A TEMPORARY FIX: the eStem high school will begin using a portion of Ross Hall (background) as a student center to relieve pressure on the college student center.

‘A WIN’ UA Little Rock Chancellor Andrew Rogerson on agreement with eStem.

University of Arkansas Little Rock Chancellor Andrew Rogerson has announced that the campus has worked out  a temporary solution to a festering problem Rogerson has blamed in part for college enrollment declines — the use of Donaghey Student Center space by eStem charter high school students.

eStem agreed to a temporary solution Rogerson said its lawyer Jess Askew had rejected four months ago. Beginning June 1, eStem will lease half of the second floor of Ross Hall, which is adjacent to eStem. The publicly funded privately operated charter school opened two years ago in remodeled and expanded Larson Hall. They’ll pay about $90,000 for the lease, but no longer pay the roughly $70,000 they’d been paying for use of the student center.

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Rogerson announced the agreement this afternoon to faculty and staff.

The lease will be for a year and during that time, Rogerson told me in a phone interview, the parties will work for a “sustainable plan for the future.” Rogerson emphasized the solution is temporary and a permanent solution is necessary for pressures brought on the campus that he’s said could lead to the university becoming a “glorified junior college,” rather than the research institution it is.

“This is a win for the campus,” Rogerson said. eStem students will no longer eat or simply hang out, sometimes until as late as 5 p.m., in the student center. Caterers likely will arrange to provide food service.

Here’s his announcement to the campus:

I am pleased to report that UA Little Rock, eStem, and the UA Systems Office reached an agreement late yesterday that will relieve congestion in the Donaghey Student Center.

Effective June 1, eStem High School will begin occupation of the south end of the second floor of Ross Hall. eStem will have exclusive use of this space for dining services and recreational space. The agreement is for one year with the potential for renewal. This summer, a partition wall will be constructed on the south side of the elevator for privacy. eStem can access the space via the walkway between the high school and Ross Hall. eStem students will no longer use the Donaghey Student Center for dining or other purposes.

This resolution is a win for both institutions. You and our students will have full use of the Donaghey Student Center once again, and eStem students and teachers will enjoy a private space for dining and socializing next to their school.

Thank you for your suggestions and feedback that have been helpful in reaching this agreement. I will continue to seek your suggestions as we look for longer term solutions for working together with eStem. In the meantime, our dining service partner, Sodexo, is enhancing the dining space to offer more accessibility and other amenities to our campus community. They will have some exciting news to share soon.

I appreciate your patience and understanding while we working these details out.

The situation has long been simmering and has increased as eStem’s enrollment increased over two years from more than 400 to about 600, with future increases planned to 825 students by 2021. The temporary agreement reflects no change in the original deal struck with eStem by former Chancellor Joel Anderson. It includes a requirement that Rogerson  views with concern — eStem taking over 15 classrooms in Ross Hall in 2021.

The development is something of a surprise. I’d met Wednesday with Rogerson and he’d reported then there hadn’t been movement on working something out with eStem. But Rogerson met last night with representatives of eStem, the UA System and the Walton Family Foundation, a major backer of the charter school. He said, unlike in some past sessions, there was general agreement there was a problem.

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A likely factor in a change in outlook has been a growing student protest and petition drive about how the domination of the student center by high school students has negatively affected campus life. There are also pressures from traffic and parking. UA Little Rock brought in a consultant who studied the issue in depth. The faculty also expressed concern and adopted a resolution calling for a halt in eStem growth.

eStem backers initially dismissed this as growing pains and were helpfully given a platform for that view by Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman, a charter school proponent who’s been instrumental in the establishment of eStem. It began downtown and still uses a building Hussman owned and has since sold to the school for $5.3 million.

A significant campus movement by students raised the profile of  the high school students’ impact, particularly on the life of students who carry full academic loads and live in college dormitories. Night students are largely unaware of the high school’s presence.

CHRIS STEWART: Leading students at UA Little Rock.

I talked with one of the student petition leaders, Chris Stephens, today. He’s a Hot Springs senior, going to school online and working full-time in industrial automation sales. He says the school has several issues, including eStem, but he believes it’s contributed to the diminishing campus life and enrollment decline. He lived on campus for two years. He believes, too, that some of the problem has been insufficient communication. He says he understands eStem’s reluctance to spend money, if required, on a short-term solution that doesn’t provide long-term solutions.

He’s been talking to eStem leaders and Donald Bobbit, the president of the UA System. He said he’d gotten an indication from Bobbitt that a short-term solution to free up the student center was in the works. “Anything they can do at this point to alleviate tension between the two schools is super important. Students will be extremely happy about any improvement in the situation.”

He said resolution of the student center crowding could free the institutions to talk more about things that hadn’t worked out — eStem students enrolling concurrently in UA Little Rock courses and other cooperation. He’s been lobbying for more student participation in decision-making. He said the lack of input from anyone on the eStem project was a case in point. He noted that an original plan called for the high school to be located near, but not on campus. In retrospect, that would have been a better idea, though perhaps more expensive for eStem.

“If anybody had asked a student then do you think it’s a good idea to put a high school on your campus, any of us would have said no,” he said. “It wasn’t totally thought through.”

Rogerson has linked a precipitous drop in full-time students and 400 dorm vacancies to eStem’s presence. He’s said he’d like to add student center amenities catering to full-time students, but said yesterday it was pointless with eStem students occupying so much of the space during the day.

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“It has been a powder keg,” Rogerson said. Rogerson has come in for criticism. He’s been blamed for not solving the problem and he acknowledged ruefully in our meeting yesterday that this was true. He had not solved the problem despite offering a couple of different plans rejected by eStem. The first was to take space in a former shopping center the college owns to the south of the eStem building.

That changed at a meeting last night with eStem’s willingness to return to the second idea. Rogerson declined to identify individual participants in the meeting. eStem leader John Bacon so far hasn’t returned my call.

It should be noted that Rogerson’s criticism of eStem has been called by some a diversion for other shortcomings. Enrollment declines began before eStem arrived, critics note.  Some staffers support the location of eStem on campus and send children there.

A pre-existing enrollment decline is also true, Rogerson said. But he pointed to a survey of hundreds of students that found a significant percentage had identified eStem as a reason for not returning to the campus or viewed it as a negative. And he said the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. He said the student center is largely unusable by college students because of the crush of high school students for major parts of the day.

Nor is Rogerson backing away from sentiments he expressed in a letter to John Bacon, chief executive officer of eStem, in December 2017. It expressed concern about the future for both schools.  He said it wasn’t just a facility question but a question about how the institutions would be viewed by future recruits. He stood by that in talking with me yesterday. “eStem is preventing us from creating the healthy and dynamic university that the city of Little Rock needs,”  he said. He said many don’t know or understand how much the school contributes to the city through graduates at the master’s and doctorate level.

Rogerson said today by phone that he couldn’t explain the change on the eStem side at the meeting last night, but it was welcome. “People weren’t saying the chancellor is crazy anymore. Everyone is in agreement we need to find a solution.” The parties will meet monthly to continue to find ways to resolve problems.

When the move of the high school was announced, it was touted as a way to lure graduates to UA Little Rock and also to use the high school for college educational purposes. Perhaps 20 eStem graduates will choose UA Little Rock for college this year, Rogerson told me yesterday. There have been complications in using eStem for education. Student teaching, for example, must be conducted by a certified teacher under Arkansas law. eStem has a waiver from certification rules so, while some of its teachers are certified, some are not.

The immediate pressing issue has been the student center. And, at least for a year, that problem has been solved.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t observe what appears to me tepid backing for UA Little Rock on the University of Arkansas Board and from the local business community. Walton Foundation influence is powerful on the UA Board of course. It has given hundreds of millions to the Fayetteville campus. One member of the UA Little Rock Board of Visitors, Vicki Saviers of Little Rock, is a founder of eStem. Bill Dillard III, heir to the department store empire, is a trustee of eStem. The Stephens financial empire helped the Fayetteville  UA campus establish a branch of the Sam Walton School of Business in downtown Little Rock, though UA Little Rock has a business school. The Fayetteville campus is gearing up competitive challenges to programs UA Little Rock has established in some cutting edge technological areas, such as big data.

While you’ll find occasional voices who say that a first-class university is a critical element of a first-class city, it’s hard to find a groundswell of support among heavy hitters for the proposition in Little Rock.

Hats off to student activism. Hundreds of college students said eStem’s presence had harmed UA Little Rock. They also said they resented the small price eStem pays for embedded campus costs from security and parking to the student center. Maybe somebody noticed.

Turning off college students has a cost.  UA Little Rock must cut almost $6 million from next year’s budget. A 12 percent decline in student hours this semester compared with last spring, largely explained by a drop in full-time students, means a loss of $5.9 million in tuition.