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When scholars collide 

UAF, NWACC are at odds.

click to enlarge GEARHART AND PANEITZ: Sharp letters exchanged.
  • GEARHART AND PANEITZ: Sharp letters exchanged.

Although the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville is only 20 miles from Northwest Arkansas Community College at Bentonville, the two institutions seem to be drifting apart philosophically. Officials at both schools say they want to remain on good terms, but certain differences between them are not yet resolved. And may not be, to everyone's satisfaction.

One issue is NWACC's plan to establish a university center, through which students at the two-year community college could take televised courses from and receive degrees from four-year institutions. UA sees this as an intrusion on its territory, and an unnecessary duplication of services.

“The University of Arkansas, the flagship institution of the state, just 20 minutes from your campus, is your university center,” UA Chancellor G. David Gearhart said in a rather strongly worded May 1 letter to NWACC President Becky Paneitz. “The citizens of Arkansas simply cannot afford further fragmentation of resources to duplicate institutions and programs.”

Making matters worse, from UA's point of view, NWACC's original university-center plan called for Arkansas State University, a cross-state rival of UA, to be one of the four-year institutions offering degrees through the center. In a May 18 reply to Gearhart, Paneitz said that “as a show of good faith we have discontinued any conversation with Arkansas State University (ASU) about partnering in our proposed university center.” But her own rather strongly worded letter made few other concessions. She gave no indication that NWACC would abandon its plans for the center.

“As a comprehensive community college, we are committed to serving those students who have expressed strong interest in greater opportunities to obtain bachelor's degrees in their own community,” Paneitz wrote. “We certainly acknowledge that the UAF is the state's flagship university and value the vital role it plays in the state, and we are pleased whenever our students choose to continue their higher education at UAF. Nevertheless, while the UAF campus may be within driving distance for some students, it is the students themselves who determine what distance is affordable, what location is accessible, and what environment is desirable. Ease of access is critical to students' ability to enroll, persist, and succeed..”

More disagreement arose from NWACC's plan to enter an agreement with ASU under which honors students at NWACC would automatically be admitted to the honors program at ASU. UA is “strongly opposed” to the plan, Gearhart wrote:

“We view your potential announcement as declaring that our honors college is somehow insufficient to meet the needs of your students or that we somehow have little or no interest in your best students.”

Gearhart said the existing agreement between UA and NWACC concerning honors students was straightforward. Paneitz replied that “to the best of our knowledge there is no formal agreement of any type between the NWACC and UAF Honors programs. Our understanding is that our Honors students can apply for admission into the Honors programs at UAF and have their application evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but that is by no means the same thing as [the proposed agreement with ASU].”

Jim Purcell, director of the state Department of Higher Education, has been advised of the dispute. “I talked to both Chancellor Gearhart and President Paneitz and expect the institutions involved will work through their differences,” Purcell told the Arkansas Times. “Within a decentralized higher education structure [such as Arkansas's], these types of issues occasionally occur.”

“Decentralized structure” means that each college and university is governed by its own board of trustees; there is no state board with authority over all the institutions. Under that arrangement, it would be very difficult for UA to stop NWACC from proceeding. Asked if there was anything UA could do if NWACC pursued its plans unchanged, Gearhart said “probably not. … I hope it doesn't come to that.”   

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