January 9, 2009
Arkansas State University-Jonesboro

Here we are in a new calendar year, ready to begin a new semester and are excited about both the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for our campus, state and nation. Before discussing some of those issues, however, I want to share with you some of my activities after commencement and over the holiday break which I found especially invigorating and refreshing after a long semester. I hope that you too had enjoyable times with your families and friends.

Following the ASUJ commencement on Dec. 13, I took our speaker, Clay Jenkinson, at his request to visit Graceland in Memphis. After the deluxe tour of the house and associated exhibits, we visited at dusk the Lorraine Motel were Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and then caught the last tour at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio at 706 Union Avenue. A cloudy Sunday afternoon in December yielded few tourists at any of the sites, and no lines. We ended the day with supper at Morgan Freeman’s blues club, Ground Zero, near Beale Street. There were so few people there that some of the band members sat down at our table during a break. We had a delightful visit with Johnny Holiday (he played Carl Perkins in the 2005 movie about Johnny Cash, "Walk the Line") and his father, Michael Bolin, a talented keyboard player and longtime fixture in Memphis jazz and blues bands.

The most poignant part of the day for me was Clay and I standing alone in the twilight in front of the Lorraine Motel only a few feet from the wreath indicating the spot on the second floor balcony where Dr. King fell, and looking back over our left shoulders at the illuminated window in the rooming house across the street from which James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot that ended a Nobel Laureate’s life and convulsed a nation. It was impossible in this setting not to reflect on Dr. King’s dreams and imagine how happy he would be that our nation is about to inaugurate its first African-American President.

Following the closure of the university on December 19, Irene and I traveled to Florence, Ala., to spend Christmas with our family. In our house for extended periods we had two grandparents, four parents, five grandchildren five years old and under, three dogs and two cats. Christmas dinner added many more uncles, aunts and cousins at my parents’ home nearby. We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, but I must admit that escaping late on Dec. 27 to Charleston, S.C., for a long-planned trip to Renaissance Weekend did not make me a very popular grandfather or husband. However, it was a chance to read a couple of books (Michelle, a biography of the new First Lady, by Liza Mundy, and Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas L. Friedman’s new book on the serious implications of global climate change, competition for energy, population growth and American attitudes about these challenges) and participate in and listen to some interesting panel discussions about higher education and other current topics. Also, I obtained commitments from three nationally known individuals to come to Arkansas State University for speeches over the next several months.

When I returned to Jonesboro on New Year’s Day, I was pleased to attend a reception at The Edge honoring our new Mayor, Harold Perrin, and the City Council members. Our partnerships with the City are very important to ASU.

I was saddened on Jan. 2 to attend the visitation for Andrew Latanich (ASU ’05) who died on Dec. 30 after a tragic accident. He was the son of our College of Business faculty member, Dr. Gary Latanich, and his wife Rosemary. Unexpected deaths like this one remind us of the uncertainty of life and the need to spend quality time with those closest to us. I know you join Irene and me in extending our deepest condolences to the Latanich family and others who over the holidays may have lost loved ones and friends.

ASU's Centennial Celebration
For several months now, we have been anticipating the Centennial Celebration for Arkansas State University-Jonesboro. Now that 2009 is upon us, the time to begin our celebration has arrived! During the 1909 session of the Arkansas General Assembly, legislators passed Act 100, which authorized the creation of four regional agricultural schools. Those schools grew and prospered, and today we know them as Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, the University of Arkansas at Monticello, and Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

Governor Donaghey signed Act 100 into law on April 1, 1909, and that is the day we recognize as our date of founding. The First District Agricultural School evolved into what we know today as Arkansas State University. With the 2009 session of the Arkansas General Assembly starting next week, Centennial planners from the four institutions have worked together to plan a ceremonial re-signing of the Act 100 legislation. Governor Mike Beebe, an ASU alumnus, will sign replicas of the original legislation for each university during a public ceremony Wednesday, Jan. 14, at 10 a.m. in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Little Rock. Bob Simpson, Director of ASU Theatre, and other actors will perform a historical reenactment from the 1909 meeting of the legislature, during which the merits of creating an agricultural training school in each of the four Congressional districts was debated in the legislative style of the day. The university news release provides more details.

Dr. Ruth Hawkins, who is chairing the Centennial Commission, and the commission members are doing a wonderful job with planning and executing the major activities of the Centennial Celebration. They have given generously of their time and expertise to plan a timely and meaningful celebration of our heritage. Few people know and understand our university and its history any better than Ruth. She told me she learned a great deal about ASU while leading the 75th anniversary celebration in 1984, and she agreed many months ago to draw on that experience and her other ASU roles, including Director of Arkansas Heritage SITES, to lead us in the Centennial observance.

The campus phase of the Centennial celebration is scheduled to begin April 1, exactly 100 years to the day that the legislation was signed, and conclude on Oct. 3, 2010, the 100th anniversary of the first day of classes. In addition to helping build our relationships with the other Act 100 schools, the Centennial will provide us with an excellent opportunity to raise our profile in the state and beyond, and it should inspire new and renewed support of many kinds from those who have been instrumental to our success.

Budget Planning Cycle Begins
With the beginning of another calendar year, the time has come for us to begin preparing and planning for the budgeting process that guides so many of our institutional decisions. This process is always challenging, at best, because the demonstrated needs always far exceed the new resources we expect for the upcoming fiscal year. We will begin the process this year under a darker cloud than usual, with the national economy in a historic downswing and the most uncertain business climate we have seen in most of our lifetimes. At the same time, Jonesboro is enjoying healthier economic conditions than most cities, at least according to recent statistics. November employment data released Tuesday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that only four metropolitan areas in the nation recorded a drop in unemployment as compared to the same month a year ago, and one of those four was Jonesboro!

Despite the challenges we face, we still have an important mission to perform at ASU-Jonesboro . . . providing a quality university education to the students who come here, conducting significant research, and providing service to our community and state, particularly in economic development matters. We can be optimistic in many ways, and we can benefit from the experience of developing a budget in such unusual times. Members of the University Planning Committee have worked hard in recent years to lead us through the budgeting process. Involvement from every member of the committee, representing their respective constituencies, has definitely influenced the direction of the budgeting process and decisions.

This year, because so many hard decisions will have to be made, we want a budgeting process that is more transparent and open than ever before. Lean economic times are here, and we must be fiscally prudent while endeavoring to protect essential university functions and our people. Donna McMillin, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Budget Planning and Development, and others in Finance and Administration have been making extensive preparations to assist in the budgeting process by assembling historical data on enrollment, salaries, tuition, other expenditures, and many other budget considerations. This extensive background work will provide a firm factual basis for the UPC to begin discussions on the various issues that will need to be resolved. One major decision we must consider each year is the level of tuition. While our campus needs will be great, we hesitate to add to the financial burden of the families who pay to attend. Our Board of Trustees and state leaders will expect us to keep tuition and fee increases to an absolute minimum this year, so as not to add additional financial stress to students and their parents. Last year, you may remember that UPC updated the budget planning principles and developed a set of budget reduction principles that guided us through the process. Those planning principles should serve us well again; we would hope we would not need the reduction principles, but they are ready if needed.

Almost every budget year is influenced by major developments beyond our control, and this year is no different. During the legislative session, you will hear about the state’s proposed changes in the pay plan for classified employees. Proposed revisions in the pay plan have been in the works for years in an effort to modernize how the state government classifies and compensates members of the workforce and attempts to rectify inequities that have crept into the system over time. While the General Assembly normally would provide funding to state agencies for plan implementation, that is not necessarily the case for institutions of higher education. The result could be what we call an unfunded or under-funded mandate if we are required to make changes in the classified employment system without the state funds to meet the additional cost. Also, the federal minimum wage will rise during the upcoming fiscal year, from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour, and that will have an impact on what we pay to part-time and student employees.

While the outlook for a session with lots of new money does not look likely, Arkansas appears to be in much better shape than much of the country. The latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education includes an article about the trends in state government funding for higher education. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Tuesday that state general revenue declined by $20.2 million compared to the year before, with individual income tax collections dipping $31.6 million while sales tax collections increased by less than $1 million. However, collections exceeded the state government’s forecast for revenue in December. Also, for the first six months of the fiscal year, state general revenue was up by $80.1 million, or 3.1 percent, over the previous year. Governor Beebe has indicated he will support reducing the sales tax on groceries by an additional one percent.

We are fortunate that Dr. Les Wyatt, President of the ASU System, and Robert Evans, Executive Director of Governmental Relations, will monitor the legislative process on a daily basis. They will call in campus representatives as needed to assist on legislative issues. Additionally, the presidents and chancellors of the 10 public four-year institutions and the two university systems meet on a regular basis to discuss legislative issues and shape policy recommendations. I have recently been asked to serve on the "Presidents Council" of that group.

One of the major issues facing the General Assembly is how the lottery scholarship program will be set up, and whether the new lottery funds should be awarded on financial need or academic merit. The presidents and chancellors group is providing input to the legislators with assistance from a committee of university representatives from throughout the state, including Dr. Rick Stripling, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. This group is recommending a mix of need and merit-based awards.

Task Force Recommendations Under Consideration
The excellent work by the various task forces who performed their work last year has not been shelved. The Executive Council has been reviewing the various proposals and will meet soon to discuss in more detail which of the remaining recommendations might be practical and financially feasible. The work on the task forces was an excellent example of how our faculty and staff can come together to examine common issues and consider options that might enhance the university. Together, we can meet the challenges we face and emerge even stronger, both as an institution and as individuals.

Let’s have a great semester!

Best regards,

Robert L. Potts

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