UPDATE: UA chancellor pays a call; talks bathrooms, Razorbacks and more | Arkansas Blog

UPDATE: UA chancellor pays a call; talks bathrooms, Razorbacks and more

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JOSEPH STEINMETZ: A good introduction to UA's new chancellor.
  • JOSEPH STEINMETZ: A good introduction to UA's new chancellor.
Joseph Steinmetz, the new chancellor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, is making a bus tour around Arkansas and perhaps a measure of the thoroughness of his effort was a stop of nearly an hour yesterday at the Arkansas Times.

My impressionistic take: Good.

We jumped around to all the familiar hot-button issues. Highly digested:

The campus accommodates and does not discriminate against transgender students (others, too, might find helpful a new UA map of unisex restroom facilities); he's firmly opposed to guns on campus; he's willing to refuse charitable contributions tied to projects he deems outside the university's mission (long-time readers will recognize the root of this question in my pet peeve about selling university imprimatur to contributors such as the Waltons seeking a platform for political agendas); he doesn't fear that on-line education will diminish the desire for the on-campus experience; the school is toughening admission for out-of-state students to assure that their enrollment doesn't eclipse that of Arkansas students; he'd like to bulk up research but he's also an admirer of the liberal arts as a former liberal arts college dean; he intends to be a forceful advocate for the university  as state support of higher education continues to shrink (flat funding against rising costs is shrinkage, remember); he puts faculty at the top of his achievement agenda (better pay elsewhere is an increasing cause of loss of faculty) and also expresses concern for the status of classified employees, increasingly hard to keep against local competition in the booming Northwest Arkansas economy.

The most important thing of all: Yes, he thinks the $160 million Razorback football stadium improvement project is justified by needs outlined by the athletic department and current projections on revenue from TV and other sources. He insisted, too, that independent assessments are made of athletic department facility requests.

Update from Benji:

I took a few notes upon our meeting with Steinmetz yesterday which provide some additional detail to what Max outlined earlier.

On gender identity and the bathroom issue: The chancellor said accommodating transgender students was “nothing new for us” and that the university has been championing “inclusivity and diversity” for years. In regards to the new federal guidance, he said, “nothing changes for us.” As for the question of how gender is determined for purposes of student housing, Steinmetz said students “self-define” and that the UA accommodates students on an individual basis. The school has unisex bathrooms around campus, he added, and has created a map to improve access to those bathrooms. (Laura Jacobs, chief of staff for the chancellor’s office, said the map is not yet available online but will be soon.)

On out-of-state students and need-based scholarships: As we’ve written in the past, the university has drawn ever larger percentages of students from out of state, particularly Texas. The U of A gives a significant tuition break to students from neighboring states who meet a minimum academic benchmark — a reduction of between 70 and 90 percent of the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. (In 2015-16, in-state tuition for an Arkansas resident was $7,028 for two 15-hour semesters; for an out-of-state student with no reduction, the figure was $20,332.) Drawing out-of-state students to Fayetteville is generally a positive thing, but there are also concerns about whether it may come at a cost to Arkansas students — especially considering Arkansas lags the nation in educational attainment and other socioeconomic indicators.

Steinmetz is aware of those concerns. He said the out-of-state student population at UA - Fayetteville shouldn’t exceed 50 percent. And commendably, he’s taking concrete steps to bend the curve: The school is ending its policy of automatic admission to neighboring-state students based solely on GPA and ACT scores, since continuing that practice “would swamp the number of kids from Arkansas.” The policy change will affect the freshman class entering in the fall of 2017, Steinmetz said (admissions for this fall’s incoming class are already completed). The chancellor also noted that the overall number of Arkansas students at the U of A is the largest ever — a function of the steep uptick in enrollment overall.

On undocumented immigrant students: Speaking of in-state tuition, it is a continuing travesty that undocumented immigrant students in Arkansas are charged out-of-state rates. Currently, an undocumented high school senior with a 4.0 and a 30 on the ACT can’t get in-state tuition, even if she was brought to the U.S. as a toddler and has attended school in Arkansas since kindergarten. That’s the fault of the legislature — despite dogged efforts by state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) to change things — rather than the university. Still, it was refreshing to hear Steinmetz give a clear, unambiguous answer to the question. “I definitely want them to get in-state tuition,” he said. Giving a clear path to college for kids who want to get a degree is simply “good economic sense for the state.” Amen to that.

On increasing need-based aid: Steinmetz said the school’s top goal for its upcoming capital campaign is to “increase need-based scholarships” for Pell grant-eligible students. Score another point for the chancellor here. More aid for low-income students is a necessity in a time of stagnant wages, increasing economic inequality, higher tuition costs and stingy state government.

On online education: The UA has devoted a fair amount of resources in recent years to growing its online course offerings. Might this strategy one day imperil a traditional dorm-and-classroom college education? Steinmetz said no. Online-only students tend to be place-bound and are a “different kind of population” than traditional, four-year residential students recently graduated from high school. “I don’t worry at all that 20 years from now” college will be online-only, he said. “You just have to look at the [traditional] enrollment numbers; they keep going up.” That being said, even traditional courses will increasingly have some online component, and “flipped classrooms” — an instructional model in which students imbibe a video lecture as homework so that class time can be devoted to hands-on projects and one-on-one or small group instruction — will become more and more common.

On Title IX compliance: Max asked Steinmetz about fallout from a number of sexual assault allegations at the university and whether it’s taking steps to address those concerns (which are hardly unique to UA-Fayetteville). Steinmetz said the school has received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights . requesting information regarding a list of items, from the process for handling complaints to the resources it makes available to students. The university is still working on responding to that letter, he said. He noted that he responded to similar questions sent to Ohio State during his time as provost on that campus (his previous job before coming to Fayetteville).
On allowing guns on campus: “I’ve been very clear that I’m against it,” Steinmetz said. He said he’s talked to a number of students and faculty about the issue, and the majority are quite clear that they’re “just not comfortable” with concealed weapons being allowed on university grounds.

On the #1 issue facing the university: The UA’s most pressing concern at the moment, Steinmetz said, is providing adequate compensation for faculty and staff, which it is beginning to have difficulty retaining. Wage and salary increases haven’t kept up with higher costs of living in fast-growing Northwest Arkansas. Meanwhile, student numbers have exploded: The university has grown by 9,500 students between 2005 and 2015, a 50 percent increase. Tenured track faculty compensation increased by 12 percent in that time period: In other words, the growth has been handled primarily by asking people to do more. Steinmetz said that after working at four major state institutions, “I’ve never seen a faculty work harder.” That’s also taken a toll on other areas; the percentage of graduate students hasn’t kept pace with undergrads, and professors have less time to devote to performing research. Shortchanging research “impacts economic development just like educating students,” he said.

That affects non-instructional university staff as well: Classified employees’ pay has stagnated, and changes made by the legislature in the past few years have shifted classified staff compensation away from merit-based raises and towards one-time merit-based bonuses instead. Steinmetz said he was disappointed that the state budget didn’t include an increase for classified staff this year, and that (as with faculty) the university would find it increasingly difficult to retain good employees if it couldn’t offer competitive compensation.

Even using the state’s own funding formula (which dictates what colleges and universities hypothetically should be appropriated, not what they actually are), the state only provides UA-Fayetteville 49 percent of what it should. Once again, this is not a problem unique to Arkansas — the recession hit institutions of higher education everywhere, and funding in many places has been flat for five years. “That’s starting to take its toll,” the chancellor said.

That may be. However, refusing to address the issue is an affirmative policy choice made by the legislature and the governor. The Republicans that run the state remain more concerned with cutting taxes that disproportionately benefit the wealthy than they are with shoring up the state’s flagship public university. Unemployment in Arkansas is at historic lows; the state’s budget would contain the money necessary to fix this and a dozen other problems if the General Assembly hadn’t pushed regressive tax breaks the past two legislative sessions.

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