Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Ambrose said it was unclear about whether HSU would remain a four-year university.
The Arkansas State University System board of trustees on Thursday voted to approve deep cuts to faculty and academics at Henderson State University, a plan that Chancellor Charles Ambrose described as "painful but necessary" for the financially-troubled school's survival.
The board approved the elimination of about 25 degree programs and 88 teaching positions, or 37% of the university's instructional staff. It's expected to save the school $5.34 million in academic salaries through fiscal 2024. The university in Arkadelphia has already saved $1.8 million by cutting non-teaching positions and restructuring administrative positions. It has also slashed benefits, reduced vendor contracts and capped expenses.
Ambrose told trustees in a special meeting that in his career spanning 20-plus years in education, he's never seen a school in such a dire position. Without action, he said, the state would have an empty 156-acre campus on its hands.
When asked if there were alternative plans to address the college's $12.5 million projected shortfall this year, Ambrose was blunt. "I don't have one," he said.
System President Chuck Welch said state funds and private donations had been discussed "at length" as possible solutions to the crisis, but the university found no support for ongoing assistance unless it addressed its underlying issues: declining enrollment, low retention and graduation rates, and a growing number of students who don't pay their bills.
Those problems developed over several years and different administrations, with Glen Jones resigning as president in 2019 after a faculty vote of no-confidence. Welch said there was hope things would change after Henderson State joined the ASU System. "We were making progress in many areas," he said.
Then the pandemic struck, removing revenue sources like student housing, delaying the search for a new chancellor and causing other unforeseen complications. Federal stimulus money helped offset some of the losses. Still, the school was in survival mode in more ways than one.
As COVID faded, the school's path forward became more clear. And it wasn't pretty.
"I'm heartbroken at the depth of these recommendations and the impact it's going to have on so many homes ... at the same time, though, I know that Henderson must survive," Welch said.
The descent into exigency has angered faculty members and university stakeholders, several of whom told trustees Thursday that years of warnings had fallen on deaf ears. Others suggested that university leaders weren't watching the books closely enough.
"You can't say that individuals weren't aware," said Timothy Barnes, an alumnus and the principal of the Guy-Perkins School District.
He continued: "Where is accountability for people who were in charge at the time?"
Megan Hickerson, who is losing her job as a history professor and director of the university's master of liberal arts program, decried the "bad spending and the bad decisions" of previous leaders. But she took issue with the current leadership, as well.
"When this strategy was introduced to us, it was done with no consultation whatsoever," she said. Hickerson said one thing the previous and current regimes have in common is "they absolutely refused ever to listen to the faculty."
The faculty on Wednesday announced a vote of no-confidence against Ambrose.
Ambrose said staffing levels will eventually be rebuilt and higher wages will return, but in the meantime, the university is reaching out across the state to help employees find new jobs.
Bachelor's degree programs in history, political science, biology and communications are among those being phased out. Remaining academic degree programs will be organized into four meta-majors: health, education, and social sustainability; applied professional science and technology; business innovation and entrepreneurship; and arts and humanities.
When Ambrose was asked to address concerns about Henderson State becoming a community college or trade school, he told trustees that those designations matter less and less as the higher education landscape changes.
"I don't really know what those terms mean," he said, "because those are labels and designations that perhaps once worked for college, but they certainly don't work for our students." He said Henderson has "an opportunity to redefine college that gives a higher value proposition to the future students that we'll serve."
Mathematics professor Fred Worth, whose degree program is being cut, told trustees he wishes he'd gotten a say in the matter.
"[Ambrose] said that we are reimagining Henderson. That is false. He is reimagining Henderson."