A Public College Merger in Arkansas

The public liberal arts university Henderson State is seeking a merger with the Arkansas State University system, which is already providing the struggling institution with support.

October 28, 2019
 

Henderson State University’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously last week to merge with the Arkansas State University system.

The public liberal arts university has been struggling financially for some time now, and it joins the growing list of institutions (most of them private) that have merged as an act of preservation. Combinations involving public colleges are less common, but in this case, Henderson will remain a separately accredited institution.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in early October that Henderson shrank its budget by $3 million and cut pay for salaried employees. The newspaper said that the college ran a deficit of over $4 million last year.

At that time, there was an unanimous vote to explore a merger with the Arkansas State system as a way to find a long-term solution to the institution’s financial problems.

Under the proposed arrangement that Henderson's board agreed to explore, the university would become part of the system, giving it full access to the system's departments and outsourcing such functions as legal aid and IT support. Arkansas State would take on the role of financial adviser and assist the university in making financial decisions or policies.

Henderson, like all campuses that are part of the Arkansas system, would remain independently accredited, and the university will keep its name, mascot and slogan, something its leaders viewed as essential.

“One of the issues that the university faced and got us into the situation that we are in is that the state of Arkansas poses a pretty challenging environment for higher education, and our population as a state is declining,” Elaine Kneebone, acting president of Henderson, said in an interview. “The students that we serve are the ones that most need to be served. Our area is not only rural, but our freshman class this year is over 50 percent first generation. We’re really glad we entered into this step forward joining the system so that we can continue to serve southwest Arkansas and still keep our unique history and name.”

The Arkansas State system has been adding free-standing community colleges, most recently the College of the Ouachitas earlier this year; it will be renamed ASU Three Rivers. The system serves 22,238 students and has an operating budget of $285 million.

“I think the merger itself will be simple,” Chuck Welch, president of the system, said in an interview Sunday. “The steps we have to take in terms of addressing the financial challenges of the university will be a little bit more complex and difficult, but those decisions would be complex and difficult whether or not we were talking about a merger.”

A crucial part of this move for Henderson was the keeping of the university’s name, mascot and slogan. After the merger is officially finalized, the institution will still be called Henderson State University, but it will add something along the lines of "in the ASU system" to the title in publications.

"I am really pleased that Henderson will maintain its name, unique traditions and history as we serve the next generation of Reddies," Kneebone said in a press release. "Your desire to retain our name and our unique heritage came through loud and clear in recent weeks at forums, in person, and on social media. Our traditions matter. We are Henderson. We are Reddies. We are the School with a Heart."

The details of the merger will be reviewed by Henderson and the Arkansas State system. The change would have to be approved by ASU’s Board of Trustees; its regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission; and the Arkansas General Assembly.

“One of the things that our system prides itself on is allowing maximum autonomy for our campuses. We want as many decisions as possible made at the local level,” said Welch. “We want to never do anything that interferes with the unique relationships that our member institutions have with their communities and the individuals that they serve. We have no interest in trying to create clones or have some sort of predetermined institutional identity.”

Welch acted as president of Henderson from 2008 to 2011 before taking on his current role.

Arkansas State is providing Henderson with financial assistance and operating advice from now until December and will continue to do this. Welch said this gave the two organizations the opportunity to see what a merged relationship could look like.

The finalizing of the merger is set for no later than Jan. 1, 2021.

This is the first four-year college the ASU system has absorbed, and Welch said he envisions more mergers to come for the system, although none are currently on the timeline. He went on to say the decision must come from the campus level and is entirely dependent on various contributing circumstances such as the case with Henderson.

“We’re not trying to have some sort of marketing or branding victory -- this is more we feel like we can provide the support services, we feel like we can lend our expertise and the departments that we have and the services that we provide to help this university to become stronger to help them work through these challenging times and to allow them to maintain who they are and what they do and do it in a much better fashion moving forward,” Welch said.

Over the summer Henderson faculty voted no confidence in then president Glen Jones due to what they described as his lack of transparency and financial mismanagement. Jones stepped down in July, following the vote.

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