University of Arkansas at Fort Smith board gets overview on fall 2023 academic initiatives

Robinson says university seeking ways to better serve region

University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Terisa Riley speaks Wednesday during the UAFS Board of Visitors meeting. (River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Saccente)

FORT SMITH -- The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith is working with the local community to make adjustments -- specifically in the areas of health care, data analysis and advanced manufacturing -- to better serve the region.

Shadow Robinson, provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs at UAFS, briefed the university's Board of Visitors on academic initiatives it's working on for the fall 2023 semester during a meeting Wednesday.

Robinson began by invoking the university's new mission statement as laid out in its strategic plan for 2023-28, which the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees approved May 25. The statement reads: UAFS empowers the social mobility of its students and the economic growth of the River Valley through exceptional educational opportunities and robust community partnerships.

"That mission statement is saying who we're going to be, and to be that to the region, we have to hear from the region," Robinson said.

However, Robinson noted the university has been able to grow its Western Arkansas Technical Center program by also considering what things it possibly shouldn't do or should stop doing to focus on what the region really needs. UAFS has a "viability group" that's looking at all the university's academic programs to help determine if it needs to stop doing certain things in favor of other things that it knows it has to do.

Robinson said health care is the second-largest industry in the Fort Smith Metropolitan Statistical Area in terms of the total number of jobs. He claimed the age of the workforce in that field is getting progressively older, with "mass retirements" incoming.

"We have hospitals that live in constant fear that that long-term employee's going to come in and say, 'I'm just done,' because they don't want to, or worse, they're going to take the opportunity to become a traveling nurse and make so much more money if they're just willing to be a little bit more mobile," Robinson said.

Robinson said UAFS has had leaders and others from all the major hospitals in the area visit its campus to discuss what needs the university is currently meeting, the needs they see coming in the future and how they can partner with the university to meet needs.

Robinson also touched on the university's efforts concerning data analytics. He said ArcBest -- a Fort Smith-based integrated logistics company, which recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary -- relies heavily on the data analysis to operate at maximum efficiency, with UAFS having expertise in both the computer science/mathematics and economics sides of this matter.

"What we haven't done intentionally that we're starting now is really bringing all these people together and having this conversation, and where that conversation has most developed is around advanced manufacturing," Robinson said.

Advanced manufacturing and engineering is the largest industry in Fort Smith, which has a density of manufacturing jobs that's twice as large as the national average, according to Robinson. He said the university knows it needs to support advanced manufacturing if it's going to help the local economy grow per its new mission statement.

Robinson said the university invited representatives from multiple local manufacturing companies to an on-campus luncheon earlier this summer, during which it got feedback on not only the manufacturers' current needs, but what they predicted their needs will be in five and 10 years. It also took a team to manufacturing sites.

Chancellor Terisa Riley said the university put together, and has been meeting regularly with, an advisory group dedicated to advanced manufacturing as well.

Latisha Settlage, dean of UAFS' College of Business and Industry, said via email Wednesday this group -- the UAFS Advanced Manufacturing Advisory Board -- includes representatives from 12 advanced manufacturing companies who agreed to serve. Its goal is to provide the university feedback on the adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies and skills the industry needs from graduates with the intent of guiding the introduction of new curriculum and/or changes to existing programs and projects.

"With the help and support of our regional advanced manufacturing partners, UAFS intends to create a center of excellence in advanced manufacturing that will serve as a resource for smart technology projects and a training center for future workforce needs," Settlage said.

"We are grateful to our partners for eagerly joining the conversation that began in earnest this past summer. With our advisory board input, UAFS is in the process of designing new curriculum that integrates across existing program lines."

This all comes after UAFS announced a $1 million investment from ABB in May. It followed a recent commitment from ABB, a "technology leader in electrification and automation" headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, to invest $170 million in manufacturing and distribution operations this year, according to a news release.

ABB's NEMA Motors Division is based in Fort Smith.

Western Arkansas Technical Center

Total enrollment in the University of Arkansas at Fort Smiths Western Arkansas Technical Center program increased by more than 50% since 2019, going from 355 to 535. The center provides technical and career programming to high school juniors and seniors in 22 school districts in the River Valley.

Source: University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Terisa Riley