One by one on Thursday morning, the college deans stood, announced their names and their universities and told the group what worried them most about higher education.
How are we going to pay for the college facilities we need? said Steven Runge, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University Central Arkansas.
How can we get more students to stay in school and graduate? said Charles Robinson, vice provost for Diversity at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
More than 80 deans and higher education officials from across Arkansas and the region turned out for the first day of the annual National Conference of Academic Deans at UCA. The conference — among the longest running of its kind in the US at 71 years — is meant to allow deans a chance to network and to brainstorm for how to improve their higher education institutions.
"It’s an opportunity to provide new insights into the challenges administrators face," said Neil Hattlestad, dean of the College of Health and Behavioral Sciences at UCA and conference host of the event for the past 12 years.
About half of the deans at the conference are new to their positions. For the first time, the conference offered new deans a focus tract, which boosted attendance, said Ed Ericson, III, conference program co-chairman and vice president for academic affairs at John Brown University in Siloam Springs. In years past, about 60 or so participants came, he said.
"[There’s] lots of new people here," Ericson said. "They are trying to figure out how to respond to all the challenges they are going to be confronted with."
By about 10:45 a.m., the new deans — one having worked only eight days to date — walked down a hall and into a different room to hear speakers who knew what they should expect. Hattlestad, who has been a dean at UCA for 29 years, was one of the moderators.
Higher education officials listed other concerns during the conference, including: ways to improve faculty diversity, how to graduate more science, math and technology students and ways to improve the use of technology in education. Ericson said higher education officials were worried about a slew of issues.
"These are the kinds of events where these conversations take place," Ericson said. "How do we move higher education forward in an era of declining resources?"
Near the end of the first day, James Machell, dean of the College of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Central Oklahoma, called the conference a success. The event, his fourth, allows him a chance to network, he said. The fact that the conference is smaller than other, more formal national conferences is a perk, he said.
"It enables you to have an informal environment so you can easily connect and have conversations with peers," Machell said.
Ericson and Hattlestad said they didn’t expect all the issues plaguing leaders at universities to be resolved by Friday, when the conference ends. The event is where ideas can be shared, they said.
"This conference is a place where private and public institutions can discuss burning questions affecting all our institutions," Ericson said.