Rick Niece Sees Healthy Challenges on the Horizon for Higher Education

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Feb. 18, 2013 12:00 am  

Rick Niece

Before coming the University of the Ozarks in 1997 and becoming the school's president, Rick Niece was interim president at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio. The University of the Ozarks is a private, four-year, liberal arts university. It was founded in Cane Hill (Washington County) in 1834 and moved to Clarksville in 1891. Its average yearly enrollment is 675.

Niece received his undergraduate degree from Ohio State University in Columbus and his master’s and doctorate from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

Niece has served in his role since 1997 and will retire in July. He was Arkansas Business’ Nonprofit Executive of the Year in 2001.

Q: What are some challenges you’ve helped the school overcome since you started as president?

A: Before I became the president in June of 1997, the campus had difficulty in balancing its annual budgets. Since that time, we have operated with a balanced budget for 15 consecutive years and are on track to balance this year’s budget as well. In 1997, the university endowment was $25 million. Today, it has grown to over $90 million.

Several facilities, especially the student residence halls, were badly in need of repair. We have renovated all of our residence halls and constructed four apartment-style residences for students, allowing over 70 percent of our students to live on campus.

Another challenge was that Ozarks was understaffed as a faculty with only 28 full-time faculty members. Currently we have 48 full-time faculty.

How has higher education changed during your tenure, especially for a small college like Ozarks?

The competition for students has grown in intensity, especially from the online, for-profit sector. One thing that all of us need to do better in Arkansas is to help students select the right campus for their unique abilities and interests, even when that campus is not our own. Technology has certainly changed how we approach the teaching and learning process.

Lately there’s been a call for higher education to be more responsive to the hiring needs of businesses. How have you reacted to that?

Our mission emphasis and program curricula have dramatically shifted from our being primarily a liberal arts campus to one promoting career preparation that is built upon a liberal arts foundation. That is, we are now a comprehensive baccalaureate campus that combines the liberal arts and career preparation. That makes our education so much richer and more relevant. It is important to note that our business division has the largest number of students enrolled with over 30 percent.

What does Ozarks offer that students can’t find at bigger, higher profile colleges and universities?

We are a campus well known for mentoring students, and that mentoring comes from all sectors of the campus. Ozarks’ faculty members serve as student advisers, and that advising ranges from course selection to career counseling to personal encouragement. One of our faculty members captured the essence of Ozarks’ uniqueness when he was explaining how faculty and students remain connected long after graduation: “At Ozarks, we are your faculty for life. You can contact us long after graduation and ask questions.”

What will you miss most about your job after you retire?

I will miss my daily interactions with students. I will also miss the many events at the president’s home. My wife, Sherée, and I have hosted over 40,000 people at the president’s home for dinners, receptions and picnics. Since Sherée and I have no children of our own, the students at Ozarks are our “kids.” What better family could any president and first lady have?



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