Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Garrett Uekman, Catholic High and ties that bind

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

When I wrote a newspaper column earlier this week on Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys, I knew I would receive feedback.

I don’t write columns with feedback in mind. But understanding how strongly Catholic High graduates feel about the place, I knew this particular column would generate calls, texts and e-mails.

As I noted in the column, I’m not a Catholic High graduate. Our oldest son graduated from there in May. The night he graduated as valedictorian (he is blessed to have his mother’s brains) was among the proudest moments of my life.

Austin is now at Hendrix College. His younger brother is a freshman at Catholic High. That means I’ll have the pleasure of being a Catholic High dad for another four years.

What I didn’t have in front of me when I wrote that column was the text of the amazing eulogy the school’s principal, Steve Straessle, gave at the funeral of Catholic High graduate and University of Arkansas tight end Garrett Uekman.

Here’s part of what he said: “Letting go of a good kid is hard to do. Letting go of an exceptional kid is almost unbearable. At Catholic High, we’re surrounded by boys who are striving to be exceptional young men. You should see them. They all enter our doors as scared, shaking little freshmen who are wondering if they can survive in a school with no girls and no air conditioning. Then, as seniors, they graduate as confident young men who know that they are armed with strong faith, a strong work ethic and the ability to endure life’s pitfalls.

“No easy roads are promised at Catholic High. Instead, Catholic High promises the strength to rise to challenges and to be more than just an average man. Oftentimes, we are fortunate to get a few freshmen who are not shaking and scared. We get a few of them who are quietly confident in their ability and revel in the challenges we present them. That was Garrett Uekman.”

Steve added this: “At Catholic High, we have one rule that encompasses all the others, one rule that transcends everything else and is at the heart of Christ’s message. That rule is: Never be a bystander. If your faith is tested, defend it. If someone is hungry, feed him. If one is downcast, encourage him. If your test is difficult, prepare for it. If your friends are troubled, step up. If the little guy needs you, be there. Bystanders watch life go by. People like Garrett Uekman get in the game. Bad things happen when bystanders are in the crowd. Good things pour forth when people like Garrett step up. You don’t live your dreams by twiddling your thumbs when action is called for. You live your dreams by getting into the game. It’s just that simple, and Garrett was the embodiment of that spirit.”

“That spirit.”

Spend some time around Catholic High, its alums and the boys who currently attend school there and you’ll know that spirit is real.

Michael Moran, who graduated from Catholic High in 1961 and later spent four decades teaching at the school, wrote a book titled “Proudly We Speak Your Name: Forty-Four Years At Little Rock Catholic High School.”

Through the stories he tells in his book, which was published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in 2009, he captures the essence of the school.

He sets the stage for the book this way: “Catholic High School for Boys was established in Little Rock in 1930 by Bishop John Morris at 25th and State streets, where Little Rock College and then St. John’s Seminary had formerly been located. In January 1961, CHS moved to 6300 Lee Ave. (now Father Tribou Street). The first graduating class of 1931 numbered five. Since then, more than 7,000 students have become alumni.

“Father George Tribou is the towering figure in Catholic High history. Coming to Little Rock from Jenkintown, Pa., George Tribou was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Little Rock and in the second year of his priesthood was assigned to CHS, where he served as teacher and principal for more than 50 years, until his death in 2001.

“Any recollection of Catholic High School would be incomplete without recognition of the centrality of Father Tribou’s role in defining its character. Even when elevated to the position of monsignor in his later years, he preferred to be called ‘father,’ a role he played in the lives of untold numbers of Catholic High boys.”

Ah, Father Tribou.

As a boy, he had worked as a film projectionist back home in Pennsylvania. He later would say that part of his inspiration for becoming a priest was seeing the movie “Boys Town” and Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of Father Flanagan.

His approaches were unique – and effective:

– Boys were sometimes allowed to settle disputes with boxing gloves. They would then spend the next day at school together and be allowed only to talk to each other.

– He once announced to the student body that he had seen a boy smoking a cigarette on the school grounds. He said that if that student did not show up in his office immediately, his penalty would increase. Within minutes, there were more than a dozen boys in Father Tribou’s office.

– He was known for getting to the point. When a number of urban schools began installing metal detectors, Father Tribou said of Catholic High: “That would not work here. These boys have too much lead in their asses.”

I know Father Tribou would be proud of the job Steve Straessle is doing in the role of principal.

At one time, Steve wanted to be a lawyer. After graduating from college in 1992, he decided he wasn’t quite ready for law school.

Steve, a Catholic High graduate and the son of a Catholic High graduate, called Father Tribou one night to say he was thinking about teaching history for a year before entering law school. As luck would have it, a history teacher at Catholic High had asked for a one-year sabbatical.

Steve’s grandfather had been a custodian when the school moved to its current location in 1961.

“My grandfather walked through these halls,” Steve told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette several years ago. “And while I’m walking through the school, I often can’t help but think of my grandfather sweeping the halls. I learned a couple of things from my grandfather — the importance of humility and hard work.”

He went on to tell the newspaper this about his experience as a Catholic High student: “It laid the groundwork perfectly for the next stone of education to be laid in college. It was also about Christian formation, and at Catholic High in particular, we still hammer home the idea that we want you to be successful. But success to us means that you are a good husband, a good father and a good citizen as well as a good member of your profession. My classmates were and still are my best friends. They were in my wedding. They are my closest confidants. They are the people who will carry me to my grave.”

At the end of that newspaper story, Steve had this to say about Father Tribou and about Catholic High: “He was a child of the ’40s. He was raised in the era of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and Humphrey Bogart. I was raised in the ’80s in the era of Van Halen and Charlie Sheen. Those are big differences, but there are some things that are timeless such as the adherence to the belief that rigorous academics and high expectations are the keys to success, the belief that self-discipline and work ethic are virtues and the idea that all ambition should be tempered by a doctrine of faith — and the absolute fact that a sense of humor is as important as an arm or a leg. This is our school. In succinct terms, this is what we do.”

As the father of a Catholic High graduate and the father of a current student, I’ve come to understand the Catholic High brotherhood.

Here’s how the school’s website describes it: “At CHS, boys experience a special kind of fraternity, often referred to by faculty, graduates and students alike as the Catholic High brotherhood. What forms this brotherhood? From time immemorial, challenges have bonded men, and the rigorous academics and strict discipline of CHS are certainly enough for that; but all-school masses, pep rallies with the skit cheerleaders, athletic events and intramurals serve to strengthen CHS boys’ brotherhood, rooted, as it is, in faith, laughter, competition and common goals.”

Faith.

Laughter.

Competition.

And common goals.

Sadly, it took a tragedy for many Arkansans to realize what a treasure resides in the middle of Little Rock.

God bless Garrett Uekman.

Long live Catholic High.

Post to Twitter

Ouachita at 125

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

I can count on one hand the number of Little Rock Touchdown Club meetings I’ve missed since the club was formed in 2004. I especially hated to miss Tuesday’s speaker, former Alabama head coach Gene Stallings, someone I’ve long admired.

But my alma mater called.

Ouachita Baptist University celebrated its 125th birthday Tuesday.

On Sept. 6, 1886, the school opened its doors.

In a wonderful new book titled “Ouachita Voices,” my old history professor, Dr. Ray Granade, writes this: “Ouachita trustees chose as president a minister with impressive educational credentials named John William Conger who, at age 29, had already presided over a Tennessee college, founded an Arkansas one and headed Prescott High School. His charisma rested on erect posture, handsomeness, unfailing courtesy, self-confidence and genuine interest in people. ‘Dr. Jack’ combined strong-minded optimism and determination with a deep interest in the poor’s welfare, concerns that shaped the school’s course.

“Elected three months before Ouachita opened, Conger operated under a renewable two-year contract that made him solely responsible for everything. He assembled a six-member faculty (including him and his wife), prepared building and grounds, and advertised a school created not ‘as a financial speculation, but solely upon an educational basis,’ and ‘not run as a money-making institution.’ Free tuition for all ministers ‘irrespective of denomination,’ and their children, and a variety of other discounts, encouraged attendance but inhibited income.”

At Ouachita’s Founders Day celebration Tuesday, a number of Conger’s descendants were in attendance, tying the past to the present. One of them even carried Conger’s walking cane.

1886: It was the year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, Coca-Cola was invented and construction began on the Eiffel Tower.

The Arkansas Baptist State Convention appointed a self-perpetuating board of trustees for a new college, which then met in Little Rock on April 8, 1886, to hear proposals from eight Arkansas cities.

After 72 ballots, the telegram came the next day: “College located at Arkadelphia.”

Arkadelphia was the state’s eighth largest city by the 1880 census. Five institutions were started there within a decade, and the city became known as the Athens of Arkansas.

By late 19th-century Arkansas standards, Arkadelphia was a highly progressive place.

Granade notes that “Arkadelphia’s first telephone system and waterworks arrived in 1891, electricity soon thereafter; two banks served the town after 1888; baseball games took place after 1887 in a 500-seat ballpark; and Arkadelphia Bottling Co. provided portable versions of fountain drinks.”

Many educational institutions opened across the state between 1875 and the end of the century. Most of them didn’t survive. Ouachita did.

Of the 11 private colleges and universities I now represent, Ouachita is the only one south of Little Rock.

Ouachita survived thanks to a string of strong presidents and other administrators along with dedicated faculty members.

I think of the men and women who served on Ouachita’s faculty during my formative years — people such as Francis McBeth, Joe Nix, Jim Ranchino and Bill Vining, all of whom were nationally known in their fields and all of whom stayed in Arkadelphia at salaries far below what they could have commanded elsewhere.

My parents — Ouachita class of 1947 and class of 1948 — hailed from Benton and Des Arc. They met in college and jumped at the first opportunity following graduation to return to Arkadelphia and establish a business. Long after graduation, they remained in love with Ouachita.

I was raised just blocks from the Ouachita campus in a house my family still owns. Those who know me understand that Ouachita is far more than my college alma mater. It is an integral part of who I’ve been since birth and who I’ll be until my death.

My earliest childhood memories are centered on the fall afternoons spent hanging out at the Ouachita football practice field. There were the other sports events I attended (I would be nervous at school all day if there were a Ouachita-Henderson basketball game that night), the concerts, the plays (in the third grade, I had the chance to be in a Ouachita production of “Our Town”), the lectures.

As noted, both of my parents attended Ouachita. So did my older sister (class of 1972).

Most people took for granted that I would attend Ouachita. Being a strong-willed person at the age of 18 (now, as the father of a strong-willed 18-year-old boy, I understand), I had different ideas.

I decided I would go after the Grantland Rice Scholarship, a four-year scholarship to Vanderbilt University for prospective sportswriters that was sponsored by the Thoroughbred Racing Association. Members of the Arkansas Racing Commission and the management of Oaklawn Park were enlisted to write letters on my behalf.

Interestingly, the president of Ouachita at the time, Dr. Daniel R. Grant, had come back to Ouachita (where his father had been president) after a distinguished career as a political science professor at Vanderbilt. It was Dr. Grant, in fact, who had written what then was considered the best college textbook on state and local government.

To his credit, Dr. Grant also worked to help me earn that Vanderbilt scholarship.

I finished as first runner-up (which got me no money) and made the decision to stay home and attend Ouachita.

It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Following a luncheon Tuesday, I asked Dr. Grant to sign my copy of “Ouachita Voices.”

Here’s what he wrote: “I hate to admit it, but I’m glad you didn’t get that Grantland Rice Scholarship to Vanderbilt University, and did come to Ouachita. Sometimes being No. 2 out of 500 applicants is best.”

That made my day. You see, Dr. Grant is among my heroes because he turned Ouachita around when the school was experiencing a rough patch.

He writes in “Ouachita Voices” that his opportunity to serve as president in 1970 “came during an unusual time when university presidents came and went in a hurry. It was a time of student demonstrations against the Vietnam War and a growing drug culture. ‘New college president’ stories were legion, and I think I heard all of them. Presidents’ average tenure during this era was said to be only 2.3 years.

“The search committee called me in early summer of 1969 and didn’t try to conceal Ouachita’s problems: a sharp enrollment drop; a $300,000 operating deficit and a similar deficit projected for 1970; very low faculty salaries on the national rating scale; strong criticism and weak support from Arkansas Baptist leadership; a deplorable condition of campus buildings; and faculty morale and public relations at a record low.”

Despite all of that, Dan Grant chose to “come home” to Arkadelphia.

He said a Vanderbilt colleague described the decision as being based on “God, father and alma mater.”

Dr. Grant’s father had been Ouachita’s president from 1934-49, steering the school through the depths of the Great Depression.

Dr. Grant writes of his father’s struggles to “keep Ouachita’s doors open, regain accreditation, pay of the burden of a mortgaged endowment and house a growing student body with renovated barrack structures.”

The first call Dan Grant made when he decided to become Ouachita’s president was to Dr. Ben Elrod, who at the time was president of Oakland City College in Indiana. Fortunately for Ouachita, one of the nation’s premier fund-raising experts answered the call to become Ouachita’s vice president for development.

Working together, Dan Grant and Ben Elrod rebuilt the campus during the next decade.

When Dr. Grant retired in 1988, Dr. Elrod left the job I now hold in order to serve as Ouachita’s president from 1988-98. He was replaced by my friend Dr. Andy Westmoreland, who served as president until accepting the presidency of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., in 2006.

Since 2006, Dr. Rex Horne has led Ouachita. Enrollment this fall is at a 10-year high, and Dr. Horne’s dream of changing the student housing situation for the better has become a reality in just five years.

Now that I work for 11 college presidents, I more fully understand how demanding that job is — and how crucial an inspirational president is to the success of any institution of higher learning.

Grant, Elrod, Westmoreland and Horne — it has been a string of talented presidents who have led Ouachita these past four decades.

I can hear Gene Stallings speak another time.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have been anywhere but Ouachita on the occasion of her 125th birthday. Long may she flourish.

And go Tigers.

Post to Twitter

Teaching Arkansas history

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

A bill to put teeth into the law requiring public schools to teach our children Arkansas history failed to clear the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday at the state Capitol.

It’s not a surprise.

But it’s a crying shame.

As you might expect, the usual cast had problems with the bill, which is sponsored by one of my favorite legislators, Sen. Mary Anne Salmon of North Little Rock.

The Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators opposed the bill.

The Arkansas School Boards Association opposed the bill.

Even Tom Kimbrell, who heads the Arkansas Department of Education, stepped up to express concerns.

It’s always easy to find reasons not to do something.

“There are too many requirements already.”

“We’re too busy.”

Etc. Etc.

If you’ve spent much time in either the House Education Committee or the Senate Education Committee through the years, you know the drill.

I listened to the testimony on this bill on the same day two other things occurred — I learned that Chef Lee Richardson of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel had indeed won the Food & Wine magazine competition for best chef in the Midwest (even though Arkansas isn’t a Midwestern state; blame the magazine’s New York editors for not knowing), and I was handed the inaugural issue of Arkansauce, the state’s new food journal that’s published by the Special Collections Department of the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville.

Go back and read the post I did last week that was titled “Learning To Love Ourselves.” In it, I noted that while his cooking is indeed world class, Chef Lee’s real gift to our state is that he began to make us appreciate the things we already had due to his intense focus on local foods and local producers.

Meanwhile, in the introduction I wrote as the guest editor of Arkansauce, I said: “Unlike our boastful Texas neighbors, we quietly prepare great barbecue and other foods, enjoy eating it and then move on with our lives. Because the natives don’t brag, Arkansas food has never received the national recognition it deserves. In addition to the modesty of the natives, a reason for the lack of national recognition might be that people from outside the state have a hard time figuring Arkansas out. … The thing all parts of Arkansas have in common is that her people, while never boastful, are proud.”

Proud, yes.

Yet too many of us still carry the burden of that infamous Arkansas inferiority complex.

I feel strongly that teaching this state’s story (warts and all) to the children in our public schools — most of whom will remain in Arkansas and raise their families here — is among the most important things we can do.

Other states — think Texas — do a far better job of it than we do.

During the 2009 legislative session, Sen. Salmon sponsored a bill creating the Legislative Task Force On Arkansas History. She was the co-chairman of that task force along with Rep. Rick Saunders of Hot Springs.

There are some schools that do a good job of teaching Arkansas history. A lot of them do a poor job. The irony is that we now have more quality materials on Arkansas history than ever before.

The task force, which worked for more than a year, included representatives of state agencies, teachers and parents.

A 1997 law calls for 15 hours of annual instruction in state history for kindergarten through the fourth grade, 30 hours in the fifth and sixth grades and a one-semester history class for high school students.

The problem is that the law doesn’t have teeth and is too often ignored.

The bill that failed Wednesday would have required schools to document the time teachers spend on Arkansas history instruction and would have required high school seniors to pass an Arkansas history competency exam.

Ron Harder of the Arkansas School Boards Association said schools should focus on things such as math, literacy and science because “pride in the state will be derived by job opportunities and economic opportunities.”

I must beg to differ with his overall premise.

Are our schools in the business of simply teaching children to obtain jobs?

Or should our schools instead try to teach children — hopefully supplementing what’s learned at home, in church and in extracurricular activities — how to live a well-rounded, satisfying life?

I admit to an inherent bias. I come from a liberal arts background. I went to a liberal arts college. I majored in communications and minored in political science and history. I now work for our state’s 11 private colleges and universities.

Still, I believe all of us should be concerned by movements in our education system to get away from preparing the whole person.

Are we really educating or are we simply doing job training?

Bill Gates spoke Monday afternoon in Washington to the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association. His comments troubled me. Inside Higher Ed reported the speech this way: “During a sprawling talk in which he emphasized the importance of using data-based metrics to figure out how to increase educational attainment while bringing down costs in both K-12 and higher ed, Gates said that when the governors are deciding how to allocate precious tax dollars, they might consider the disparity between how much the state subsidizes certain programs and how much those programs contribute to job creation in the state.”

Here’s how Gates put it: “In the college area, everybody should have a sense of which of the colleges — both community and four-year institutions — are doing very well. You can even break that down by the departments. It’s actually very interesting when you take higher ed and think of it in that way. The amount of subsidization is not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state, that create income for the state.

“Now, in the past it felt fine to just say, ‘OK, we’re going to be generous with this sector.’ But in this era, to break down and really say, ‘What are the categories that help fill jobs and drive that state economy in the future?’ — you’ll find that it’s not across the board in terms of everything that the state subsidizes.”

So is Gates striking out at the humanities?

Inside Higher Ed said in its story: “Defenders of the liberal arts, especially at public universities, have struggled to come up with a way to prove definitively what many of them believe: that liberal education is crucial to job creation. Vocational programs, whose curriculums are oriented toward teaching specific skills to feed demand in specific industries, are generally able to show their value in more tangible ways than are liberal arts programs, which tend to rely on the faith that their curriculums confer the sort of critical thinking skills that are transferable across different industries and might even give birth to new ones.

“Unfortunately, that kind of value is harder to quantify — and harder to commodify politically. Gates was, after all, talking to a roomful of politicians whose chances at re-election might turn on their ability to show job growth in the short term.”

I’ll conclude with the comments of Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities: “It’s my understanding that the Gates Foundation wants to prepare students for work, life and citizenship. But Gates’ remarks seem to shave off two-thirds of that vision while emphasizing a view of work-related learning that is much too narrow and unsettlingly dated. His call to focus on specific fields and departments, rather than the whole institutions, implies a sharp dividing line between general education and specific majors that is, in fact, a relic from before the Cold War.”

I fully realize that I’ve wandered from discussing K-12 education in Arkansas to talking about higher ed. I hope you get my point.

In an era when technology changes so rapidly, those who are simply learning specific job skills will find they constantly need retraining.

Those who have learned to think critically, however, will be able to make transitions more smoothly. And understanding our past is a key part of being able to think critically.

Yesterday’s defeat of Sen. Salmon’s bill was a victory for those who want to simply prepare children to obtain jobs rather than attempting to prepare them to live rich lives.

I’m sad to say that the vote didn’t surprise me in the least. Maybe it wasn’t intended, but here’s the message that was sent to our children: “Arkansas’ fascinating history and culture aren’t important. We have a standardized math test coming up.”

Post to Twitter

College bound from El Dorado

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

I wrote recently how excited I am now that my hometown has created a scholarship program known as the Arkadelphia Promise, based in part on the four-year-old El Dorado Promise.

Awarding college scholarships to all graduates of Arkadelphia High School — provided they meet certain standards — will do more to advance the town where I was born and raised than anything that has occurred there during my more than half century on this earth.

Four years into the program at El Dorado, the results of the $50 million commitment made by Murphy Oil Corp. are remarkable.

For years, the El Dorado School District had faced a slow but steady decline in enrollment.

The same thing has occurred at Arkadelphia despite the fact that the city is the home of two universities and is located on Interstate 30.

Here’s how the El Dorado superintendent, Bob Watson, puts it: “Nothing short of a bold initiative, which came in the form of the Promise, could reverse this trend.”

The El Dorado Promise was announced on Jan. 22, 2007. In the four years since then, enrollment in the El Dorado School District has increased 5 percent to 4,646 students. Consider the fact that enrollment in surrounding school districts has declined.

While El Dorado’s enrollment increased 5 percent from the fall of 2006 to the fall of 2010, the other five public school districts in Union County saw enrollment decrease 13 percent. Meanwhile, public school enrollment decreased 5 percent at Texarkana, 9 percent at Magnolia, 11 percent at Camden, 12 percent at Crossett and 14 percent at Fordyce.

It’s apparent that parents want their children to have the opportunity to attend college.

After spending 13 years in policy positions at the state and federal government levels, I’ve determined that the best thing Arkansas can do to ensure a brighter future is to increase the number of college graduates.

We’re next to last in the country — behind only West Virginia — in the percentage of residents who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

That must change.

It’s not just a problem among older Arkansans. According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, just 26 percent of Arkansans ages 25-34 have an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 38 percent nationally.

It’s estimated that more than 60 percent of all new jobs will require a college education by 2018. Gov. Mike Beebe has said the state must double the number of college graduates by 2025.

My strong belief that this is the most pressing issue facing our state is one reason I took on the post of president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities.

Since the Arkansas Supreme Court came down with its landmark Lake View ruling in November 2002, we’ve done a good job as a state improving K-12 education.

We’re also doing a better job getting students to attend college.

Now the task is to retain those students and ensure they obtain degrees.

Part of what we must do is change the culture of Arkansas, making far more families realize that it’s no longer enough in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century to simply obtain a high school degree and then find a good job in a manufacturing facility or down on the farm.

The jobs associated with manufacturing and agriculture are among those that have become increasingly high-tech.

We all know that policy changes are much easier to institute than cultural changes.

After four years of the El Dorado Promise, however, there seems to be a cultural change occurring in that Union County city.

“We have seen the atmosphere change as students, parents and teachers have embraced a college-bound culture,” Watson says. “From kindergarten, El Dorado students are introduced to the concept of college. They are encouraged to dream big, work hard in school and know that college can be a part of their future.”

The number of El Dorado students taking advanced placement and other rigorous courses has steadily increased. You see, there’s hope even in low-income families that college can become a reality.

The El Dorado Promise pays tuition and mandatory fees for all students who graduate from El Dorado High School, reside in the district and have been a student in the El Dorado School District since at least the ninth grade. Students can use the money at any accredited two-year or four-year college or university in the country. The maximum amount of the scholarship is based on the maximum resident tuition at an Arkansas public university. That’s currently $6,908 per year.

“We know that a big component in increasing the number of college graduates in Arkansas is overcoming financial barriers,” Beebe says. “The El Dorado Promise has shown how a community can help remove those barriers so that students are able to pursue college degrees and realize their dreams.”

Eighty percent of those eligible to receive an El Dorado Promise scholarship have gone on to college, exceeding state and national enrollment rates.

El Dorado students are using their scholarships at 54 colleges and universities. Twenty-one percent are at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, 15 percent are at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, 10 percent are at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, 10 percent are at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, 9 percent are at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, 11 percent are at other public institutions in Arkansas, 5 percent are at Arkansas private institutions, 11 percent are at out-of-state public institutions and 6 percent are at out-of-state private institutions.

In a recent survey of 117 El Dorado Promise students attending college, 98 percent said El Dorado High School prepared them well for college. Seventy-one percent of them said the El Dorado Promise influenced their decision to further their education goals.

The El Dorado Promise website puts it this way: “Low educational attainment has become a defining characteristic of our nation’s most economically challenged communities. While unemployment today touches all sections of the nation’s workforce, the jobless rate for those who have dropped out of high school is nearly three times that of college graduates. By taking down the financial barriers to attending college, the El Dorado Promise is increasing the number of students who go on to post-secondary education.”

The Lumina Foundation for Education has studied the El Dorado Promise and similar programs nationwide. The foundation believes these programs accelerate the necessary increase in the percentage of people receiving college degrees.

In its four years of existence, the El Dorado Promise has:

– Boosted enrollment in the school district

– Raised student expectations

– Improved student achievement

– Resulted in more students attending college

– Created tools for economic and community development.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if foundations, businesses and individuals could team up to create similar programs in even more Arkansas school districts?

Post to Twitter

The path to the promise

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

In the previous post, I wrote about the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship program, which was unveiled last week.

Though there are differences, the program is based on the El Dorado Promise, which was announced on Jan. 22, 2007.

The El Dorado Promise was made possible by a $50 million gift from Murphy Oil Corp.

The Arkadelphia Promise is being funded by the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp.

These two programs will help make El Dorado and Arkadelphia shining stars for the southern half of our state. Interestingly, the initiatives have their roots in a pair of great Arkansans who both were born in 1920.

I’m talking about Charles H. Murphy Jr. of El Dorado and Jane Ross of Arkadelphia. For each of these two south Arkansas business leaders, the family wealth had its roots in the pine forests of the Gulf Coastal Plain. And for each, the betterment of Arkansas was a passion.

Murphy was born in El Dorado on March 6, 1920, to Charles H. Murphy Sr. and Bertie Wilson Murphy. His father had moved to El Dorado in 1904 to operate a bank. It wouldn’t be long before the elder Murphy owned 13 banks. He also built a sawmill at Cargile in Union County and then built a railroad to supply that sawmill with timber.

“Land acquisitions in south Arkansas and north Louisiana led to oil exploration ventures, which provided royalties and operating interests,” John G. Ragsdale writes in a profile of Charles Murphy Jr. in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “Murphy’s father had him manumitted by court order at the age of 16 so he could legally transact business for himself, and Murphy entered the petroleum industry as an independent operator — not affiliated with some of the major companies already operating in the area — while in his teen years. When his father had a stroke in 1941, Murphy had to take over management of the various businesses.”

Charles Murphy Jr. had attended the Gulf Coast Military Academy, an institution that had been founded in Gulfport, Miss., in 1912 by Col. James Chappel Hardy (the school no longer exists). He also had received extensive tutoring, including French. Murphy was a voracious reader until his death in March 2002 at age 82.

Murphy and his three sisters — Caroline Keller, Bertie Deming and Theodosia Nolan — pooled their business interests in 1946 into C.H. Murphy & Co. The company changed its name to Murphy Corp. in 1950 and to Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964. Charles Murphy Jr. would serve as president until 1972 and as board chairman until 1994.

“Murphy Oil Corp. developed from family timberlands in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana that were owned by Charles H. Murphy Sr.,” Ragsdale writes. “… When oil was discovered in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport in 1907, Charles Murphy Sr., the owner of timber and banking interests in Union County, decided that his timber company should purchase land on a scattered noncontiguous pattern to provide more exposure to any oil development. When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy had oil royalty interests in it. He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area.”

Education was important to Charles Murphy Jr. He served 16 years on the state Board of Higher Education and 10 years on the Hendrix College board. In 1980, he established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“Beyond serving on boards and providing funding, he was active as a lecturer on economics, responsible civic actions, energy and education, never charging a fee,” Ragsdale writes.

Though Mr. Murphy was no longer with us by the time the January 2007 announcement of the El Dorado Promise was made, it was very much in his spirit.

The same goes for Arkadelphia’s Jane Ross. Though she is no longer with us, she would have been immensely pleased by what occurred last week.

Ross was born in Arkadelphia on Dec. 23, 1920, to Hugh Thomas Ross and Esther Clark Ross. She graduated from college at Henderson in 1942 and became a photographer for the Navy. Photography was her passion, and her family sent her to the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., to study color photography.

“When Jane Ross returned to Arkadelphia following the war, she opened a studio, Photos by Ross,” Christin Northern writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “She owned and operated this portrait studio from 1948 to 1955. … Although Ross’ first love was photography, she gave it up as an occupation in 1955. The death of her father and family obligations outweighed her love of photography. Jane Ross was heiress to her family’s southwest Arkansas timber fortune. J.G. Clark, Ross’ grandfather, began an empire in the forest products industry in the 1880s. After her father’s death in 1955, Ross operated the large timber enterprise.

“In 1966, Ross established the Ross Foundation, a philanthropic organization, with her mother. The foundation’s financial backing came from Esther Ross’ timber holdings. Ross became the executive director of the Ross Foundation after her mother’s death in 1967, while still operating the timber business. She remained chairman of the board of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. However, in 1979, she relinquished some of the control over daily operations of the Ross Foundation to her relative, Ross Whipple.”

Whipple proved to be a shrewd manager of the foundation’s assets. He also turned out to be one of the South’s most innovative bankers. He took over Merchants & Planters Bank of Arkadelphia, which had been founded in 1911, and eventually transformed it into a regional banking company known as Horizon Bancorp. Following the sale of Horizon, Whipple formed Summit Bancorp in February 2000. It now has 20 branches stretching from Little Rock into southern Arkansas.

Whipple also runs a timber management company known as Horizon Timber Services and is the managing general partner of the Whipple Family Limited Partnership. He describes it as “a separate set of lands that are considered to be a charitable asset. We manage these lands like a mini-national forest. Since 1970, we’ve grown from 18,000 acres to about 65,000 acres through acquisition. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you. Here in Clark County, the strong history of the forest industry as well as the future growth excites me.”

While Whipple was building his banking empire, another interesting development was taking place down the street from his Arkadelphia office. In 1986, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Mack McLarty, Rob Walton and others joined up with foundations such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to create a community development bank holding company. The goal was to use the proceeds from commercial banks to fund rural development activities rather than paying dividends to stockholders.

Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp has now become the largest and most profitable rural development banking organization in the country. The first bank it purchased was Arkadelphia’s Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in 1988. Since then, other banks have been purchased across Arkansas and in the Mississippi Delta. Southern Bancorp has grown stronger than ever under the leadership of Phil Baldwin.

A 2005 article in Arkansas Business described it this way: ”Baldwin has brought fiscal discipline to an organization that previously seemed unable to reconcile its two halves, the commercial banking enterprise and the nonprofit organizations it supports.”

“Not only do I believe that you’ve got to stay in the black, but I think you’ve got to be high performing,” Baldwin said at the time.

How fortunate is a town the size of Arkadelphia to have two banking corporations such as Summit and Southern headed by visionaries such as Whipple and Baldwin?

It was fitting that they were front and center at last week’s announcement of the Arkadelphia Promise.

 Baldwin said one of the transformational goals of Southern for the communities in which it operates is to reduce high school dropout rates and increase college attendance.

“It sends the message that every child in Arkadelphia willing to work hard and succeed academically can attend college,” he said of the scholarship program.

Meanwhile, Whipple described it as “one of the best economic events that has ever happened to Arkadelphia as well as being a tremendous educational benefit for every graduate of Arkadelphia High School.”

In El Dorado and Arkadelphia, the dreams of Charles Murphy Jr. and Jane Ross live on.

Post to Twitter

The Arkadelphia Promise

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

I’ve told the story often.

The event was so traumatic that I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Saturday, March 1, 1997.

I was downstairs in our Little Rock home, paying bills.

Melissa was upstairs with our 4-year-old son and the new arrival, who was five weeks old (we had taken little Evan to a restaurant for the first time the previous evening — a Cajun place in west Little Rock called Big Mamou).

The tornado sirens went off. I told Melissa to come downstairs and bring both boys.

As Melissa walked down the stairs, she said to me: “Channel 11 is reporting that a tornado has destroyed downtown Arkadelphia.”

“Oh, television news people always exaggerate,” I quickly replied.

Just to be sure, however, I decided to call my parents’ home in Arkadelphia. When I got the “all circuits are busy” recording, I began to worry a bit. What if the television report proved to be true?

About 10 minutes later, the phone rang. It was my father, calling on his cell phone. Our home was fine. His downtown business was fine. But a mere block away from his business, the damage was incredible.

In what would go down as one of the worst tornadoes in Arkansas in the 20th century, 60 blocks of my hometown had been partially or completely destroyed.

I wasn’t accustomed to hearing my father’s voice quiver, but it indeed quivered as he said: “Call the governor and tell him to send in the National Guard. Main Street is gone.”

I was working for the governor at the time, so he knew I could get through quickly.

I hung up and called the Governor’s Mansion.

When the state trooper answered, I said: “This is Rex. I need to speak to the governor as soon as possible. It’s an emergency.”

“He’s on the phone,” the trooper answered. “I’ll get him a message and let him know you’re holding on the line and that it’s important.”

About a minute later, I heard the familiar voice of Mike Huckabee.

“Governor, I just spoke to my father in Arkadelphia,” I said. “He’s downtown, and much of the business district has been destroyed.”

He interrupted me: “I know. I was just on the phone with Percy Malone. He’s standing in the rubble of what once was his drugstore. I’m about to send in the National Guard.”

I drove to the Mansion, where we set up a command center that later was moved to the state Capitol as the magnitude of the destruction across the state became apparent. It would be a long day. Tornadoes had cut a swath across the state that Saturday from southwest Arkansas to northeast Arkansas, killing 25 people. To put it into contenxt, more people were killed by storms that day than were killed by storms in Bill Clinton’s entire 12 years as governor.

The next day, I rode in a National Guard helicopter with the governor from Arkadelphia all the way to Newport to view the damage. On Monday, we were back on the helicopter to fly to Hickory Ridge and Marmaduke in northeast Arkansas. There had been heavy damage in each of those towns before the storm exited the state.

On Tuesday, March 4, President Clinton came home to Arkansas and took part in a walking tour of what remained of downtown Arkadelphia.

Following the tour, a small group of us sat in a room at Elk Horn Bank and Trust (now Southern Bancorp). There was no electricity. The room was lit by candles.

Knowing I was from Arkadelphia, the president whispered this to me: “Don’t quote me (I figure that after almost 14 years it’s OK now), but most towns in the southern half of the state could never recover from something like this. Given the fact it has two universities and strong banks, Arkadelphia has a better chance to come back than almost any other town south of Little Rock would have.”

It’s interesting that he mentioned the banks.

I thought of President Clinton’s comments last week as people filled the football stadium at Arkadelphia High School. They were there to see the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship program unveiled. The initiative is modeled on the El Dorado Promise, though there are key differences. It’s something that will change the face of my hometown forever, and it’s being made possible by the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp. No longer will the families of Arkadelphia High School graduates have to worry about coming up with the money to pay college tuition and fees as long as their children meet certain standards.

Ross Whipple, the chairman of the Ross Foundation, is also the chairman of Summit Bank, which he began in February 2000. Whipple is recognized as one of the region’s top bankers. Meanwhile, Phil Baldwin’s leadership has solidified Southern Bancorp’s position as the largest and most profitable rural development banking organization in the country.

It’s unusual for any town anywhere to have two banking corporations as strong as Summit and Southern headquartered in the same community. It’s especially impressive that visionaries such as Whipple and Baldwin work within blocks of each other on Main Street.

Bill Clinton’s March 1997 comment about the importance of strong banks resonates today.

In a video message, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “More than a decade ago, you not only rebuilt Arkadelphia after a devastating tornado, you built it stronger. Today, you have been given another chance to get smarter, to prepare yourself to succeed, to pursue your dreams. I don’t think we celebrate success enough in education.”

Here’s how the website www.arkadelphiapromise.com explains the program: “The goal of the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship is to increase the college-going rate for local students, reduce the number of students dropping out of college for financial reasons and provide for a more educated workforce. The Arkadelphia Promise is a game-changing effort — making a college education not just a dream but a reality for every child in Arkadelphia. A college degree is a passport to future prosperity for individuals, and a more college-educated workforce makes Arkadelphia a more attractive community in which to locate a business.”

Indeed, this is a game-changing initiative for Arkadelphia.

“Students who never considered college an option will now be free to achieve success that will better their future, their community and our state,” said Gov. Mike Beebe.

The superintendent of the Arkadelphia School District, Donnie Whitten, called it “the most significant event in the history of our school district.”

He’s right. I’m biased since I attended that district from the first through the 12th grade, but I always believed I received an excellent education in Arkadelphia. Because it was a college town, there seemed to be a greater commitment to education in Arkadelphia than you might find in other south Arkansas towns. A number of my teachers were the spouses of Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University employees. Now, there’s a pot of gold waiting at the end of the public education rainbow.

To be eligible for an Arkadelphia Promise scholarship, Arkadelphia High School graduates must be Arkansas Academic Challenge scholarship recipients and plan to immediately attend college after graduation. Academic Challenge is now mostly funded by the lottery. It provides annual scholarships of $5,000 for those attending four-year schools and $2,500 for those attending two-year schools in Arkansas.

All students enrolled in the Arkadelphia School District as of Nov. 16 — from kindgarten through 12th grade — can receive the full scholarship upon graduation regardless of the date of original enrollment. A sliding scale will be in effect for new enrollees.

Based on what has happened in El Dorado, the Arkadelphia School District should expect its student population to grow.

On Jan. 22, 2007, officials from Murphy Oil Corp. announced a donation of $50 million to create the El Dorado Promise scholarship program. The motto was simple — go to school, graduate, get a scholarship. The scholarship money was made available for use in schools both inside and outside Arkansas.

“For students, this is life changing,” El Dorado superintendent Bob Watson said that day. “Students who have worked hard but would not have been able to attend college because of financial limitations now have the means to do so.”

Since the El Dorado Promise was created, families have moved to the city from 31 states and 13 foreign countries so their children can attend the public schools. The El Dorado School District, after years of declining student populations, has had a 4 percent enrollment increase. The percentage of El Dorado High School graduates who enroll in college exceeds both the state and national college enrollment rates. Almost a quarter of those students are first-generation college students.

Last spring, former President George W. Bush was the keynote speaker for what’s known as academic signing day. Members of the El Dorado High School class of 2010 enrolled in schools ranging from Johns Hopkins University to the University of Michigan.

Two years following the original announcement, Murphy Oil officials announced an expansion of the program to allow more flexibility for students and their families. The expansion meant that students with scholarships and grants covering tuition now have the option to apply the El Dorado Promise funds toward other expenses such as room, board, books and additional fees.

“Living in Arkansas and getting the lottery scholarships is wonderful, but now living in El Dorado just got a lot better,” Watson said when the expansion was announced.

Arkadelphia and El Dorado are two of my favorite towns.

Now, they have something else in common — something very special.

Post to Twitter

Graduation day in Helena

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Tonight at 7:00 on the campus of Phillips Community College in Helena-West Helena, the first class of seniors will graduate from what’s commonly known as the KIPP school.

If you closely examine how far these kids have come, you’ll realize just how remarkable this story is.

Gov. Mike Beebe will deliver the commencement address at what’s officially known as the KIPP Delta Collegiate High School. Mike Feinberg, one of the national founders of KIPP (which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program), will be there.

If there has been a more hopeful day than this one in the Arkansas Delta in recent years, I’m not sure what it is.

In 1994, Feinberg and a fellow teacher named Dave Levin began the first KIPP school in Houston after completing their Teach for America commitment. Since then, the KIPP network has grown to 82 schools (all public charter schools — these are not private schools) serving more than 20,000 students. The vast majority of the students come from low-income families.

Think about this statistic: Nationally, only about 20 percent of students from low-income families attend college. Of the KIPP alumni nationally, 86 percent have gone on to college.

The list of college acceptances for the class graduating tonight ranges from the U.S. Naval Academy to Vanderbilt to Notre Dame.

Scott Shirey showed up in east Arkansas eight years ago with a dream. With the strong support of a core group of civic and business leaders in Helena (as always, I’m going to dispense with that clunky hyphenated name in the hopes that Helena-West Helena will soon just become Helena), Shirey was convinced he could succeed where others had not in one of the nation’s poorest counties.

The KIPP school accepts all students on a space-available basis. Ninety-five percent of the students in Helena are black, and 85 percent of them qualify for the federal free and reduced-price school lunch program.

Major national supporters of the KIPP effort have included the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame and the Fisher family, which helped begin Gap Inc.

“Thanks to the support of the Fishers and the Waltons, our students are climbing the mountain to college,” Shirey says.

Since the partnership with the Fisher family begain in 2000, the KIPP network has grown from two schools to 82 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. John Fisher serves as the chairman of the KIPP national board and the Charter School Growth Fund.

A new member of the KIPP board is Carrie Walton Penner, a granddaughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. She’s a trustee of the Walton Family Foundation, which last year announced a $1.5 million grant to expand the KIPP program in the Delta.

“KIPP’s success here in Arkansas and across the country is a model for what’s possible in public education,” she says. “My goal is to ensure that KIPP can continue to thrive for many years to come.”

The first part of that Delta expansion will come this summer when a KIPP middle school is opened in Blytheville. The new school in Mississippi County will begin with a fifth-grade class and add a grade each year through the eighth grade. After that, it’s likely a KIPP high school will begin in Blytheville.

There are now three schools in Helena that are part of the KIPP program — an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. The plan is to have 12 schools in four Delta towns during the next decade. Pine Bluff and West Memphis could be the next places to receive KIPP schools after Helena and Blytheville.

“Many of KIPP Delta’s graduating seniors never considered higher education before they started at KIPP as fifth-graders,” says Richard Barth, the KIPP CEO. “But because of their hard work and perseverance, these KIPP alumni will not only graduate from high school but also go on to succeed in college and life. … KIPP Delta is setting a new standard for rural education in the Delta and across the country. With KIPP expanding outside of Helena, there is tremendous opportunity ahead for students in the Delta to reach excellence.”

The goal of the KIPP Delta organization is to double the number of college-ready seniors graduating from high-poverty districts in east Arkansas by 2019. The term “college-ready graduates” is defined as graduating seniors who score at least 19 on both the math and language sections of the ACT, thus exempting them from remedial classes should they continue to college. That also would make them eligible for lottery scholarships in Arkansas.

If KIPP achieves that goal, imagine what that will mean for that often neglected part of our state.

Here’s how the school’s literature explains the KIPP approach: “KIPP Delta takes a rigorous, no excuses approach to education. In addition to a mandatory summer session, students are in class during the week from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., along with every other Saturday. KIPP students complete up to two hours of homework a night, and KIPP teachers are available on cell phones after hours for help and to answer questions from parents.

“KIPP is proving what is possible in public education for underserved students.  . . . KIPP forms a unique partnership where teachers have the freedom to innovate, parents are encouraged to be involved and students have the opportunity to learn. Students, parents and teachers sign a learning pledge — called the Commitment to Excellence — which outlines the hard work necessary for success.”

During their years in middle school, the students who are graduating tonight moved from the 29th to the 91st percentile in math on achievement tests and from the 29th to the 84th percentile in language. The consistent focus on measuring and reporting achievement results continued through high school.

Here’s how Kane Webb put it in a Wall Street Journal column several years ago: “In a state under court order to fix its public schools, there aren’t many examples of educational excellence. But because KIPP schools are charter schools, they operate free of the bureaucratic baloney that chokes the creativity out of so many traditional public schools and their teachers. And Delta College Prep is a different kind of charter school. You notice it right off. World map-sized posters of students’ test scores decorate the hallways — the way you would see a ‘Go Team!’ banner at a public high school. … There’s a dress code and detailed instructions about how to behave in class, right down to when to raise your hand.”

Congratulations, seniors.

You’ve blazed the trail. Hopefully, your success will mark the beginning of something even bigger in the Arkansas Delta.

Post to Twitter

The Politically Correct University

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

University of Arkansas professor Robert Maranto showed up at the Clinton School of Public Service on Tuesday to discuss his book, “The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope and Reform.”

Maranto was appointed in the fall of 2008 as the Twenty-First Century Chair in Leadership, the sixth and final endowed chair to be filled in the Department of Education Reform on the Fayetteville campus. Maranto had been a political science professor at Villanova University.

The education reform department was established in July 2005 in an attempt to improve K-12 education in Arkansas and across the country. The department now offers a doctor of philosophy degree in education policy.

Maranto has been researching, writing and teaching about education and leadership for more than two decades. The long list of schools where he has taught includes Bryn Mawr, Arizona State, the University of Virginia, Lafayette, James Madison, the University of Minnesota and the University of Southern Mississippi.

Maranto said that when he entered college as a student at the University of Maryland, he thought college should be about debating great ideas. He soon learned that college was not all that it could be or should be. Maranto said that though he usually votes Republican, he’s not a raging conservative. In fact, he found that he agreed with many of the Clinton administration officials with whom he worked at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

As a conservative professor, Maranto said he’s often asked by other conservatives: “How are they treating you at that university?”

He said a lot of conservatives figure that being on a university campus is much like being a spouse in a potentially abusive relationship. And indeed he has discovered that universities “are pretty overwhelmingly left wing. It’s especially true of the elite universities.”

In fact, he repeated the famous quote that one can now find more Marxists in the Harvard faculty lounge than in the Kremlin.

“I would expect there to be some imbalance in the liberal arts,” he said. “But not 10 to 1, 20 to 1 or 30 to 1. I’ve found that expressing different points of view can hurt you in the job market. … We’re social animals. People value group solidarity.”

Of course, conservatives have been saying that university faculties are biased toward the left since William F. Buckley Jr. wrote “God and Man at Yale” way back in 1951. Yet it seems that things have gotten worse through the decades.

In a guest column for The Washington Post, Maranto wrote: “I spent four years in the 1990s working at the centrist Brookings Institution and for the Clinton administration and felt right at home ideologically. Yet during much of my two decades in academia, I’ve been on the ‘far right’ as one who thinks that welfare reform helped the poor, that the United States was right to fight and win the Cold War and that environmental regulations should be balanced against property rights. All these views — commonplace in American society and among the political class — are practically verboten in much of academia.”

In the column, Maranto told the story of a sociologist he knows whose decision to became a registered Republican caused “a sensation” at the university where the professor taught.

“It was as if I had become a child molester,” he told Maranto.

Maranto had this to say about the time he interviewed for a job at a prestigious research university: “Everything seemed to be going well until I mentioned, in a casual conversation with department members over dinner, that I planned to vote Republican in the upcoming presidential election. Conversation came to a halt, and someone quickly changed the subject. The next day, I thought my final interview went fairly well. But the department ended up hiring someone who had published far less but apparently ‘fit’ better than I did. At least that’s what I was told when I called a month later to learn the outcome of the job search, having never received any further communication from the school.”

He doesn’t believe there are legions of leftist professors out there on a mission to purge academia of Republicans. Things are much more subtle than that.

“When making hiring decisions and confronted with several good candidates, we college professors, like anyone else, tend to select people like ourselves,” Maranto wrote. “Unfortunately, subtle biases in how conservative students and professors are treated in the classroom and in the job market have very unsubtle effects on the ideological makeup of the professoriate. The resulting lack of intellectual diversity harms academia by limiting the questions academics ask, the phenomena we study and ultimately the conclusions we reach.”

Maranto told his attentive audience Tuesday that the end result is that universities don’t do as good a job as they should in producing good citizens since it’s hard to be a good citizen without being a well-informed citizen.

“I just don’t think universities understand conservatism very well because there aren’t any conservatives in their midst,” he said.

College professors talk a lot about freedom of speech. I grew up in a neighborhood filled with college professors. Faculty members make a sport of censuring college presidents and other administrators they believe have limited their freedom of speech. Maranto is simply asking them not to be hypocrites who embrace freedom of speech for themselves but not for those with whom they disagree politically.

The solution to this growing problem?

“Ultimately, universities will have to clean their own houses,” Maranto wrote in the Post. “Professors need to re-embrace a culture of reasoned inquiry and debate. And since debate requires disagreement, higher education needs to encourage intellectual diversity in its hiring and promotion decisions with something like the fervor it shows for ethnic and racial diversity. It’s the only way universities will earn back society’s respect and reclaim their role at the center of public life.”

Post to Twitter

Two leaders for Little Rock

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

No one denies that the continued growth of the institutions of higher education that call this area home is key to the future of Little Rock and Central Arkansas. In Pulaski County, however, the conversation too often ends after discussing the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Pulaski Technical College.

UAMS, UALR and Pulaski Tech must indeed be major players in the growth of this region. But the focus on higher education cannot end there. Little Rock is the home of two historically black colleges with long, proud histories — Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College. The two schools are within blocks of each other south of Interstate 630. They’re anchors for their neighborhoods.

And, to the lasting benefit of the capital city and our entire state, these institutions are led by two of the most dynamic leaders in Arkansas. If I had to make a list of people under the age of 50 (sadly, I no longer qualify) who will play important roles in moving Arkansas forward during the next decade, both Dr. Walter Kimbrough of Philander Smith and Dr. Fitz Hill of Arkansas Baptist would be on that list.

As I pointed out in a recent column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I’ve known Fitz Hill since he was a child. The public schools in Arkadelphia became integrated when I was in the third grade. Fitz’ older brother and I were in the same grade and friends from the third through the 12 grades. I knew Fitz would be a leader. As a fellow Arkadelphian, I’m proud of what he has accomplished.

In fact, I’ve always thought Fitz could be the first black governor of Arkansas if he ever set his mind to the task. That said, I don’t think his interest is politics. He has found his mission at Arkansas Baptist. However, the old political strategist in me cannot help but play out the scenario in my mind — Fitz obviously would receive heavy support from black voters and others who would like to see a black governor. But lots of rural good ol’ boys, who loved him when he was “Coach Hill” at the University of Arkansas, would support him because they don’t necessarily view the world in black and white when it comes to this individual. They see him as Razorback red. In Arkansas, that is something that should not be underestimated among male voters. To put it delicately, many of these white males likely are voters who wouldn’t otherwise support a black candidate. Veterans would support their fellow veteran. Fitz served in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. receiving the Bronze Star. And educators no doubt would love to see a fellow educator in the Governor’s Mansion.

Enough of that. As stated, Fitz has found his mission as he attempts to transform not only Arkansas Baptist but also the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

As for Walter Kimbrough, I’ve watched his accomplishments with interest since he was hired in December 2004 as the 12th president of Philander Smith. He was 37 at the time, one of the youngest college presidents in the country. He grew up in Atlanta, where his father was a Methodist minister and his mother was an author.

I had the pleasure of sharing breakfast with him this morning at the Capital Hotel, and he told me he set his mind on becoming a college president at age 23. When he came to Philander Smith, he said the school was best known around Little Rock as “having some nice new buildings and a great choir.”

That was good, but he wanted more. On the school’s website, he lists Philander Smith’s mission as producing “academically accomplished students, grounded as advocates for social justice, determined to intentionally change the world for the better.”

Dr. Kimbrough’s “Bless the Mic” lecture series has drawn a long line of nationally known speakers to the Philander Smith campus and increased awareness of the school.

He also launched the Black Male Initiative in 2007. He was concerned that the six-year graduation rates at the school in 2006 were only 21 percent for black women and 11 percent for black men. In an article published earlier this year in Inside Higher Ed, Kimbrough said: “We deal with a lot of first-generation students, a lot of students who come from what I would consider to be horrible K-12 systems. If you admit students like that, you’ve got to do extra things for them. That’s the part that I didn’t see happening. We’ve admitted them, so what are we doing extra to really boost them? … Men really need to have these supportive and nurturing environments. It’s not just as simple as they need more tutoring. You could provide the tutoring, and the guys won’t come.”

The national six-year graduation rate for black students at four-year institutions is 40.5 percent. It’s 56.1 percent overall and 59.4 percent for white students. The graduation rate for black men trails the rate for black women significantly.

The Philander Smith president is involved in a number of Black Male Initiative events each year. They range from fashion contests to golf lessons to lessons on how to properly tie a tie.

He told Inside Higher Ed: “When institutions have these kinds of programs for any group, the so-called usual suspects attend, the guys who are already involved, who are in leadership positions, who are doing well academically. What we’re trying to do now is have events and then personally ask guys who never come to anything to come. We’re a small campus so we pretty much know everyone or know something about them. We clearly know the people who no one knows anything about. We know who they are.”

It would be wise for the white business leadership of Little Rock to support Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist. If Little Rock is to really become the “next great Southern city” or whatever the latest public relations slogan coming out of City Hall is, Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist need to thrive.

 We have two of the top HBCU leaders in America right here in Little Rock. They’re young, they’re articulate, they’re energetic. It behooves all of us to help them succeed.

Post to Twitter

The Arkansas college challenge

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Good news came from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education earlier this month. The number of students enrolled in Arkansas colleges and universities this fall is at an all-time high. The total of 165,201 students is up 6.3 percent from 2008 and an amazing 17.2 percent from four years ago.

Jim Purcell, the state’s higher education director, put it this way: “Especially in these difficult economic times, we believe that students see the value of education more than ever, and along with increases in enrollment, we hope to see corresponding increases in retention and graduation rates.”

Nine of the 11 four-year public universities experienced enrollment increases. Arkansas Tech led the way with a 10.8 percent increase in the number of college students. The University of Arkansas at Monticello had a 9.3 percent gain. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was up 7.9 percent. The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith was up 7.3 percent. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock was up 6.7 percent. Arkansas State was up 6.4 percent. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville was up 3.4 percent. Only Henderson and the University of Central Arkansas had fewer students enrolled among the public four-year schools.

Some of the most amazing growth continues to occur among the two-year schools. Mid-South Community College at West Memphis, under the strong leadership of Glen Fenter, is up 29.3 percent. Pulaski Technical College is the largest two-year scool with 10,258 students. That’s 12.8 percent more college students than last year. Northwest Arkansas Community College has 8,034 students, up 11.5 percent.

Jim Purcell, however, hits the nail on the head when he mentions retention and graduation. Getting more students enrolled in college is good. But that’s only part of the equation as this state seeks to advance economically.

Here’s where Arkansas finds itself as we near the end of 2009:

1. Thanks to the changes brought about by the Arkansas Supreme Court’s Lake View ruling, the state is doing a better job than in past years preparing high school students for college.

2. Thanks to the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, far more financial aid will be available than in the past for students wanting to enroll in an Arkansas college or university.

3. More students than ever before are entering the higher education system.

Now, we must find ways to ensure they stay there and earn their degrees. It was reported earlier this year that the cumulative six-year graduation rate for public universities in Arkansas was 44.8 percent for the 2002 cohort of students, down 1.2 percent. That kind of drop is not acceptable. For Arkansas to advance economically, it’s going to have to rise far higher than its current ranking of 49th for the percentage of adult residents with college degrees.

The governor and members of the Arkansas Legislature face these challenges:

1. Ensuring that the positive changes that have occurred since the 2002 Lake View ruling remain in place. The standards that have been put in place for students from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade are starting to produce results. In each legislative session, however, there will be know-nothing legislators who try to water down those standards. If anything, they need to be made stronger so the state’s high school graduates are ready for college.

2. Tying state funding for institutions of higher learning more closely to retention and graduation rates. Arkansas doesn’t need students who enroll as freshmen and then drop out. That’s a waste of limited state resources. We need students who will earn degrees. The competition among colleges and universities must be about more than gross enrollment numbers. Those schools that do a poor job of retention should be punished where it hurts — in the pocketbook.

3. Making sure that funding levels for general education and higher education aren’t cut. The money being generated by the lottery cannot be used as an excuse for cutting the amount of money for education that comes from the state’s general revenue fund and other funding streams. The lottery money is targeted for new scholarships. It’s not intended to be a replacement for funds already being channeled into the education system.

Let’s hope our elected leaders are up to the challenge. In Arkansas, the public policy focus must now be on college retention and graduation.

Post to Twitter