A queen sacrifice proposed in Arkansas

An Arkansas university is considering a major queen sacrifice.

(“Queen sacrifice”: removing tenure-track faculty members, based on a chess analogy)

HSU sealHenderson State University is a rare institution, a public (state-supported) liberal arts university. Their financial exigency committee produced a recommendation for serious academic program cuts, which entail faculty terminations.

Programs on the block include: accounting, business information systems, data science, finance, French, general studies, German, management, management information systems, marketing, music performance and composition, political science.  By my count ending those programs also ends 33 faculty positions.

One local paper reports that “Henderson spokeswoman Tina Hall said the school’s academic programs are expected to shrink by ‘approximately 30-40%.'” Total savings from these cuts will net HSU $3.7 million.

Why might this occur?

The clue is in the committee’s name.  “Financial exigency” is an academic term of art. It describes a dire financial situation. Once declared, more options are on the table, including radical ones.  Why is Henderson in such straits?  Wikipedia reports that a financial crisis struck the campus in the 2010s:

Glendell Jones Jr.’s… tenure as president was rocked by a series of scandals and bad publicity, and he and his senior leadership were twice the subject of no-confidence votes by the faculty. When the true scope of the university’s budget crisis became public in July 2019, he was asked to resign. He currently serves as an assistant to the president of Georgetown University.

Jones—as well as several other current and former administrators, staff, and members of the Board of Trustees—were called to testify before the Arkansas legislature in 2020 as part of the state’s effort to understand the university’s staggering financial collapse.

This crisis drove Henderson to join the Arkansas state university system in 2019 (although they were state supported as early as 1930; thanks to Jason Green for the tip).  According to one local account, in 20019:

Henderson State University was on the brink of insolvency, its balance sheet loaded with millions of dollars in uncollectible student accounts. Only an emergency $6 million loan from the state in 2019 allowed the small Arkadelphia school to keep its doors open.

And so now:

Layoffs and budget cuts loom in the near future. Most faculty and staff are now furloughed for one day each week — an effective 20% pay cut. Over the past fiscal year, a hiring freeze has already reduced the number of Henderson employees by almost one-third, mostly among staff.

Faculty positions are likely next in line.

So why these particular programs, and what do they have to do with university finances? The state mandates a specific review process (Word Doc; thanks again to Jason). My readers will be unsurprised to learn the cause is low enrollment. Continuing from the Magnolia Reporter:

In December [2021], the Arkansas Division of Higher Education notified institutions of programs that had so few graduates as to raise concerns about their future viability. The division advised Henderson of 34 such programs.

One driver for overall enrollment pressure is, of course, the double whammy of demographics and COVID:

Engman, the faculty senate president, said the COVID-19 pandemic worsened problems at Henderson, which was already grappling with shrinking enrollment. A declining population in southern Arkansas means fewer high school graduates from the region and fewer students moving on to college…

Over the past five years, the state’s four-year public universities have seen an almost 10% decline in student headcount, from 100,413 in fall 2016 to 90,920 in fall 2021.

As one editorial writer observes, “virtually every county in the south half of Arkansas is losing population.”  In 2020 HSU lost nearly 12% of its student numbers.

Criminal charges against two faculty members for cooking meth probably didn’t help matters.

What can we learn from this story?

It’s an interesting case of a queen sacrifice. Some aspects are present elsewhere in higher ed: declining population in an institution’s market, decreasing enrollment, COVID, and some financial pressure.  On the other hand, HSU has some distinct features, namely the massive financial crash of the past decade and the recent shift from private to public.

I’ll note that the targeted programs are a bit unusual.  Typical queen sacrifices focus on the humanities, whereas in the committee’s proposal cuts fall heavily on the social sciences (including business) as well.

One way to think about Henderson is as an unusually frail institution hit harder than most by recent trends. Most campuses weren’t in this weak a position before COVID.

NB: there isn’t a lot of reporting or commentary on this story, so I’m working from a very few sources. I’ll be happy to update as more information surfaces.

(thanks to a former student)

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7 Responses to A queen sacrifice proposed in Arkansas

  1. Rebecca Barber says:

    I would add that many of those programs, particularly data science, management information systems, business information systems, and finance all use faculty that tend to be higher paid than most. These tend to be high-demand programs but costly due to the fact that the faculty can make a ton of money actually doing that work rather than teaching the topic. And that’s before you get into the technical requirements of the first three. That might be playing a roll here as well.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good point for some of those programs, Rebecca. Do you think Henderson is having a hard time keeping them?

  2. Glen McGhee says:

    I would love to see an account of the state and local politics behind Henderson “joining” the Arkansas state university system in 2019,” especially when it required an emergency load of $6 million just to stay open. Talk about kicking the can down the road!

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, are you keeping a list of College Meltdown schools?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Not so far. I’ve been tracking queen sacrifices and thought about publishing that list as a page.

  4. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: Follow the Money! | Rob Reynolds

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