University of Arkansas at Little Rock Chancellor Andrew Rogerson took the reins of the university on Sept. 1, succeeding Joel Anderson, who had held the job for 13 years. A native of Scotland, Rogerson holds a Ph.D. in protozoan ecology, and was previously the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. Sonoma State is part of the University of California system. He had previously worked in administrative posts at universities in England, Canada and the U.S., including Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.; The South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City, S.D.; and California State University, Fresno.
Rogerson comes to UALR at a time of change for the university, with steadily rising tuitions in the University of Arkansas system and fluctuating enrollment at UALR. He also inherits a controversial project going up on the south side of the campus: the eStem Public Charter Schools’ new high school. Critics say it will pull still more students from the already beleaguered Little Rock School District. The project, which will gut and renovate UALR’s Larson Hall and occupy part of nearby Ross Hall, is scheduled for completion by the 2017-18 school year. The Walton Family Foundation, which plans to invest over $250 million to construct new charter schools around the nation in coming years, is financing the construction of the eStem High School with an $11.4 million noninterest loan that must be repaid in 20 years.
Encouraging the redevelopment of the areas around the UALR campus through the University District Partnership was a stated priority of former Chancellor Joel Anderson. Will it remain a priority on your watch?
I think that’s consistent with the mission of a metropolitan and urban university. I think the role of this kind of university, which we are proud to be in the coalition of metropolitan and urban universities — CMUU — it really is two missions, if you like, that coexist. One is economic development, which is to produce a more educated workforce for the city. The second part is to revitalize neighborhood connections and make the university a real driver of change.
So you see the role of a university like the University of Arkansas at Monticello or the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville as different from the role of a university like UALR?
Absolutely. I think we’re a very unique entity here. We are the only university in Arkansas that’s in a city. The distinction you often make with a metropolitan university is that it’s not just geographically in the city, it’s of the city. In other words, it really is an integral part of changing the face of the city. I firmly believe that unless you’ve got something like 60 percent of your population with some form of higher education, you’re not going to be a sustainable, vibrant city of the future. That’s a number that’s been bandied around in other areas. The city of Louisville is a good example of that. They’ve really realized that they need to get the level of education up in the city. They’re calling their project “55 degrees.” Instead of calling it 60 percent of the population, they’ve put a number on it —that they need 55,000 more degrees in that city to make it vibrant and viable. That’s what we can do, which makes us very different. Students going to Fayetteville are often not coming to reside in Little Rock. So we’re it. We can really make a difference in this city. Which is why we’ve been reaching out, which is something you’ve probably seen in other press, about really to try and reach local high schools and show that there’s a population of students there whose parents have probably never seen a pathway to their local university because of cost. Of course, if someone applies themselves and actually goes to their local university and applies for all the federal aid and state aid that’s available to them, then you can actually cover the cost of your tuition, then we can get scholarship money to help, or work study, etc. It’s a new population, I think, and it’s addressing that huge area in education, which is affordability and accessibility. These are the two words out there dominating higher education across America. We’re really tackling that head on.
In May, the UA system approved a 3.5 percent increase in tuition and fees, which will bring the annual undergraduate tuition and mandatory fees for an undergrad attending UALR to $8,633 per year in 2017-18. Is tuition too high at this point?
I don’t believe it is. Any level of tuition is too high as far as I’m concerned. I’m coming from the California system where we had the master plan of the 1960s, where literally education was free. That has been eroded away. We still have this strangeness that we’re not allowed in California to call it tuition; you still have to call it a fee. But that fee has been creeping up and there is now tuition in California as there is across America. I think the level we’ve reached here is still manageable. It’s regrettable, but it’s manageable, because the state hasn’t disinvested in education as much as some states. You can look around at some problem systems: Colorado, Arizona, Louisiana. We still have fairly stable state funding, which is allowing us to keep the cost down. Remember, students who are financially disadvantaged can apply for things they’re eligible for and really can cover that, or most of that, cost, particularly if you live at home, which is one of the biggest costs of education these days. That’s why we’re pushing for that segment. We’re not going to be a university that only caters to local students, but it certainly could be a population we can bring in here and help the city in that regard. I think it’s also fair to point out that UA-Little Rock gives out a lot of scholarship money. Last year we gave out $17 million in scholarships. We’re very generous, and we also give out a lot of work-study. So we’re very aware of the need to make education affordable.
Some see UALR’s partnership with eStem Charter School as the college helping the chief competitor of the Little Rock School District at the expense of the district. Do you believe eStem’s planned expansion on the UALR campus — which will draw hundreds of students out of the LRSD — will harm the district? Is that a concern?
Let me answer this by pointing out that I inherited eStem. It had nothing to do with me. But as I reflect on it, it’s a good thing. Remember, it is by lottery, so it’s a fair system that’s going to give equal opportunity to all students in Little Rock and the region. I think it’s a good thing that it’s got a STEM focus, because what this country needs more than anything is more science, technology, engineering, mathematics students. I think the fact that we have, come the fall of ’17, 450 high school students on this campus taking courses here is going to steer many of them into a degree at this university. I think the big picture is we’re going to have more students staying in this region, being educated in the STEM fields. I think ultimately that’s going to be a bigger benefit than any concerns about the dilution of the public school system.
Are you personally a supporter of charter schools?
I like the idea of free choice for any kind of education that seems to work for the particular family involved. In that sense, charter schools are OK with me.
The terms of UALR’s contract with eStem and the Walton Family Foundation set the lease with the charter school at $1 per year for the property they’ll occupy on campus. Meanwhile, UALR is allowing eStem to use a significant amount of real property, including 15,000 square feet of space in Ross Hall, a building currently in use by the college as classrooms and offices. Why is it in UALR’s interest to give such a large amount of space to another entity, especially given that critics say charter school expansion will hurt the LRSD?
I’m actually not that clear on how much space we’re giving away, but I can say that one thing we have on this campus is a lot of classroom space. As I understand it, the small amount of space we’re giving away for the expansion — because most of the construction is going to be new — that small amount of classroom space wasn’t needed by the university. That’s even with a campus plan that’s hoping we’ll grow to at least 15,000 students.
Has UALR received any funding or other resources or support, formally or informally, from the Walton Family Foundation since the eStem deal was struck?
I don’t know for sure. I think not. Remember, that was money to fund eStem, which is in some ways independent of the university.
This is a campus that still teaches music, arts, English. Are those disciplines still important in the 21st century?
Absolutely. Let’s step back from it and go, what does an undergraduate degree hope to give a student? If you do a psychology degree, the chances of becoming a psychologist are probably 1 percent. So most undergraduates, if they don’t go on to graduate school to specialize, are going to be going out into the workforce. So if we give them the skill set regardless of the discipline, they’re going to be ready for the workforce. You might want to think about it as: A major is just a way of giving someone a database in which to analyze and drill down into and work with. The nature of that database is somewhat irrelevant in terms of the subject area. We have to be giving our students those critical thinking skills and those collaborative skills to make them team players. That can come regardless of what discipline they’re in. So I do firmly believe in a more liberal education for the undergraduates. I don’t think the nature of your undergraduate degree determines what you’re going to be in life. I don’t think if you get a degree in history that you’re going to have to find a job to be a historian. I think it gives you the right skill sets to find employment in many different areas. I would also hope that in the course of giving students a signature experience, which is making them sort of analyze the subject area, that they’re then going to be energized about that subject, and then they’ll consider: I want to go to graduate school. Yes, we do want to pay attention to computer scientists and biologists who can go on in those areas. But I don’t have any problem pushing all our other liberal degree subject areas. This city needs as many artists and philosophers as they do computer scientists. If you want to be a vibrant city, you need to have a range.
Governor Hutchinson has proposed a change in the higher education funding model that rewards “performance” in terms of how well a college does in meeting goals such as percentage of incoming students who actually graduate, etc. How do you think this change will affect UALR?
It’s a very complicated formula at the moment that’s still being refined. Of course, it’s based on metrics such as time to graduation, but it also has metrics in there about how many underserved students are you serving, how many transfer students are you managing to graduate and so on. So it’s a complicated formula in many ways. The versions I’ve seen don’t disadvantage the university in any way. The funding is going to be sort of similar. But what it really does do, and I think this is a good thing about it, is that it really makes us sit up and say, we have to do business differently. Of course that is what we should be doing anyway. We need to get more students out instead of worrying about how many students we’re bringing in, which is what performance-based funding is all about. So we’re going to be looking at the number of students we’re actually graduating. I think the formula is still evolving. It perhaps will evolve even after it’s rolled out, but it’s not going to be a huge impact on us. It does give us two years to start looking at how we do business. I think that’s a good thing. Really, it’s not about how many students you enroll. It’s about how many you graduate.
For a longer version of this interview, with topics including the proposed closing of Franklin Elementary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposal to make college tuition very low-cost or free, and Rogerson’s views on “campus carry” of concealed firearms, visit the online version of this article at arktimes.com/rogersonq&a