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In 1927, the Great Flood dominated news coverage across Arkansas.

The creation that year of Little Rock Junior College, under the purview of the Little Rock School Board, didn't receive much attention. Classes were held in the building housing Little Rock High School (later Little Rock Central).

In the 92 years since then, what's now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock often has flown under the radar despite its location in the state's largest city. UALR has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. Chancellor Andrew Rogerson announced his resignation on Aug. 30. Enrollment is down (for a ninth consecutive year), deficits are up, and key people have left the school's faculty and staff during the past year.

UALR was once the state's second-largest institution of higher education. By the fall of last year, it had dropped to fifth. And the bleeding continues.

During the course of a year, Nate Coulter, the director of the Central Arkansas Library System, and I hosted a series of luncheons for business, government and civic leaders. These gatherings allowed Rogerson the opportunity to discuss the importance of having a research-based institution such as UALR in the capital city. In essence, our message was that Little Rock needs to become more of a college town with a focus on UALR and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, college towns tend to do better economically than non-college towns. Too many of Little Rock's business leaders, however, have never given UALR the support it deserves or taken advantage of the programs it offers. That must change if Little Rock is to pull its weight in the Arkansas economy.

UALR also has suffered from a UA Board of Trustees that has been Fayetteville-centric along with a lack of emphasis by Arkansas legislators on higher education.

Of course, life has never been easy for this school. The reason that John Larson, the Little Rock High School principal, founded Little Rock Junior College is that the University of Arkansas stopped offering lower-division extension courses in Little Rock.

Former Gov. George Donaghey, a man who was ahead of his time in many areas, understood the importance of having the school in Little Rock. In 1929, Donaghey and his wife began a foundation to support the junior college.

"While Donaghey, who served as governor from 1909-13, had little formal college training, he was a strong advocate for education," Stephen Recken writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Income first came from the Donaghey Building, which he had donated to the foundation. The board is composed of Little Rock business leaders who manage the foundation's assets. In the case of the Donaghey Foundation, the board determines the amount of money it will give to the college based on income from its assets. Donaghey donated other Little Rock properties in 1937 for the foundation to manage. The 1929 bequest was the largest in Arkansas history up to that time."

Donaghey wrote: "I was convinced that no greater field for educational development exists anywhere than can be found right here in Little Rock."

"On several occasions, Donaghey expressed hope that LRJC would become a four-year school," Recken writes. "In 1929, the school was fully accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, and enrollment reached 347 students. In 1931, LRJC moved to the former U.M. Rose Elementary School at 13th and State streets in Little Rock. The wave of World War II veterans coming to LRJC under the GI Bill forced the Little Rock School Board to seek a larger campus. By 1946, enrollment had reached 800 students, and it grew to 1,350 by 1951."

In 1947, Little Rock businessman Raymond Rebsamen donated 80 acres for a campus on the east side of what's now University Avenue. That was a blessing at the time, but it later turned into a curse. Far removed from prominent Little Rock businesses, UALR has been out of sight and out of mind when it comes to the city's leadership.

In 1954, the Little Rock School Board endorsed the idea of LRJC becoming a four-year school. Donaghey Foundation board members said they would withhold funding if there was a deviation from the junior college model. The Arkansas Supreme Court eventually ruled that the foundation couldn't arbitrarily withhold funds. A task force led by businessman Gus Ottenheimer recommended in May 1956 that a four-year school be created.

LRJC became Little Rock University in the fall of 1957. In 1959, the Little Rock School Board withdrew administrative responsibility. LRU was a private university, though fundraising challenges led to calls that the school become a part of the UA System. That happened in 1969 when Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller signed the bill transforming LRU into UALR.

"At the time, it offered 28 undergraduate programs, listed about 80 faculty members and had an enrollment of 3,500 students," Recken writes. "Ten years later, the university offered 73 degree programs, including 14 graduate programs, and enrolled 9,652 students. Chancellor G. Robert Ross, who followed after Carey Stabler's 1972 resignation, was perhaps most responsible for leading this transition."

Let's hope that Rogerson's sudden resignation will wake up the business community statewide and help Arkansans better understand the importance of having a strong UALR. For now, there are few silver linings in the cloud hanging over the school.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 09/11/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: The crisis at UALR

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