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University of Central Arkansas president Lu Hardin has explored more formal partnerships with Pulaski Technical College and the Arkansas Educational Television Network to enhance academic opportunities and expand his university’s reach.
All involved are careful in talking about the ideas, which could be expected to stir some anxiety, if not outright resistance, from state officials and college competitors.
Hardin says he has talked with Pulaski Tech president Dan Bakke and board chairman John Barnes.
“Dr. Dan Bakke and I have had an ongoing dialogue about the natural progression of UCA and Pulaski Tech partnerships,” Hardin said. “A merger with Pulaski Tech is not on the table. Right now we are exploring opportunities of partnership.”
Bakke, while confirming his conversation with Hardin, downplayed the chances of more formal ties with UCA, citing Pulaski Tech’s existing connections with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
“We have a big relationship working with UALR, being a local university,” Bakke said. “We’re in the same city, we have a very close working relationship. It is unique and rightfully so.”
When asked whether he is considering closer ties with UCA, Bakke said, “We have articulation agreements with every university based on two-year transfers.” He added that Pulaski Tech officials meet with their counterparts at all of the state universities.
Barnes, who has chaired the Pulaski Tech board for all but three years since the college’s inception in 1991, said, “During our conversation, the idea of a merger came up. I can’t remember who brought it up. My reaction immediately was that it is in the best interests of Pulaski Tech to remain an independent institution. As long as we can continue to get funding to provide for students, that’s how we would continue to progress. … I said, ‘Lu, if we ever got into a situation where we would consider a merger, your school would be one of the ones we would talk to.’ That’s where it was left, and there haven’t been any conversations since then.”
For his part, Hardin said, “My goal is for this not to infringe on any of the programs and partnerships that UALR has with Pulaski Tech.” He maintained, “We are very serious about continuing to receive Pulaski Tech transfer students and also pursue partnerships on majors and academic programs. The meetings that I have had with John Barnes and Dan Bakke have been eventful and this is a natural progression because of geography. While a merger is not on the table, certainly you never close the door on any issue long-term. And right now, in my professional opinion, Pulaski Tech is best served remaining independent.”
Hardin listed several reasons why he is interested in a closer relationship between UCA and Pulaski Tech.
“It’s not simply enrollment,” Hardin said. “First, the Pulaski Tech students we are recruiting have already demonstrated, in most cases, 60 hours of academic success, and they are more likely to finish their degree and graduate. Secondly, this basically is our mission, the mission of a public university, to help students achieve their four-year degree. And third, we need — all of the four-year universities need — to develop even closer working relationships with our two-year colleagues.”
He cited the parallel rapid growth of UCA and Pulaski Tech, with UCA expanding from 8,500 to 12,300 students in the last four years, and Pulaski Tech’s enrollment ballooning from 1,638 to 8,455 during the last decade. “Both institutions are growing rapidly so the partnerships make sense,” Hardin said.
“Pulaski Tech’s growth has been so rapid that they are woefully underfunded,” he continued. “For a two-year college that is underfunded, the advantage of a merger would be financial. It would be able to take advantage of the resources of a four-year university, to work together and have opportunities to share faculty, construction funding.”
As for UCA, one advantage of a merger would be “geographic,” according to Hardin.
“We have many students who drive from Little Rock, so we in fact could have students receiving credit at both institutions, taking classes at both places. … By becoming a bigger university, many of your opportunities expand. It’s not limited to funding. I’m talking academically, shared resources. It’s not a perfect analogy, but two people can live as cheaply as 1.4.”
Hardin noted that, in recent years, several community colleges around the state have affiliated with the University of Arkansas System. Bakke, however, drew distinctions between those two-year colleges and Pulaski Tech.
“We’re the largest community college in the state of Arkansas, and we’re in a metropolitan area,” Bakke said. “We sustain ourselves. I understand why some of the rural schools merged to get an identity. It allowed rural students to get a baccalaureate degree right there in their community. That’s why a lot of the mergers took place.”
Bakke said that Hardin brought up the idea in a meeting, “but I didn’t see that to be an issue.” He added, “A lot of schools have asked us that question. A lot of universities would like us to be part of that. What’s the old saying? Never say never to anything. It’s just not on our radar screen.”
As for a stronger bond between UCA and AETN, Hardin said he has been discussing possibilities with the network’s executive director, Allen Weatherly.
“This is an old thing that goes well beyond Lu,” Weatherly confirmed. “He is not the impetus for this. I’ve been here 13 years and have always had discussions since we were on UCA’s campus to find ways to have partnerships.”
AETN’s main studios and offices are located on the UCA campus in a building it shares with the university’s performing arts department. Weatherly says his interest in expanding the connections is economic, and he has looked to New Hampshire as a model.
“My job is to figure out how I can grow AETN’s services,” Weatherly said. “We’re limping along financially. Although we’re appreciative of what we have, about three or four years ago I started to get concerned that our management team was grossly underpaid … I sat down with Lu and I said, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking.’ I brought up a whole bunch of different ideas. Instead of relying on the K-12 budget, we could use more of the higher ed institution money to find ways to pay our managers along the lines of what v.p.’s are paid.”
Hardin said, “The key would be that we would have no editorial control. We wouldn’t be programming. It would be shared resources, like satellite distance learning. We have a digital degree and we’re expanding our communications department at a very rapid rate … It wouldn’t be UCA taking it over for its own purposes, it would be something that would benefit both. Something the legislature and other college presidents would be comfortable with. If it occurred, this would be something there would be consensus on.”
Weatherly also cautioned, “No content would be touched or we would lose our license. Any agreement would have to go through our commission, and would have to come from any governor. There’s really not anything in the works, but in the 14 years I’ve been here, people always think UCA is about to take over AETN because we’re there.”
Hardin said that a proposal is not likely to be considered in the coming legislative session, but that he has “talked to Sen. [Gilbert] Baker about taking lead in this.”
Baker, who represents Faulkner County, said, “I think we’re just in the discussion stage right now. Just by virtue of the fact that you have AETN and UCA, two prominent state agencies, in close proximity, the thought is that there would be a good opportunity to at least explore some efficiencies there, and I will be willing to explore that. If there is some consensus that builds, we would be willing to move forward.”
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