Turnover Proves to Be Both Boon, Bane to ASU's Charles Welch

(Video: For more of Arkansas Business' conversation with Welch, watch video here.) 

The very trend that served to accelerate Charles Welch’s career in higher education has already caused him headaches.

Welch is a Jonesboro native, new Arkansas State University System president and the youngest college president in the state.

(For more profiles of the leaders of Arkansas educational institutions, click here.)

The turnover of administrators working in higher education allowed him to begin serving as a university president early in his 30s, Welch said.

However, administrator vacancies at colleges and universities around the country have become the “most significant challenge outside of funding. … That’s a national trend,” Welch said.

Within the past year, which was his first year as president of the ASU System, Welch oversaw national searches to replace retiring chancellors at the ASU campuses in Jonesboro and Mountain Home. He was successful in finding replacements, but he had to be aggressive about hiring, Welch said. The new chancellors are Tim Hudson in Jonesboro and Robin Myers in Mountain Home.

As a result of administrator shortages, universities are hiring more often from the fundraising and business sectors rather than from within higher education as in the past, he said.

Welch, 39, has now served as a university president for nearly eight years.

Prior to taking the position at ASU, Welch worked as president of Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, chancellor of the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Arkansas State University‐Beebe and dean of university studies at Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock.

Prior to embarking on a higher education career, Welch served as an intern in the White House while Bill Clinton was president. Welch also worked under U.S. Sen. David Pryor and Blanche Lincoln when she was in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Another Challenge
Funding, another major challenge to colleges and universities, is a difficulty Welch sees as particularly significant to the statewide effort to grow Arkansas’ educated workforce.

Attracting and then working with first-generation college students — a group Welch counted himself among when he studied at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in the 1990s — can be expensive, since the support services the students often need, such as remedial classes, aren’t cheap.

State spending on higher education has stayed flat for the last several years, and costs haven’t shrunk. In 1991, 71 percent of ASU’s budget came from the state, Welch said. Now, 45 percent does, he said.

ASU has to raise private funds and look for federal money, but also push for more state spending on higher ed.

Students who fail to graduate from college tend to be more expensive to the state overall, costing more for health care and being twice as likely to be unemployed as college graduates, Welch said.

“As a state moving forward, we have to view higher education as a cure for possible ills in the state,” Welch said. “I’m hopeful. I know that our governor understands it.”

ASU works to make higher education accessible across the state, maintaining campuses in Beebe, Jonesboro, Newport and Mountain Home and five additional instructional locations, as well as offering online classes. The ASU System currently has 22,000 students enrolled, with 14,000 of them in Jonesboro.

Besides physical accessibility, Welch said, he is looking at ways to make college more affordable for students by, for example, reassessing the cost of the university’s utilities, limiting out-of-state travel, using part-time labor and other efficiencies.  

“The thing that drives me is the knowledge of how higher education can transform a family forever,” Welch said. “Higher education has given me a life that I never dreamed imaginable.”

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