By Larry Burge
If academics had been a sport in the 2000 Olympics, the U.S. team would have come in close to last. For in 1999, when a half-million 12th graders from 41 countries competed in their comprehension of math and science, the U.S. team score was among the lowest.
If you link this with the 2001 Milken Institute Economic Index study, which measured how prepared the states were to compete in new worldwide markets, in which Arkansas ranked last among all states for its preparedness, then the motivation of University of Arkansas Chancellor John A. White to do something about the state’s poor economic condition is a good idea.
He followed through by creating The 2010 Commission.
In 2000, White invited 92 Arkansans to join an all-star team, whose members came from UA faculty, staff and students, along with state business leaders and state officials.
This team of commissioners did research to find out why Arkansas came in 50th place on the Milken scale with the lowest economic score of 10.0 while Mississippi scored 23.5, Kentucky 24.8 and Louisiana 27.5 out of a possible score of 100. Just above Arkansas was West Virginia in 49th place with a 16.3 score.
The commissioners looked at not only the university, but also state businesses and state government school funding. They made recommendations for what each body might do to help Arkansas’ poor economic showing in order to bring the state up to a competitive economic level by the year 2010 – Thus, the team’s name, The 2010 Commission.
Moving toward The New Economy
One reason for Arkansas to change its poor economic standing is in response to the international work paradigm shift before the year 2000. The shift prompted economists to coin a new phrase, “The New Economy,” which makes knowledge-based skills more important than muscle skills. Acquired knowledge and critical thinking have become key elements for businesses to compete on an international scale, which means that Arkansas workers must meet the challenge and knowledge through education is the way to get there.
In The New Economy, even a ditch digger needs knowledge about the three R’s:
Reading and word comprehension to understand written instructions on where to safely dig the ditch. Math skills to measure the ditch depth and width and direction. English for correct spelling and grammar to fill out any forms his boss might need to prove the ditch was dug correctly and language arts so he can effectively communicate with his supervisor and get along with fellow workers. Moreover, if a worker has to use equipment for his job, he sometimes has to earn, through book knowledge, a certificate of training for safety and insurance purposes.
In 2001, in a Southern Growth magazine article, then Gov. Mike Huckabee explained how Arkansas’ workforce had a direct impact on the state’s economy, and how it takes highly qualified and educated people in the workforce to help Arkansas pull itself out of its poor economic standing.
Huckabee said the state needed its students—those who receive their higher education in the state—to stay and work in Arkansas. He said the state needs them here to help build up Arkansas’ national and worldwide competitiveness.
However, Arkansas’1999 personal income per capita ranking of 47th among all states, which is below each of Arkansas’ seven peer states—Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia— that the commissioners used in their study, presents one reason why college graduates might not want to stay in Arkansas: money.
In Huckabee’s writings on the future of the South, he issued this directive: “To transform the South into a world leader in education and to build the knowledge-based businesses that will fuel economic growth in the 21st century, we must move quickly.”
One of the avenues for moving toward knowledge-based businesses is the state’s Science & Technology Authority board.
Gleaned from the ASTA website, is the board’s strategic plan for 2006, which cites the need for Arkansas to support relevant research and development projects that will “make institutions of higher learning more nationally completive for federal research funds…. thereby, helping to grow the Arkansas economy and increase per capita income.”
The ASTA plan indicates that if A&D funds were adequate, it could help Arkansas’ businesses be more competitive on the world markets as well as nationally, thereby spinning off an increase in workers’ wages and drawing more highly educated people to the state.
Commission work continues
The 2010 Commission stretched nine years past its original one-year scheduled term. According to Bob Smith, UA Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, “The commissioners’ suggested continuing their effort over the period of the decade. That led to the idea, then let’s produce several reports, and the number we’re working on is six.
“There will be one in 2009, tentatively called “Going for the Gold,” to tie to the Olympics of late ’08. The last one will be about the bottom line, what it all meant. Our thought was that it might come out in 2011.”
The commissioners discussed their mission, Smith said. They talked about which perspective to take, which subjects to discuss and the prioritization of subjects important to the commission’s goals. They discussed setting future evaluation stages and organizing them in such a way to tie their efforts in to what was going on in the state at the time.
“UA is well known athletically but not well known academically,” Smith said. “You look at the great research institutions in the country that are well recognized athletic powers like UCLA, the University of Michigan and Ohio State University. Those are also highly prominent academic institutions.
“That was the disconnect that the chancellor saw here in 1997, and what he wanted to do was to devote a lot of his energy to seeing that the university was in fact competitive, not only in athletics but academically.”
The commissioners took on the task of finding solutions for Arkansas’ poor economic showing. They set goals to find ways to get the UA in the U.S. News and World Report’s top 50 research universities.
They compared the UA in 14 categories with 53 public research universities, some of which had similar geographic, organizational and functional characteristics as the UA.
“It’s no question that we are a bit behind, and when you look at the polls it’s saddening to think that we’re 48th and 49th in so many things, and we ought to be moving up,” Smith said. “We’re not going to move forward in this century unless higher education is very strong, and we need to be the leaders in higher education in the state.”
After working through all the data and discussing their options, the commissioners came up with their recommendations. They said that all Arkansas schools must better train students in math and science to prepare them for higher education classes. They suggested that legislators increase state funding for education and recommended that Arkansas businesses hire more university graduates and pay them better wages. They also recommended that Arkansas’ business, government and educational leaders come together to play more as a team.
They published their findings and recommendations in four separate but similar reports over the past seven years – “Making the Case,” 2001, “Picking Up The Pace, 2004, “Gaining Ground,” 2005, and the latest in February 2007, “Raising The Bar.” Each report measured the state’s progress, analyzed the steps taken since the last report and recommended efforts that all might take to move forward toward moving ahead in the polls.
The five goals
The commission published its first report, “Making the Case,” in September 2001. It supported Chancellor White’s position that the university should become a competitive, student-centered research institution to serve Arkansas and the world.
The chancellor included this as a part of his five goals for the university in his 2006 State of the University address: he said, “Let me invite you to share in our vision for the University of Arkansas as we emerge as a nationally competitive, student-centered research university serving Arkansas and the world. Our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends are working to realize that vision through five major institutional goals:
• Strengthening academic quality and reputation by enhancing and developing programs of excellence in teaching, research and outreach;
• Increasing the size and quality of the student body;
• Enhancing diversity among our faculty, students, and staff;
• Increasing public financial support
• Increasing private gift support
More research and funding
Alan Greenspan, past Federal Reserve Chairman, addressed U.S. universities role in becoming more research oriented in this new economic age. He said, when a university endorses peer review research, creative thinking and risk-taking, it can take some innovations from design, through development and into its production phase quickly and no one can predict the innovation that might prove a valuable asset to humanity. Funding is a key that unlocks more research.
The latest “Raising the Bar” report released earlier this year cited the following expected shortfalls of the commission’s goals of raising $36 million to pay the salaries of more research oriented faculty and staff, capital needs short in excess of $1.3 billion and the need for grant money from legislative appropriations to help lower students’ rising academic costs.
The report also showed UA’s progress. The UA has increased its student population and overall GPA levels. Since 1997, among two-dozen other categories, it increased its rank in comparison to its 53 peer research universities.
Along with the university’s shift to place a greater value on research, there was also a call for greater diversity of student population on campus. Chancellor White has set this as one of his top priorities. UA enrollment figures show minority student numbers have increased from 2000 to 2007 by 13.6 percent. The minority enrollment of 1,907 in fall 2000 rose to 2,167 by fall 2006, but was still 46 percent short of the commissioners’ 2010 goal of 4,000 students.
The next three years
The 2010 Commission’s “Raising the Bar” report made 40 recommendations to be completed in the next three years – 13 each for the governor and General Assembly, 13 for the UA, nine for business leaders and five for the Arkansas congressional delegates.
Next, The 2010 Commissioners’ challenged each of these three groups that could make a big difference in Arkansas’ economic standing to progress toward working more closely together as a team. Right now, they all lag behind recommended levels of compliance to the commission’s recommendations.
Chancellor White used the 13 suggestions for the university to set his goals. In his November 2006 State of the University addressed, he announced, “You have heard me frequently say I am often pleased, but never satisfied. To be honest, by now, I fully expected the University of Arkansas to be ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the nation’s Top 50 public research universities.”
The 2010 Commission’s impact on Arkansas’ future is uncertain. Until the commissioners’ meet, mull over data and write their final 2011 report, one cannot be sure if the UA, business owners or government legislators will implement all of the commission’s recommendations.
It can be said, however, that without Chancellor White having the foresight seven years ago to assemble his all-star team, and the team members taking time to make a difference for the state and its people, Arkansas could be behind in the ninth inning with two outs and no one on base playing in the championship of the worldwide education and economic games.