Unlike previous presidents of Arkansas State University, Charles L. "Chuck" Welch has maintained a low profile on the university’s Jonesboro campus. That’s not surprising when you consider that his home and office are in Little Rock.
Instead, Tim Hudson, after completing his first year as ASU-Jonesboro chancellor, has become the administrative face of the system’s flagship. As personable and engaging as his predecessor, Robert Potts, Hudson seems to be everywhere and has made a strong impression on campus and off.
Welch visits the Jonesboro campus often for office work and public events, but he’s carrying out the duties of the office as envisioned by ASU trustees when they split the presidency in 2006. Potts became the first Jonesboro chancellor, and Les Wyatt focused more on his system responsibilities. Nevertheless, he remained in the president’s home not far from campus.
When Wyatt stepped down rather abruptly in 2010, Potts filled in as interim president for nine months or so until Welch came on board. Because Potts had planned to retire previously, that also triggered a search for a new chancellor.
Now the top two administrative positions have been filled for a little over a year, and we’re finally beginning to see how this division of responsibility is supposed to work.
Many Jonesboro residents were upset when they learned that Welch would operate primarily out of the state capital rather than Jonesboro, But it makes sense if ASU is truly going to be a university system, and in fact it already is. While the president must pay attention to the Jonesboro campus, he is also responsible for the campuses at Beebe, Heber Springs, Harrison, etc.
More importantly, the president must speak for the system as a whole in dealing with legislators, state and federal officials, potential donors and the like. For too many years ASU has been missing that voice in the Legislature, in higher education circles and in the halls of government. It’s not a part-time job that can be accomplished between banquets and meetings with faculty.
Welch is emerging not just as the voice of ASU but also as a leading spokesman for higher education in Arkansas.
Although possibly the youngest university president in the nation, he was recently named by AY (About You) magazine as one of its 12 "most powerful men" of 2013.
An example of his leadership appeared last week in a forum seen by few residents of Northeast Arkansas — Talk Business Arkansas — which published a guest commentary from him that made a strong appeal for what he called "transformative investment" in higher education.
In the piece he pointed out that Arkansas’ colleges and universities are doing their part to "increase the state’s intellectual talent pool" despite little additional investment from non-tuition resources.
Meanwhile, the state, albeit under court orders in the landmark Lake View case, has invested more than $6.4 billion in the K-12 educational system since 2001. The result can be measured in better national test scores, modernized learning facilities and more competitive pay for teachers, Welch wrote.
"Arkansas has no dedicated capital funding for higher education, and that means no seed funding for major initiatives," he said. "When resources are available, universities receive a share of the General Improvement Fund."
Basically, that’s money left over when all other bills are paid and tax revenues run higher than projections. State government recently ended the 2013 fiscal year with a surplus of about $300 million, and higher education will get a share of that. Next year, though, could bring no surplus.
That makes it hard for colleges and universities to plan major improvements. A perfect example is the Humanities and Social Sciences Building under construction on the ASU-Jonesboro campus. For years it has been a 4-story steel skeleton while ASU waited for funding to complete the project. Some work is being done this summer, but completion will probably depend on further GIF money.
"Historically, higher education institutions are the first to face state funding cuts and the last to receive new money," Welch wrote. "We were fortunate not to face the cuts suffered by other states during the great recession, but additional funding for higher education was severely limited."
Of course, state lawmakers found plenty of room during this year’s regular session to cut taxes by a almost $250 million. Instead, they should have invested more money in higher education.
"It seems like every time someone mentions higher education these days, they are bemoaning the cost," Welch said in his commentary. "We must consider higher education as an investment — an investment in the young person being educated, an investment in that student’s entire family and an investment in the community where the student lives."
He’s absolutely right, and he also observes correctly that it will never be easy to make additional investments in higher education. However, the need for Arkansas to raise its percentage of adults with a college education is greatest in difficult economic times. We can expect good returns on such investments if we’ll take the chance.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.