New UCA President Allen Meadors Called a Uniter

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Jul. 13, 2009 12:00 am  

Allen C. Meadors and Lu Hardin have at least one thing in common: They've disappointed many at the institutions they once led.

But the disappointment caused by Meadors, the new president of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, is very different from that caused by Hardin, UCA's former chief. When Meadors, 62, left his job as chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke to take the UCA post, people at UNCP cried over the loss.

"We were sad when we found out he was leaving, but we greatly respect him wanting to return to help his alma mater out," said Breeden Blackwell, chairman of the UNCP board of trustees. "We really will have a void in leadership trying to replace him."

Blackwell, an alumnus of Pembroke State College, the forerunner of UNCP, said Meadors' departure had saddened the entire board and the community of Pembroke, a college town of 2,399.

"There were a lot of tears when we had his final goodbye the other night."

A faculty member, a student leader and the head of the 216,000-student University of North Carolina system echoed the sentiment.

"At his farewell dinner, there were quite a few tears," said Tony Curtis, chairman of UNCP's faculty senate. "We're just sorry to see him go," said Wade Allen, a senior at the university and editor of The Pine Needle, the student newspaper.

If Meadors accomplishes at UCA what he's credited with achieving in his 10 years at UNCP, the students, employees and supporters of the Conway institution may look back and see the silver lining in the storm clouds of the Lu Hardin controversy: an opportunity to install a leader described as open, accessible, dedicated, hard working and honest.

"Allen's the kind of guy you trust with your checkbook," Blackwell said.

Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina system and White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, said UNCP "was truly transformed under [Meadors'] leadership."

"I would have loved to have kept him," said Bowles, who heads a higher education system that comprises 17 different institutions. "He did a fabulous job at this university. He is a leader in every sense of that word, and central Arkansas has gotten a gem.

"This guy left UNCP stronger and healthier than he found it. He made the surrounding community a better and more attractive place to live, work and raise a family. I think that's a legacy any true leader could be proud of. Our loss is certainly Arkansas' gain."

In addition to Meadors strengthening UNCP financially during his tenure, the university saw "phenomenal growth" with the number of its students more than doubling, Bowles said. Enrollment at the institution, located in Robeson County in southeast North Carolina, rose from just under 3,000 in 1999, when Meadors became chancellor, to 6,300 now.

Bowles also credited Meadors with improving the quality of the student body and leading a $57 million construction program at the campus.

He said Meadors reached beyond the university to the community.

"What he did with regional economic development - he really did forge new partnerships with the public schools, with the community college, with the business community, and that is an enormous accomplishment in an economically distressed region of the state," Bowles said.

"It's a region of the state that is deep-rooted with racial tensions," he said. "There had been long-standing barriers to collaboration."

"It's a great old story that you get your B.A. in politics in Raleigh, you get your master's in Washington and you get your Ph.D. in Robeson County," Bowles said. "It is a tri-racial community," he said. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county is 36.4 percent Native American, 33.1 percent white and 24.4 percent black.

Meadors is "the first person that I know of who's ever gotten all of that community to come together and collaborate in a positive manner."

'We're a Family'

But what does Meadors, a 1969 graduate of UCA and native of Van Buren, say about himself?

He describes his management style as inclusive. He said his primary goals are bridge building - between himself and the faculty and students, between UCA and the city of Conway - and improving morale.

"I try to get a lot of input," Meadors said in an hour-long interview with Arkansas Business. "I don't micromanage, but I certainly want to be informed. I'm a data nut. I ask for lots of information. I want us to make our decisions based on reality, not perception."

Interviewed July 2, his second official day on the job, Meadors said that though he hadn't had time to study all the issues facing UCA, he did have a first impression. "My perception is that we have been a bit scattered, too decentralized ... people going off and doing their own things. We're a family. Yes, there's multiple colleges on this campus, but we're all faculty."

Meadors stressed the importance of communication. "We need to be on the same page," he said. His job is to bring together the various constituencies of the university. And to do that, "you've got to build trust and relationships."

Asked the first thing he'd do if handed a magic wand, Meadors said, "get people feeling good about the university again. They all believe it's a great university, but it's been a tough year."

If building relationships and morale are his main goals, his main challenge, he said, is making the university financially healthy.

UCA, facing about $5.5 million in debts, in December announced a number of budget-cutting measures, including freezing salaries and hiring. Robert "Bunny" Adcock, interim vice president for financial services, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in February that UCA had been spending "at the rate of approximately $3.5 million over our income for about five years."

The university's operating budget is about $157 million, and it's now advertising for a permanent vice president of financial services.

Meadors' goal of financial health includes all aspects of UCA - the faculty, the buildings, the campus grounds, athletics.

"If we're going to have athletics, we're going to have to find a way for [the program] to be financially healthy without taking from the rest of the university. We will get there. That I promise."

The Democrat-Gazette, whose reporting brought to light many of UCA's problems, disclosed that the university's athletic department had tapped state money from nonathletic departments, some of which it had not reported to the state as athletic spending.

Meadors cited UCA's move to Division I athletics. "I've been here one whole day, but it appears to me" that the university didn't plan far enough ahead financially for the changeover. He used a metaphor: "You bought the car before you had the money to pay for the car. Now, you'll find a way to pay for the car because you don't want to give the car back, but it would have been easier if you'd had the money saved on the front end to buy that car." Or, he added, at least had a plan.

Challenges

Meadors' description of his achievements and style corresponds with that of others.

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke was founded in 1887 as an American Indian school and didn't open up to white students until 1953. After the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the school was opened to all regardless of race.

Still, it had a history of serving the Native American community, a history that was something of a hurdle for Meadors as a white man.

"They'd had an American Indian chancellor prior to my coming, and in the community there was a feeling - and still is - that they should have an American Indian" leading the university, Meadors said. Although he wasn't the school's first white chancellor, proving himself was a challenge.

When Meadors arrived at UNCP in 1999, he said, he came to an institution with morale issues, one that had lost enrollment during the 1990s. "People said that our location is bad. Wilmington has the ocean; Charlotte's a big city; Chapel Hill has the Triangle. Everybody had a reason why we weren't being more successful," he said.

"The biggest challenge was first changing a mindset. We had great faculty. They cared about the students. And there's something to be said for being in a town that's a college town versus a resort town or a big city. So one of the biggest challenges was just getting them to appreciate what we had to offer," he said. "The second one was getting the state to appreciate what we had to offer."

Meadors built on what UNCP had to offer.

"We doubled our faculty size. We went from 148 full-time faculty to 312. We kept our class sizes small. We had one of the best faculty-to-student ratios in the state. So even though we grew, we still kept that feeling of faculty-student connection," he said.

"We built new buildings. In fact, we added 20 facilities in my time there."

Before coming to UNCP, Meadors was CEO and chancellor of Penn State Altoona. "Both universities that I've had the opportunity to be a CEO of, we really turned them around. We created a pride in the university and in the community."

When he arrived at Pembroke, it was a "commuter university. Now it's on the verge of becoming one of the better college towns in America."

His two sons also faced a challenge in Pembroke. "When I came there, community leaders - even American Indian community leaders - suggested that my sons would be happier going to the high school down the road that was maybe 20 percent American Indian, 20 percent African-American and 60 percent Caucasian."

"But I think it really made a difference that my sons went to the local high school," Purnell Swett High School, which was 85 percent American Indian and about 13 percent African-American. His eldest, Tyson, now 26, was the first non-American Indian elected student body president. Meadors' youngest son, Jarrett, now 24, also was elected student body president. "They are still the only two Caucasians to ever be student body president," Meadors said.

"It was an incredibly rewarding experience for me to see that community, which was a very close community, accept them."

Relationships

Blackwell, the UNCP trustee, cited Meadors' creation of "new programming" at the university as among his biggest achievements. It includes a nursing school and a school of entrepreneurship. Meadors also proved a gifted fundraiser, creating "a tremendous amount of support from the alumni."

In addition, "he's had a great relationship with the business community," Blackwell said. Meadors helped launch a plan for a physical therapy program at the school. "He got a partnership with 13 hospitals to help pay for that program, and that's unheard of."

"You've got the right man not only to get the [UCA] finances straightened out, but to build relationships with the community and get trust back with the faculty."

Curtis, the faculty senate chairman, said Meadors got along well with the UNCP faculty. "He did something that was very important to the faculty," Curtis, a professor in the Department of Mass Communication, said. Meadors practiced "shared governance," involving the faculty in decision-making. "He really believed in shared governance and practiced it."

Surely Meadors generated some controversy?

"There never really was any controversy," Curtis said. The most controversial aspect of Meadors' tenure, the professor said, was his bringing football back to UNCP. "I might say that when he first thought of the idea and started working on it there was some resistance to it because, of course, it takes money."

However, even that proved successful, with Meadors raising the funds from gifts and donations. "It's worked out very well." Curtis said. "This past fall was our second year of having an active football team, and we had the best winning record of any college in North Carolina (9-1)."

Wade Allen, the school newspaper editor, said of Meadors that he "wants to personally engage with students. If he can't do that, he doesn't want the job. He makes everybody feel important. He listens to everyone's concerns."

"I tell you what - I've never heard a bad thing about him," Allen said, even though, he said, as a member of the press he hears all kinds of complaints from people who want him to write articles.

"I can just imagine the things he's going to accomplish at [UCA]," Allen said, "because he brought our university to levels I didn't even think were possible."

Of course, Lu Hardin saw much success at UCA and received much praise, until he crashed and burned. (Although Hardin has landed on his feet, with a job leading Palm Beach Atlantic University, a private Christian university in West Palm Beach, Fla.) But Blackwell has confidence in Meadors.

"I would challenge the folks of central Arkansas to give him a chance."

 

 

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