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story.lead_photo.caption UALR Athletic Director George Lee is shown in this photo. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock on Friday announced that George Lee has been named the school's new athletic director. Lee previously had served as the Trojans' senior associate athletic director and chief financial officer.

The news comes a little more than two months after former athletic director Chasse Conque announced he was departing after a 41/2-year stint for the same position at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Lee officially takes over Nov. 1, but he is not a permanent replacement. UALR Chancellor Christina Drale, who's been on the job for a month after replacing Andrew Rogerson, said Lee will serve a two-year appointment to help stabilize the athletic department as the university reorganizes.

Drale said it's important right now for the university to have leadership that is familiar with UALR's landscape, and she believes Lee's experience provides that.

"He knows the program well. He's got the respect of his colleagues and of the athletic staff," Drale told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "I think that people can have confidence that he's not going to come in and do things that don't make sense for us, that don't make sense for our program."

Lee has had firm footing at UALR for decades. He graduated from university in 1987 and has worked for the athletic department since 1996. For years, he's been in charge of the athletic department's budget. His wife is Joni Lee, UALR's vice chancellor of university affairs.

George Lee, who admitted he's "more of a behind-the-scenes" person, is now the leader of the athletic department.

"My main goal is really to step back, review all the different things that we're doing, look at where do we go from here and really analyze where we can do things more efficiently, how we can use the funds that we do have more efficiently, how we can increase our revenues," Lee told the Democrat-Gazette.

One of the biggest issues facing UALR is declining enrollment, and helping tackle that issue is at the top of Lee's to-do list.

"Part of our funding comes directly from the number of student enrollment hours," Lee said, "so when those hours go down because there are fewer students, we get less money."

UALR has experienced a considerable shake-up in leadership over the past couple months. Not long after Conque left his post as athletic director in August, Rogerson resigned as chancellor.

In the week after Conque announced his departure, Rogerson said in a statement released by the school Aug. 8 that UALR would conduct a "national search" for a new athletic director. At that time, Rogerson also named Bob Denman, a longtime school administrator, to be the Trojans' interim athletic director. Denman had been the interim athletic director prior to Conque's hiring in January 2015.

About three weeks later, Rogerson announced he would step down Sept. 1. On Sept. 12, Drale -- who had been the school's provost -- was named chancellor.

Drale said she initially considered conducting a national search for a new athletic director but decided the timing wasn't ideal for the athletic department. She said she hopes to open a national search for a permanent athletic director by next year, and Lee could be considered a candidate.

"As I started thinking about building this leadership team and the tasks ahead of us, the challenges ahead of us, I really began to realize that we couldn't afford to bring somebody in that couldn't hit the ground running, that would need sort of this extended ramp-up time or this extended learning curve time," Drale said. "We really had to have people that could lead confidently and quickly as we move forward."

But some key UALR benefactors are not totally on board with Friday's announcement.

Kevin Crass -- a longtime UALR season-ticket holder, booster and local attorney who also serves on the university's board of visitors and the Trojan Athletic Council -- expressed displeasure with the decision to appoint Lee as the new athletic director, saying it "came out of the blue" for many connected to the athletic department.

Crass said he was "frustrated" that "there was no opportunity for input from the external supporters." When asked whether other benefactors he knew felt similar about the situation, Crass said, "It's a shared feeling."

"I personally hope this is not a statement of the university leadership that they're not fully committed to supporting Division I athletics at Little Rock," Crass told the Democrat-Gazette.

Drale said canvassing external input was not necessary because a national search wasn't launched. Drale said she spoke with Crass on Friday and that she understands his frustration.

She also said she met with the athletic staff Friday morning and reaffirmed that UALR is committed to competing at the Division I level, within the Sun Belt Conference and investing in the Trojans' athletic teams.

"We're ready to roll up our sleeves and get going," Drale said. "I'm very optimistic and very confident that we will have a great year for athletics."

Sports on 10/12/2019

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