Karla Hughes grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, living in the shadow of two older sisters. She was not as popular as her oldest sister. She was not as smart as her middle sister. But, she wanted to go to college, something her parents and sisters did not do.
“I had high school teachers who told me I wouldn’t make it in college,” she said. “My first adviser in college told me, based upon my test scores, that if I worked really hard, I would be an average student. That triggered something in me that said, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be average.’ It just all kind of kicked in.”
Today, Dr. Karla Hughes, the 67-year-old chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, is the first woman to lead a four-year university in the University of Arkansas System. Previously, she was the executive vice president and provost of the University of Louisiana System in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
But, getting there wasn’t easy. Though she had good mentors and role models, all of them women, she had to work harder than others.
“Everything I’ve wanted to do, I’ve had to work really hard for,” she said. “I have friends who became administrators before they were forty. They seemed to go right up the ranks. I didn’t become an administrator until I was in my late forties. It seems like every professional goal I’ve had took me a little longer to get there. Now, how I overcame it were two things. First of all, perseverance, I just didn’t give up. I didn’t give up and kept doing my best. The second was, I realized that I was not in control, that there was a greater being in control and that where I went, it was where I was supposed to go and it took a little longer to get there.”
Two years into her tenure at UAM, Hughes is about to see one of her goals realized. This summer, the university will complete an $8 million Student Success Center, a kind of one-stop shop for students, housing enrollment services and admissions, academic advising, career counseling and testing, tutoring, registrar, cashier and financial aid services, a book store, someone to assist students with parking tags and that sort of thing, a student life representative so students can get their student IDs, and a Chik fil A restaurant. She said the project currently is within or under budget.
The Student Success Center addresses one of the weaknesses she said she found when she arrived on campus. Students said the campus was difficult to navigate. Now, students will be able to see their advisers, get their schedules, go to the book store and get their books, get their student ID and parking pass, all in the same building, according to Hughes.
The Student Success Center, however, has not come without criticism. Some have questioned the rationale in building a student success center before a new math and science center.
“We have looked at how we can better serve our students so that they can be successful,” she said. “The Student Success Center is the first step in helping create a start-to-finish focus on our students; having them to be able to find their advisers, career services, testing and counseling. The best-practice schools have done this and seen a tremendous increase in students being able to navigate through tough times and understand what they need to get done without taking too many hours and incurring too much debt.
“Our math and science program is an excellent program, but there aren’t a large number of majors,” she said. “So our plan has been to focus on recruitment, retention and graduation over the institution, and then, as we do that, our next priority is, of course, the math and science center.
“When I got here there were plans for a new science center,” Hughes said. “They had been drawn up and the estimated building cost was $25 million. There were no plans for raising money. While we will probably have to fund a significant amount of that money, we will also have to have private gifts… . So, at this point, what we have done is, I have asked the architect to come back and look at the plans and talk once again with the math and science faculty to find out whether those plans are still adequate to meet the needs of our faculty, staff and our students.
“I’ve also asked the architect to work with the faculty to see if we can reduce the cost from $25 million to $15 million,” she said. “I don’t want to scrimp but there are costs that we can probably control without diminishing the quality. I think it needs to be more affordable. At the same time we’re doing that, we are looking at a plan for how we’re going to raise the money. We’re also looking at our financial overview and we know that we’re going to be retiring some bonds in the near future so that factors into a time frame. I have asked the people in finance and administration to project for me when we could go to the board to ask for approval for the project.”
In her best case scenario, she said, she will be able to go to the board in two or three years to get approval to for the project.
Some have also questioned the need for a new $700,000 campus police station which is under construction.
The current police station, she said, does not meet federal codes. “We have no interview room or secure evidence room,” she said. “Another thing, it is our emergency command center. That’s where all of our communications are for emergencies.”
Asked if UAM has been cited for failure to meet federal standards, Hughes said they have not.
“But we knew that we needed to do something about it,” she said. “There is so much focus on campus safety and security and training and we’ve had no training facility that could be used for that kind of training. My goal was to create a safe environment with privacy that had a command center that could be operational, regardless of the weather, and where individuals who had reason to be at the police station, whether or not they were someone who was being questioned about a situation or was a victim, could have privacy and feel safe.”
The new construction projects, attention tp student success, and attention to deferred maintenance are among those things Hughes cited as improvements at UAM since she arrived.
“We have made a concerted effort to focus on the students,” she said. “Not that I don’t think people cared about our students, but I think we are all going in one direction. We’re all concerned about the retention, getting the students in the right academic track to begin with. Watching them as they progress and if they have difficulty making sure they are getting to the right services. In essence, it has become everybody’s job to follow our student. I would characterize it this way: all of the units were doing what they did really well but they weren’t always talking to the other units. So we’ve become, I’d say, strategic and deliberate in how we move our students forward.”
College enrollment in Arkansas was down last year, but even more so at UAM which saw a significant decrease, the largest of all the state’s public four-year colleges. Hughes attributed the decrease to concurrent enrollment students, those high school students taking college classes.
“What happened was, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education has certain criteria that those students must meet in order to take concurrent enrollment,” she said. “They were not enforcing that, but they made the decision last year that students had to meet those requirements and so most of our decrease was in the students who did not meet the basic requirements. So, it’s kind of a false story because when we count total enrollment we count our students who are on this campus, McGehee, Crossett, and our other technology centers, and then our concurrent enrollment. That all goes in and that’s what they reported. So, most of that decrease in enrollment was in the high school students.”
Still, there was a decrease when taking the concurrent enrollment students out of the equation. Hughes attributed it to retention.
“We did have more incoming first-time, full-time freshmen last year; it was one of our largest classes,” she said. “So, it was in our sophomore, junior and senior classes, students that did not come back. So, it was our retention, which could be they had family issues, financial issues, or they might not have passed their courses and could not come back. I will tell you, I still think we need to do better at recruitment.
“We have not done a particularly stellar job in sending materials to our local students,” she said. “That’s one of the things we are changing. We are trying some different strategies in terms of how we approach the state.”
UAM hired a marketing firm to develop a marketing plan and branding to use in contacting students. “What they’re trying to determine is who our external market compares us to in terms of institutions, where our prospective students are looking, what our prospective students are looking for, and why our current students came here so that we can capitalize on it,” she explained.
Beginning next year, state funding for public colleges and universities will be tied to student performance and graduation rates. Since UAM is an open-access college, open to lower performing students and students with low ACT scores, Hughes was asked how she expects that to impact state funding.
“If we did nothing we would be in trouble because if you look at our retention and graduation rates, they are low,” she said. “I have worked in states where there’s performance-based funding, and really what it means is you have to be strategic and you have to know what needs to be done to meet the evaluation points. So, academic affairs is looking at how we recruit and enroll students. What that means is that the key to being open-access and successful is, number one, directing your students to the right place. For example, if you have a student who has an ACT of 15 and they want to go to medical school, there is counseling to be done and there is work to be done before you put them in a biology major.
“There are students who come in who have remedial needs and so we are looking at the pathways to get the remediation taken care of and continue into an area of study; notice I did not say a four-year degree program,” she said. “So, what we are looking at is we’re dividing the students up based on both test scores and high school performance and we are creating a pathway that will provide a higher assurance that they can be successful. We are also creating what I would call stepping stones. So, let’s say we have a student with a low ACT, less than 13, we know that to put them into a four-year degree path may not be in their best interest or in UAM’s best interest. But, they may, based on other indicators, be able to get a certificate of proficiency which allows them to go into the job market but it also gives us a chance to evaluate what their performance is. If they are successful, then we will have another point that they can go to. So, it is about pathways to success for our students.
“Each state has created opportunities for people to better themselves,” Hughes said. “They have adult education which is basically free. People can go there and get GEDs. They can also learn to read, write and they can bring their base knowledge and skills to a point where if they took the ACT again they would do much better. So we’ve got Adult Ed. Then, we’ve got certificates of proficiency and we have two-year programs in general studies which gives them some basic communication, creative decision-making, analytics, and things that are basic in being able to go into the workforce. Then, we have two-year programs that are quite technical. You may not want to get a four-year degree. For example, I’ve got a nephew who was a kinesthetic learner who learned by doing; bright, but not an academic. Put him in an English class or a history class and he would have failed, but he is a welder today and makes more money than I will ever see.”
Productivity funding its about two things, Hughes said. “It is about retention and completion. Nowhere, is completion defined as only a four-year degree. It is a certificate, it is a two-year degree, it is a technical certificate, or it is a four-year degree. So what we are looking at is what is required, but we are also looking at the needs of our students. Truthfully, we will better serve our students and meet productivity guidelines if we do this.
“Our moral imperative is not to take every student, put them in a four-year program when we know they can’t succeed, build debt, and then say ‘So sorry,'” Hughes said. “It’s tough because some students want to come and be a biology major even though we know that at this time they can’t do it. I’m not saying they can never do it, but right now we’re setting them up for failure. So, if that’s what they really want to do, let’s prepare them. What we are doing will make UAM a model open-access institution. I can’t tell you of another place that is doing it this way.”
In addition to marketing and recruitment efforts, Hughes said UAM is also looking at technology needs, deferred maintenance, and infrastructure needs.
“We are putting new roofs on buildings that badly need it, like Steelman Field House and the Fine Arts Center,” she said. “We have replaced what we call chillers (air conditioning units). We have addressed some of the smaller projects on campus like repairing the stairs of the apartments, and that kind of thing, to make sure that our campus is safe and in good repair. Our grounds crew have done a good job with the landscaping and this summer we will be paving the main road.”
The underground infrastructure, such as electrical and plumbing, will also need to be addressed.
“We’ve got a lot of trees and those trees like to wrap their roots around pipes, so we know we’ve got some things that need to be done there, and that’s probably going to be the most expensive because the network goes all over campus,” she said. “Probably our greatest priority is to have a long-term plan so that each year we know what we need to put resources toward to update. We are in conversation with an architect and engineer, from their perspective, in terms of what are the most critical things and then when we get that we take a look at an estimated cost.”
Turnover and Morale
Hughes responded to questions about turnover at the university. A number of key people at the university have left since she was named chancellor.
“We’ve had four vice chancellors, it’s out in the public, so I’m not going to say, ‘No that’s not true’,” she said. “Two left early in my tenure. One vice chancellor resigned and took another position. Another one retired. I know there are people out there making all sorts of to do about all of that, but the bottom line is, I can’t talk about specifics on personnel but can tell you that I miss both of those people who have left more recently. I think it has created some changes in the organization that I did not anticipate. People make a big deal out of it, but I see it as natural. This happens when you get new leadership. Now, we’ve had several people that you might say are in key positions that have gone on for promotions. Like I said, I can’t talk about specifics but, what we are talking about is normal progression in professional individuals’ lives.”
Asked about her relationship with alumni, Hughes said she has heard concerns but alumni giving is up.
“Alumni giving is double what it was last year; the third highest 2010,” she said. “The only reason the other two years were higher is because the donations for the pledges for the clock tower were coming in.”
Hughes provided a chart listing alumni giving since 2010:
Fiscal Year 2010 – $407,176.63
Fiscal Year 2011 – $459,431.30
Fiscal Year 2012 – $376,193.91
Fiscal Year 2013 – $385,118.53
Fiscal Year 2014 – $713,802.77
Fiscal Year 2015 – $612,126.04
Fiscal Year 2016 – $484,874.79
Fiscal Year 2017 – $323,818.62
Fiscal Year 2018 (as of March 15) $521,104.37.
There is also the perception that morale at the university is quite low.
“There are always people that, for whatever reason, don’t like what’s going on,” Hughes said. “So, you can find that in any organization. I’ve learned, as I have moved up in administration, that you really have to focus on the goals and creating the kind of institution that will survive in the long run. That’s going to mean change. I haven’t met a person yet who loves change. It is part of our lives. There are people who love change, but it’s change that happens to other people. Or, they love change because they are actually seeing some results. Change is a hard thing. The bottom line is, when you get new people coming in there will be change.
“UAM is now being impacted by changes in higher ed across the country that we have to respond to,” she said. “So, some of what we are doing is a result of that and it’s difficult. It really is difficult. We have to change our thinking. We have to change the way we do some things. The way I always approach change is: Why are we doing it? What are the goals? And how do we get there? As much as possible, I like to have the people that will be impacted as part of the process. Sometimes that’s possible and sometimes it’s not. I think people can make a lot about our personnel changes or the people who’ve left… but, I think it’s really normal when you’re having as much change as we’re having.
“I don’t think this is an institution that has had significant salary increases for faculty and staff for many years,” she said. “If you look at the pay scale of this institution and the others in our system, it’s lower. There’s a lot of work to be done and not a lot of people to do it. Not because I don’t want to hire people, but because we are constrained by the Appropriations Act as well as our budget, which is impacted by retention. So, if morale is low, I think there are multiple sources. But I will tell you, I don’t sense that.”
Hughes said she is making it a practice to meet with units on campus to hear their questions and concerns. “I’ve done five of them now and I haven’t heard anything that would tell me that there is anything except the usual frustrations,” she said. “I would say that people are making a lot about nothing. When I hear those things, I get concerned, I don’t ignore them. You know, I think we’re all doing our best.”
Hughes said one of her leadership philosophies is leaders are in a place to do specific things and when they do that then they need to hand it over to someone else because they could stay too long.
“When my time at UAM is complete, my hope is that I have an institution that is positioned for the future, that we have done appropriate things to facilitate the success of our students, that we are financially stable, and that we have plans to address the challenges that will inevitably come,” she said. “Will the next leader change some of the things I’ve done? Yes, without a doubt. But my goal is that the next person walks into a sense of stability that I didn’t have, a sense of the future that I did not have. Is that anybody’s fault? No. It’s because of where our higher ed is today and it’s because UAM is now being impacted by it. When I say those things, I’m not trying to be negative to people that came before me; it’s a different time and a different situation.”