University of Arkansas at Little Rock Chancellor Joel E. Anderson reflects on his career in higher education ahead of his retirement in June.
Photography by Sara Edwards Neal
At the end of June, Joel E. Anderson plans to retire as chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a position he held for 13 years.
The 74-year-old grew up on a farm outside Swifton in northeast Arkansas. He received his undergraduate degree in political science from Harding University, a master’s in international relations from American University in Washington, D.C., and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan.
In 1971, Anderson went to work at UALR as an assistant professor of political science. In 1977, he became the first dean of the graduate school, and, in 1984, he was named provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs. In 2003, he was named chancellor.
AMP spoke to Anderson ahead of his retirement about his accomplishments at UALR, the state of higher education and more.
AMP: What are you most proud of accomplishing at UALR?
Anderson: One is that I was the first dean of the UALR graduate school. Launching the graduate school was a very gratifying experience, and the graduate programs have been significant additions to the university. They were much needed in central Arkansas and have benefitted many, many professionals in the area.
I also had a major hand in bringing public radio to the campus, KUAR and KLRE … and the establishment in 2011 of the UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity in recognition of the fact that race has been the state’s No. 1 problem since the beginning. And, there are always the students who come from so many walks of life, working class and upper class, going to school full time and part time, holding full-time or part-time jobs, diverse in age, race, ethnicity, national origin. Recently, UALR students won two first-place awards in the [Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup business-plan competition]. A chemistry student’s research earned a first-place award in an Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington. Another student’s award-winning pottery-making virtual reality application was on display at the Laval Virtual Show in Laval, France. UALR students never cease to amaze me.
And, you have to be proud of Trojan student-athletes. This year, the men’s basketball team went to the second round of NCAA post-season competition, and, last year, the women’s basketball team and the women’s volleyball team also went to the second round. We now have playing fields for all our sports, and they are all coming along — and, year after year, graduating a high percentage of student-athletes.
AMP: What are your plans in retirement?
Anderson: Just the usual sorts of things that you hear people talk about, spend more time with family. I’ve got grandchildren in Oklahoma and North Carolina, and I hope to see more of them, as well as the children. We’ll travel some and then I’ve got a lot of books that have accumulated during the time I’ve been chancellor that I want to read … and, I want to be able to linger over the newspaper and my coffee in the morning.
AMP: What is going right in higher education right now and what is going wrong?
Anderson: Higher education is adapting to a rapidly changing environment. One piece of that is technological change that we and all other sections of society have been dealing with for 30 or 40 years now, but it’s been intensifying. I think that higher education has been adapting to that and probably doing it pretty well. I don’t know that I would identify anything that I would consider wrong with higher education. I think that the work is more challenging these days because higher education across the country, including Arkansas, has been experiencing a disinvestment by states in particular but the federal government also to some extent. The effect, maybe the unintended consequence, is public higher education is becoming more expensive for students. Many are priced out of it and those that aren’t often leave with significant debt that slows their professional growth and advancement in the years that follow.
AMP: What thing did you really want to accomplish at UALR that you were not able to get done?
Anderson: I think it all comes back to funding. The salaries of college and university faculty in Arkansas are the lowest in the Southern Regional Education Board. That’s not always been the case, but that’s a challenge if you are wanting to attract and retain the best talent. Our research programs, including our Nanotechnology Center, would be able to accomplish more work sooner if they had better base funding. Tuition for our students would be lower if we had better base funding. There’s nothing unique about those challenges. They exist at almost every public institution in every state. At the same time, they represent some of the frustrations of the job. Despite all that we do to control expenses … there are frustrating limits to what you can do.
But, I leave with two disappointments, two unfinished tasks. One is adequate base funding for the UALR Nanotechnology Center. The other is the start of the University Avenue Redesign Project. Sooner or later, both must and will be accomplished. I regret I did not get them done.