The Influencers: Laurence Alexander of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, Mar. 20, 2017 12:00 am  

Laurence Alexander never saw Kellyanne Conway kneeling on the Oval Office couch.

The image came to him later, as it did for everybody else, through the media. While the Arkansas educator was actually across the room in February, he wasn’t looking at Conway.

“We were engaged with being photographed with the president,” the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff chancellor said. “Of course the picture of Kellyanne came out and became this big issue, but our reaction was like, ‘When did she get over there?’ ”

Conway’s relaxed posture was a trivial sidelight in Alexander’s trip to Washington. He was struck by President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of historically black colleges and universities, and happy to meet the White House team, including Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus and Trump aide Omarosa Manigault, who helped initiate the visit. “I thought it was a great idea, meeting the president and calling attention to our institutions. I thought, gee, wouldn’t it be nice to have one of these meetings each time there’s a new administration?”

While noting that the Cabinet is not particularly diverse, Alexander withheld judgment on Trump. “He’s a very cordial, personable guy,” the chancellor said. “Trump is not an ideologue, but a pragmatist. So we make no assumptions.”

Alexander described the Oval Office meeting from his own cluttered office at UAPB, where he had to clear off a glass-top table to let a visitor sit down. The picturesque view from his windows showed a neat campus blooming in clover, a stark contrast to Pine Bluff’s overall landscape of decline.

Alexander, 57, who took over Arkansas’ only historically black state school in 2013, sees it as a bright spot in Jefferson County and beyond, as well as an economic engine. The university has 650 full-time employees and 1,000 part-time workers, along with an economic impact estimated at $100 million a year in a region desperate for stimulus.

“Pine Bluff has gone through a very rough time for an extended period of time,” said Alexander, a New Orleans native and former newspaper reporter. “But exciting things are going on. Go Forward Pine Bluff is a project that I and many other people are involved in, including former Simmons Bank CEO Tommy May, Go Forward initiative Chairwoman Mary Pringos and UAPB Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Carla Martin. Then there’s Pine Bluff Rising and Tom Reilley of Highland Pellets. I like what they’re doing in getting people engaged in the city and its direction.”

Go Forward Pine Bluff, anchored by Simmons First Foundation Chairman Tommy May, has announced 27 recommendations for city betterment, including a temporary sales tax to rebuild downtown, soon to get a public vote. Pine Bluff Rising has more than a dozen ideas including neighborhood cleanups and converting a historic home into a bed and breakfast.

“We want UAPB to be involved in these initiatives,” Alexander said. “Our Economic Research & Development Center is helping 20 or so businesses by renting them space at low cost, fueling entrepreneurship. Our industrial technology management and applied engineering students are sought after in manufacturing, landing management jobs making $60,000, $70,000 a year. The university can be a force in this area. And we believe the quality of the graduates we’re producing could eventually tempt employers to locate here.”

Golden Opportunity
When Alexander was lured away from his job as an associate dean at the University of Florida four years ago, UAPB was in a rough spot itself. Before enrollment grew by 6 percent this academic year and 6 percent the year before, it suffered through five consecutive years of declining enrollment, losing a third of its students. “One factor was the economy and jobs,” Alexander said. “Another factor was losing one of our popular programs, nursing.” Faculty professional development had stagnated, and graduates were failing the NCLEX-RN licensing test at rates that alarmed the state Board of Nursing.

“The nursing program was shut down in 2013,” Alexander said, just before he started as chancellor that July. Since then, the nursing program has gotten back on track, pursuing initial accreditation, and overall UAPB enrollment has rebounded to 2,821, up more than 300 since 2014.



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