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Arkansas governor, education officials discuss future of Henderson State University

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Henderson State University Chancellor Chuck Ambrose speaks in a news conference Thursday at the Arkansas State Capitol alongside Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Education Secretary Johnny Key.

Officials with Henderson State University in Arkadelphia say the school is pivoting to a new focus on workforce development to ensure the future of the struggling institution.

The university has faced financial hardships in recent years, culminating in the layoffs of 88 faculty members and the elimination in May of 25 degree programs, including English, math and biology. The school was incorporated into the Arkansas State University System in 2019 after accumulating $78 million in debt.

In a news conference Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the school is partnering with other colleges and high schools to help expand workforce training opportunities for students. He said he has “full confidence” in the university’s future.

“It is not necessarily the same as every other four-year college in Arkansas. It has a unique role in that its emphasis on working with the industry, working with K-12 education and providing that pathway of affordable education, and our point is to make sure that everyone knows our confidence,” Hutchinson said.

Henderson State Chancellor Chuck Ambrose said the school will put more emphasis on credentialing and licensure programs, as well as shorter degree programs for high-demand career paths. He said the goal is to eliminate some of the most common barriers to higher education.

“It costs too much, it takes too long, there’s a skills gap with a degree," Ambrose said. "We all know that we’ve had to package too much debt to pay. So none of us, public education, our secondary partners, our two-year partners and our four-year institutions, none of us can solve that unless we work together.”

Ambrose spoke of creating an alliance of post-secondary institutions along Interstate 30, with the aim of funneling graduates into high-demand sectors of the job market.

“We’re creating an I-30 learning community, from Saline County to Arkadelphia, including K-12 partners, Arkansas State University-Three Rivers, Saline County Career-Technical Campus and Henderson State University,” Ambrose said. “Through this learning community, we will develop personalized learning plans for students designed with scaffold support for student success driven by the efforts made by K-12 and the Arkansas Department of Education and secondary schools across the state.”

Ambrose said the school will partner with education institutions at all levels in the state, including the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine in Jonesboro. Dr. Shane Speights, the school’s dean, says they hope the partnership will ultimately improve health outcomes in rural Arkansas.

“Here in the State of Arkansas, we struggle with a workforce shortage. We rank about 48th out of all 50 states in terms of number of physicians per capita. And so even though we have several medical schools, we want to find those students that come from the needed areas and return them back to those communities so that better health can be provided,” Speights said.

Henderson State Chancellor Ambrose said the school will now have a new focus on adult learners, as well as high school students seeking to earn college credits.

“We will look a little different than higher education around the state, and that’s okay,” Ambrose said. “We’re committed to opening the doors of access and opportunity, focusing on completion, mobilizing a learning community that builds seamless pathways from school to work, and prepares students to be career-ready in the high-demand fields that enable our communities to be sustainable, and to provide social mobility for all the students we serve.”

The recent staffing and program cuts at the university proved controversial, with the faculty senate requesting the “immediate dismissal” of Ambrose as chancellor for failing to follow “financial exigency” procedures outlined in university policy.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.