Posted on April 13, 2023
By Caitlan Butler
El Dorado News-Times
University of Arkansas Chancellor Dr. Charles Robinson gave the keynote address at the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting Wednesday.
Robinson, who was named chancellor last November after serving on an interim basis since August 2021, is a native of Texas, but on Wednesday, his focus was on Arkansas alone.
“Our whole purpose of being is to serve the state,” he said. “We care about the entire state. We have a responsibility to support the entire state… The State of Arkansas is our biggest donor, our most consistent donor, and we try to never, never forget that and we try to give back what the State gives us, multiplied, to the rest of the state.”
Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, summed up the university’s outreach efforts as he introduced Robinson, sharing a story about introducing his daughter, a student at El Dorado High School, to Dr. Robinson at the Razorbacks basketball game in Las Vegas last month, and how his daughter subsequently met the chancellor again when he visited EHS about a week later.
“I believe Dr. Robinson understands the state and he is intentionally attempting to connect University of Arkansas all across the State of Arkansas,” Shepherd said. “I don’t know about you, but I think it’s been a long time since the Chancellor of the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville has been in El Dorado High School… but that’s what Dr. Robinson does.”
“I was here intentionally and I went to Camden Fairview, I went to Hope, I went to Hot Springs, because to me, the message directly to the students and the people in the State of Arkansas is: We want you to come to the University of Arkansas,” Robinson said. “You’ve got to show it if you want people to believe it.”
Noting that enrollment from Texan students is up at UA – according to an NPR affiliate in Oklahoma, 7,100 Texans were enrolled at UA last fall, comprising approximately 23% of the student body —, Robinson said the university’s tuition rates reflect its values.
“There are those who believe that we’ve abandoned Arkansas and we are now only interested in Texas,” he said. “We do have a lot of Texans; they come in large numbers, for lots of reasons – one is that we are a really good institution and they’ve heard about it.”
He continued, “We’re well priced, but we charge them more… Arkansans pay less than Texans, by design. And then we use the money, the supplemental money we get from Texans, and we drive it back into Arkansas. We keep the cost lower for Arkansans intentionally, and we drive it up for Texans.”
Controlling the cost of seeking a college education is one of his priorities, Robinson said, noting that the majority of the students who drop out from UA do so not because the course material is too difficult, but because they can’t afford to continue their studies.
“Student success is still the primary goal. We want more students, particularly from Arkansas, to have access to the wonderful education that we can provide and we want that access to take place by better controlling the costs associated with attendance,” he said.
“The number one barrier to success is cost. It is.”
He said the El Dorado Promise is one of the best examples of mitigating the barriers to higher education he’s seen.
Robinson also highlighted a program, the Transfer Achievement Scholarship, that allows students who earn an associate’s degree from a community college within the UA system to transfer to UA and pay the same tuition they did at the community college. Meeting attendees could be heard saying, “that’s big,” as he described the program.
“Scholarships is one of the ways in which we’re demonstrating our support for Arkansas. Ninety-seven percent of Arkansans who apply for a scholarship receive an award,” he said. “That’s an awesome number, but we’re not satisfied; we want to be able to do more for Arkansans. We increased the scholarship dollars intentionally — $6 million, as you can see, since 2019.”
But still, one of the hardest parts of Robinson’s job is conveying to Arkansans what value the UA provides to the state and its students.
“To me, the biggest challenge facing higher education is to continue to demonstrate that we are deserving to be viewed as good for the public. Like, what is our ROI to the state? Why should people invest in us? Why should the state put hundreds of millions of dollars in us?” he said. “We have to demonstrate that through the success that we share with the students.”
He noted that as of 2018, the UA’s economic impact topped $2.2 billion. Research spending alone in 2020 was more than $165 million, and in fiscal year 2021, the UA filed 64 patents and had 35 issued.
“We’re in the top 3% of institutions, based on our research productivity, in the country… We want more research, better research, more research that’s applied research that has an impact on people’s lives,” he said.
The massive student body at UA might help in the goal of increasing the UA’s economic impact, Robinson said, since the university helps students begin their careers before they even graduate, and Texan students are encouraged to stay in-state after they complete their degrees.
“It’s not enough that we graduate them; we’ve got to connect them. Connect them to internships, so they can build relationships and learn business before they graduate, and then when they graduate, hopefully most of them will be lined up for jobs already,” Robinson said. “We try to keep those out-of-staters in the State of Arkansas. We call them ‘new Arkansans…’ That’s what we’re trying to do is increase the state’s tax base with these students who come.”
The current freshman class at UA is the largest it’s ever been, Robinson said, and 87% of students return for their sophomore year. Seventy percent graduate within six years. Enrollment topped 30,000 last fall.
“We are so proud of this number because it suggests that we’ve grown significantly and we are going to keep growing as an institution,” Robinson said.
He concluded his address by reminding attendees that the UA needs support and partnerships to be able to provide the services it does for Arkansan students.
“None of the things that we want to do, we can do alone. We need partners like you to help us to be able to achieve greatness, and that greatness is not just for the University of Arkansas; it’s for the State of Arkansas. We need y’all to help us be better so that we can make the State of Arkansas better and Union County better,” he said. “We’re going to develop (students) and hopefully send them right back to you, better prepared to come and contribute to the economic viability of this fine, fine county and community.”
Some Chamber business was also addressed during the meeting Wednesday. Chamber President and CEO Bill Luther gave a brief overview of his annual report, which was published in full in the event program, and took a moment to welcome Karen Hicks, membership and events coordinator, to the Chamber’s staff. Hicks took over the position on March 31 after former coordinator Jaren Books took a new job at Murphy USA.
The report gives an overview of the Chamber’s 2022 successes, including increased membership; a number of economic development projects, undertaken both with and without help from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission; a new city website; and the graduation of ULead Class XI.
Greg Withrow, outgoing Chairman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, also presented the Chamber Ambassador of the Year honor to Michael O’Connell, executive director of the Union County Public Library System.
“This ambassador lends his time and leadership to the Chamber of Commerce without any expectation or late fees. They check in at just about every event, whether it be a Business After Hours, new business ribbon cuttings or this annual meeting. They don’t hesitate to get involved and read between the lines when help is needed,” Withrow said of O’Connell.
Withrow also recognized former Board Chair Greg Modica, a local businessman who just left the Board.
“Just ask Greg what he’s involved in – he’s involved in more things than I am, which says a lot,” Withrow said. “He’s been on a number of boards in town, he does a number of things statewide.”
The outgoing chair also reflected on his time leading the Board, which saw the lows of the COVID-19 pandemic to the recent high of El Dorado winning the bid to host the 2023 Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism.
“We have seen our community grow and prosper as we’ve come out of COVID,” he said. “We had 30 ribbon cuttings in the past year, and we know that small business is a true economically sustainable engine for the future of any community and everyone in this room that started a small business, thank you for having the courage to do it, because coming out of COVID, who knew where our world was going to go? That’s the kind of courage and strength we need to continue to make our town better.”
Withrow tapped his gavel one final time before handing it over to incoming Chair Mark Day. Day presented Withrow with the gavel as a keepsake before thanking the event’s sponsors and members of the Chamber to close out the meeting.
“I’ve learned something about people – people like to be respected, they want to be listened to and they want to be appreciated, and it’s no different – it’s no different – in the corporate world, by any means. People want those three things,” Day said. “That is something that our city does very well. We respect each other, listen to each other and appreciate one another. So I look forward to serving in this opportunity with the Chamber.”