David Welky stood at a podium in the Darragh Center at the Main Library Campus in Little Rock on a recent October evening and accepted one of Arkansas’ most prestigious literary awards — The Booker Worthen Literary Prize — for his book on the 1937 flood. Dozens of people dressed in casual business attire snatched up his hardcover books. Several lined up to get Welky’s signature and grill him on how to research historical nonfiction.
"I’m just a guy who really, really, really likes history — that’s about it," Welky said later. "Sometimes what I do resonates with other people."
Welky, an associate professor, is among at least 100 faculty members and students at the University of Central Arkansas to receive awards, recognition or commissions in the past year. Many also received valuable grants in fiscal 2012, UCA records show.
As the university tries to rebrand itself and recruit new students, the award-winning faculty are playing a vital role in beefing up UCA’s reputation after years of controversy, officials said.
That controversy includes a former chief of staff, who authorities say gave his key to a student who stole exams, a former president, who police say tampered with a public document and another former president who pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering.
Since 2008, UCA has climbed out of a large financial deficit and has been rebuilding its reputation. UCA officials said the rocky times haven’t dampened academic achievement.
UCA faculty are catching the attention of local organization and federal agencies — from grants to asses the effects of gas well construction on tributaries to an artist producing sculptures for the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and the River Market. In fiscal 2012, grants for UCA proposals garnered the university about $5.8 million, university records show. That’s not counting prizes — like the one Welky received for $2,000 for his book or the commission art professor Bryan Massey received for $60,000 recently.
Massey said UCA supports his artistic endeavors.
"It’s part of my teaching and researching responsibility as a creative artist," Massey said. "They want us to do it."
The university doesn’t track commissions and prizes, said Tim Atkinson, assistant provost, in email. Atkinson is also over the Sponsored Programs, which handles grants and awards with faculty.
The university is putting together a system to track professors who win awards and prize money, interim Provost Steve Runge said. That system should be ready in January, he said.
"We always are looking for opportunities for our faculty to be recognized for excellence," Runge said.
UCA promotes itself as a place where students are engaged, Runge said. Having faculty who are out and winning recognition in their chosen fields is an important piece of marketing and of students’ education, he said.
"(Faculty) aren’t living in a box out there with a single light bulb overhead — they are collaborating with students," Runge said.
Faculty who achieve also help keep students in school and encourage students to undertake research, faculty members said. Many of the grants listed in UCA documents are for student research projects.
"The culture of sciences is to seek awards in terms of funding and get our research noticed," said Debra Burris, associate professor of physics and astronomy. "The more success we have, the more success (students) will have ultimately."
Burris won the 2012 Arkansans for Gifted and Talented Education Educator award in February for her work with sixth-grade schoolchildren in Atkins, Ark. Burris’s community-service work has convinced some of her physics students to become science teachers. What professors do matters, Burris said.
For his part, Welky said his own research ends up in his lectures and his excitement is passed on to his students.
"It keeps me from getting stale because I always have something new going on," Welky said. "I think you need to have that sense of excitement when you go into a classroom."