"Brandeis, Brigham Young, Notre Dame, West Point and Yeshiva: What is their role?" Davis writes. "Are these institutions really needed? Relative to HBCU's [historically black colleges and universities] I cannot recall this question being asked during the years of separate but equal. What is inherently bad about an institution that is predominantly Catholic, Jewish or African American so long as it is open to all? It is only now, after other institutions have been blessed with resources which were denied to HBCU's for over a hundred years, that their role is in question."
For a visiting reporter, Davis localizes. "In Arkansas, do we need Harding, Ouachita, Lyon [predominantly white, church-related institutions]? For that matter, do we need all the public predominantly white institutions? Tech, Henderson, UCA - they're all pretty much alike. We're the only public university like us. There's nothing wrong with having a cultural flavor. This school and Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist College [other black colleges] maintain a certain cultural heritage. Is our culture important?" That's a rhetorical question. For Davis, the answer is "yes."
Before integration, nearly all the state's black college students attended Arkansas AM&N, as it was then known. Today, less than a quarter of Arkansas's black college students are at UAPB, and one of the predominantly white universities - UALR - has more black students than UAPB does. But Davis points out that 40 percent of the black graduates come from UAPB.
"In the old days, AM&N had a monopoly on African-American students. For many African-Americans, this is still the best place for them to be. We're still graduating students who go on to be doctors, attorneys, educators, clergy, even though we're not always getting the cream of the crop now.
"Students need an environment in which they can be successful. Success gives them the confidence to be more successful. It grows. Here, African-American students have a chance to be a president of an organization, head of their fraternity, a football player. [AM and N used to get the cream of the crop of black football players too, but not anymore.] In the class we graduated May 8, the average family income was $24,000. We've made a big difference. We've added value.
"Some students need social remediation as well as academic remediation. They need to be in a different environment, to be living in the dorm instead of going home at night."
UAPB has an open-admission policy. Any Arkansas high school graduate in good standing can be admitted. "That's what land-grant colleges are supposed to be. They're established for the poorer classes of people. If we said you had to have a 35 on the ACT, we wouldn't be serving the purpose of a land-grant institution. We're not going to turn you down because you only made 15 on the ACT. I help write the math questions for the ACT. If you don't take certain classes in high school, you won't do well in math on the ACT. We try to be a bridge, to offer classes that bring students up to where they need to be. Open admission doesn't mean open exit. We offer quality education with a personal touch. I'm going to know who you are, I'm going to be concerned about you, and I'm going to support you.
" 'No excuse' is part of our philosophy. African-Americans have had a degree of oppression, but now we are in the best of times, opportunity-wise. You can't let any hurdles stop you. Bill Cosby is right.
"In Arkansas, more African-American men are incarcerated than are in college. Nothing is more important than training people to be involved in productive work. This institution is critical to the future of Arkansas."
Some people had hoped that the end of legal segregation, and the merger of AM&N into the UA system, would result in the school having a significant white enrollment by now. Although Davis says UAPB has made "a great effort to attract Caucasians to the campus, and students of all types," the student body is 95 percent black. The faculty, on the other hand, comes in all colors, and from all over. It's the most diverse in the state, according to Davis.
"When it was mandated that schools desegregate, African-Americans had to bear the burden. African-American high schools were closed. African-Americans could go to predominantly white schools, but Caucasians don't feel the same way about coming here. Many Caucasians have a fear of being in the minority. They don't have the same missionary zeal for change."
Still, there was a time when UAPB had more white students than it does now. But when a vocational-technical school three miles from the UAPB campus converted to a two-year community college, "That hurt in recruiting whites. Before, some of them came for two years with the idea of transferring after that."
The other nagging question about UAPB boils down to "Why is UAPB always in hot water?" - with government auditors, with the media, with members of the legislature, even with some of the black community. Thirty years ago, when Davis' father, Lawrence A. Davis Sr., was president of AM&N, the legislature merged the school into the University of Arkansas system amid accusations of mismanagement. Similar charges are made against Davis Jr. today. According to Davis, the accusations are unfounded or overblown, and only show that the black university is held to a different standard of accountability than its white counterparts.
"We have all kinds of press conferences and nobody shows up," Davis said. "But if somebody calls the media and says we had a shooting on campus, here they come." Is there an element of racial bias in the media's coverage of UAPB? "They have a perception and they report the news to reinforce their perception, especially the local paper. Some of the things they report about UAPB are true of all schools, but you never hear it about them. The media talk about me and the [legislative] audits. Over the 11 years of my administration, the maximum loss was $40,000."
But his administration isn't over yet. A questionable and possibly illegal $55,000 loan from UAPB to a failing non-profit agency at Pine Bluff now has the attention of legislators, auditors and UA system officials. State Sen. Jimmy Jeffress of Crossett, a member of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, said that UAPB is called before the committee every year to explain irregularities in its audit. "UAPB has a history of not keeping things on an even keel," Jeffress said. "They can't seem to get their house in order. We have problems with other institutions, but UAPB has more than its share of trouble."
Jeffress is white, but some prominent black Pine Bluffians join in the criticism of the UAPB administration. One of the harshest is Gene McKissic, a lawyer who contributes to UAPB and says that several members of his family attended the school, though not he.
"UAPB is a major-league underachiever," McKissic said. "It's getting very few of the top black high school graduates, even in Jefferson County. Students don't want to go there, alumni don't send their kids there. It's rife with nepotism. Whole families are on the payroll. There's no accountability. It's a poorly administered school, and students suffer for all the mismanagement. They've never even been able to get preregistration straightened out."
The UA Board of Trustees, virtually all-white, does nothing about UAPB's shortcomings, McKissic said. "It's the politics of race. They lack the courage to require of UAPB, a black institution, what should be required of any institution."
Even athletics has suffered, McKissic said. "They don't even try to recruit the best black athletes in Pine Bluff. The worst basketball program in the state last year was at a black school. Is that an irony?
"Having a strong black institution is important to the state and the black community," McKissic said. "You have to do more than say, 'We got a great band.' "
A prominent white Pine Bluffian, state Rep. Jay Bradford of Pine Bluff, says that in at least one regard - support from the white community - UAPB is stronger than it's ever been.
"There's been a tremendous change in attitudes by the white establishment," he said. "There's a much greater awareness now that UAPB is a vital part of our economy. The business community helped build the new football stadium. They recognized that UAPB football fills up the town on game days. A lot of white people used to be afraid to go on the UAPB campus. There's not that attitude now."
"UAPB has a special mission - to take kids out of the Delta," Bradford said. "And they've done it. They've got graduates all over the world."