Henderson burns. Again.
In 1914, the existence of Henderson-Brown College was threatened by a fire that burned down the main building. Students, faculty, and staff decided the college would continue, and it did so for another 108 years, becoming what is now Henderson State University in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains in the south -western Arkansas.
More recently, a financial storm drove HSU to the brink of fiscal insolvency in 2019, lit by the administration of then-President Glenn Jones and Vice-President Brett Powell. Meanwhile, most HSU board members (appointed by the governor of Arkansas) ignored signs of deep dysfunction despite continued questions and objections from faculty.
Former HSU President Chuck Welch, now President of the ASU System, stepped in to guide HSU through the precarious aftermath of the Jones era, resulting in HSU joining the ASU System.
After treading water with interim leadership for two years, Chuck Ambrose was hired as Chancellor. He was hailed as an agent of change and the savior of HSU in this article. This is not the perception of many (if not most) of us living in a hellish situation, filled with uncertainty and worry about the future of our families, students, careers and programs.
I imagine that must be what a hostile corporate takeover looks like; everything Ambrose has done so far has been by administrative decree. The plans to “re-imagine Henderson” came entirely from him instead of from the faculty, staff, students, and alumni who invested their lives in HSU.
We were hopeful at first, but now realize that we are victims of bait and switch tactics. Little of his initial interview with the search committee would have suggested the drastic changes Ambrose had in mind.
But now he has the matches ready to burn down HSU once more so he can remodel it into a corporate-style model cooked up at KnowledgeWorks, his former kingdom. There is no evidence that he cares about human collateral damage or harm to HSU’s reputation as he proposes to eliminate most programs in the arts, humanities and sciences that lie at the academic heart of HSU. These include History, English, Biology, Communications, Studio Art, Mathematics, Chemistry, Criminal Justice and Music Performance, to name a few on the chopping block. .
Ambrose unilaterally eliminated deans and chairs, instead creating a “senior management” team headed by a CLO (“chief learning officer”), a dean of faculty, and directors to oversee the now former departments. grouped into four groups, called “meta majors.”
There was no search process or posted criteria for these positions; we simply received an email announcing who he had selected. There was nothing inherently flawed in HSU’s existing academic structure; if so, why don’t we see other institutions like the AU or ASU racing to change theirs?
Ambrose has indicated that he intends to scrap our University Academic Council, which approves program changes that escalate from departments, and replace it with his own team. This will give it even more power to dilute the remaining programs.
Everyone expected HSU to contract dramatically to become more efficient and financially sound again, but we didn’t expect HSU’s essential character to be in jeopardy. Henderson can surely be saved without eviscerating his strong programs in the arts, humanities, science, and math, which is in the plan he presents to the ASU board.
Ambrose initially seemed like an affable guy despite his edu-business lingo. He has convinced many that he can balance HSU’s budget while transforming higher education to better meet the needs of our region; however, it merely reduces costs per amputation rather than skilled surgical reductions. Ambrose claims to want to make college more accessible to students and remove barriers to their success. We all do, but the easiest way is to adopt lower standards and lower degrees, the direction in which it looks like HSU will take. It’s a matter of numbers; he wants to bring in and retain more fee-paying students, no matter what.
This points to a deeper problem: funding for education in Arkansas has perverted its true mission to improve the quality of life for its citizens. The cash consideration for graduates resulted in pressure to succeed and graduate, regardless of whether real learning took place.
Because of the higher education funding formula (Jones and Powell were aware), these same pressures are on colleges and universities. Insisting on academic achievement for all who show up will further dilute the content and value of a college degree. Personal responsibility should always be the basis of success; students deserve a “helping hand, not a handout”.
The people of our state would be best served by public schools that provide a solid foundation for good citizenship by requiring more rigor in the basics of literacy, quantitative skills, history, government, science and arts, combined with learning opportunities in skills. that lead to good jobs for those who choose not to go to college.
University is not a right; while it should be financially accessible to all, admission should be determined on demonstrated ability and determination. Academic standards must be valued and protected; they pay off in life and at work.
My mother’s degree in Henderson lifted our family out of poverty. She taught at Henderson for 30 years, and I’ve been here for 27 years. My connection with Henderson runs deep. I’m not an alumnus, but it takes all my fingers and a few toes to count my family members who have degrees from HSU, including my three children. As a sixth-generation Arkansan, I want the people of my beloved region and state to prosper.
More than one administrator has privately described Ambrose as a dictator; the financial requirement statement gave him carte blanche to act as a corporate CEO. Is he driven to use HSU as the magnum opus of his career, or to truly help the people of Arkansas? I’m sure Ambrose’s main dog in this fight is his ego; he wants his vision for the future of all universities to be successful and recognized.
HSU is in financial trouble not because of its faculty, staff, or students; this pox lies in the failure of the administration of Jones and Powell and the lack of oversight by the administrators at the time.
HSU is in financial trouble not because of its faculty, staff, or students; that pox lies in the failing administration of Glen Jones and Brett Powell, compounded by a negligent board of directors. I pray that Governor Hutchinson will have the courage and foresight to accept state responsibility for the misfortune inflicted on HSU and not allow this travesty to continue. I pray that Chuck Welch has the humility and wisdom to admit that Chuck Ambrose is the absolute wrong leader for HSU at this critical time. Finally, I implore the ASU Board of Directors to reconsider its recent vote and reject this nightmarish “re-imagining” of Henderson. Like most academics, I have no wealth or influence to put out this fire. My buckets of words are puny. But I can sound the alarm.
Carolyn S. Eoff, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Statistics at Henderson State University. This letter is approved by the Henderson State University Faculty Senate.