moreover, these retail developments give their communities something else Pine Bluff does not have: a college town atmosphere. Because of its insulated history in a poorer part of town, UAPB has never spawned this kind of environment. We are a town with a college, not a college town.

The difference is not just semantic. We need to embrace the latter. As above, all would benefit. The local service industry would expand and improve. More people would move into the middle class. A vibrant arts and humanities community could arise. Pine Bluff could be more of what we all know it has the potential to become.

In order for any of this to happen, a lot of well-ensconced, but outmoded traditions will have to be abandoned. We can no longer afford the luxury of clinging to what once was. The world has kept turning. It’s time we get back on board.