Dr. Robert Charles Brown has been a fixture at Arkansas Tech University since 1993. Those 21 years have seen extraordinary growth in both student enrollment and nationwide recognition for the green and gold. Dr. Brown steps down from his position as president of Arkansas Tech University this June, and he was gracious enough to reflect on goals, accomplishments and regrets with ABOUT…the River Valley Magazine.
JOHNNY: Are you looking forward to retirement? That’s my softball lead-off question?
Dr. BROWN: Yes, absolutely.
JS: What drew you to Arkansas Tech?
Dr. B: Well that’s been a long time ago, Johnny. But let me say that I was attracted here because, from my perspective, all the right pieces were in place at Arkansas Tech. I’m very familiar with regional universities in the United States and I had previously worked in one that was one of the best ones. I worked for a president there who was the chairman of the board of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. His name was Julio Young. It’s a prestigious position because it’s made up of about 400 universities around the United States that are like Arkansas Tech. And as I looked from afar at Arkansas Tech I saw that all the proper things were here for employees. We had the right endowment of subject matter. In all of the United States, 75 or 80 percent of the freshman every year will intend to major in one of five things: business, teacher education, engineers, and social sciences like psychology. As I looked around Arkansas there weren’t any regional universities that had all of the five things. They had one or more of the pieces, but they would be missing something. They would be missing engineering, or they would not have the teacher education program, or they would have a business program, but it would not be of their creditable kind of curriculum. I thought that was unique, that those things were all in place here. Having said that, over the years, we installed about 50 new programs of study. But all of that has been built around that framework that pre-existed, and that’s what I was looking for. The other thing about it was that Russellville was a particularly pleasant, beautiful place to live. People that have grown up around here and live here do not understand the physical beauty of Russellville. It is spectacular. Its underappreciated by the natives. I’ve lived all over the United States, and this is one of the prettiest places that I’ve had the privilege of living in. There were some other things. At the time I still had some family attraction to Louisiana. I needed to be just a little closer for business purposes and I thought it was a pleasant place to live.
JS: So it was good blend of career opportunity and personal objectives?
Dr. B: Yes.
JS: When you first came to Tech what were some of your immediate goals?
Dr. B: Well the first thing I wanted to do when I got here was not do anything. I wanted to sit for at least a year and get to know as many people as I could and try to understand the dynamics and the workings of the institution; try to get a feel for what the interpersonal relationships were. What the strengths were and where the places for improvement were. And after about a year of that kind of observation we engaged in a formalized planning process which lasted a year. We brought in some expert consultancy and we went through this exercise that resulted in us setting some goals.
JS: Have those goals changed over the years?
Dr. B: They evolved. But basically there were four of them and then we added a fifth one. They’re not in order of importance; they’re the same importance, so if I name one before the other that doesn’t mean that one is more important. The first goal that we knew we had was we wanted to have the best educational programs of study that we could possibly have given the resources that we had. That’s an all-encompassing goal that means accreditations, faculty, curriculum, that means all of those things. But we wanted to construct those sets of opportunities that were going to be relevant to the market and that were going to be relevant to our students. Second thing we knew we had to do was manage our enrollment. Traditionally, Arkansas Tech had been a place that was open enrollment. If you wanted to come here you were admitted. That’s not a bad thing but if we knew we were going to be ambitious about some of the other things we wanted to accomplish we needed to be moderately selective. We thought it was not fair to take someone whose record really didn’t indicate that they were capable of earning a degree and admit them to Tech. That’s not proper. We want to give people opportunities but if we don’t think they can do it they need to start somewhere else. So we had enrollment management. Our physical plant was a challenge. We had quite a bit of deferred maintenance. We had some unkempt portions of campus. It was not the most appealing place I had ever seen.
JS: That is one big thing I’ve noticed.
Dr. B: Yes, and we knew from the research, of course that 18-year-olds, and that’s the market we’re appealing to, tend to make up their minds visually and they tend to do it quickly, in the first minute or two. So this is a generation that has grown up with T.V., and computers, and computer games and all these visual things. If it was not appealing then we had a terrible undoing, unselling, reselling process to do when they came to visit. And we knew for the benefit of our faculty, for the benefit of our students, for our relationship with the outside world, we dramatically needed to upgrade our appearance and our functionality. So improving the physical plant was the third goal. The fourth one was we knew that we weren’t going to be able to do the things we wanted to do with the money that the state of Arkansas was going to send us along with the tuition of our students. We had to get out and make some friends and try to raise some private dollars to supplement what we were doing. So the fourth goal was having some private philanthropy. And then later we had the fifth one. The fifth one really involved Susan Nicholson. When she came to work for us one of her big tasks was the need to tell our story better. We need people to understand who we are and what we’re doing. So marketing the university, telling our story in an effective way, became the fifth goal. That’s been 20 years ago and we’re still working on the same five.
JS: This is my take on what you just said with the public telling your story: Promoting the ATU brand, carving out an identity here in Arkansas. Something I’ve noticed is that Tech is more well known throughout the state, I mean its always been known in Russellville but I see more Tech caps and t-shirts even here.
Dr. B: Arkansas Tech is a state of Arkansas institution. We are glad that its in Russellville, but its not a Russellville institution its an Arkansas institution. We now have at least one student from every one of the 75 counties in Arkansas, and that’s important to us. We decided that we prefer the future that planned together rather than the one that we just let happen to us, and that’s the reason for the changes. Let me talk about the goals a little bit more. We’ve enjoyed some real success from those goals. When we set this enrollment management goal we had about 4,700 students here at Tech and now we have more than 11,300. People thought when you tighten down on admission standards then the enrollments going to drop. Its exactly the other way. >>
When you get a little bit more exclusive on who you’re going to get more people want to come. We have added, as I mentioned, about 53 new programs of study. And accreditations are an important part of that. That’s where you have national professional associations come in and look at you programs of study to see if they adhere to a national standard. Of course we got that accreditation. We had teacher education, business, engineering, nursing; we’ve got a long list of those things. We knew that we had a big task, but over the last twenty years we had invested more than $250,000,000 and improved in the physical plan and instructional equipment and all of those kinds of things. Then in philanthropy we raised quite a bit of money. The biggest hit came when the Reynolds’s Foundation gave us this library. That was a $13 million gift. Now I don’t think we could replace it today for $40 million. I think it would cost more than that, but what you see here is the result of philanthropy and action. So we moved on all those fronts and you yourself observed that Tech is more recognized now than ever and that’s true in all regions in the state of Arkansas. That’s what we wanted to have.
JS: What are you most proud of with that recognition?
Dr. B: Here’s the thing I’m most proud of: The reason you have a college university is to try to help people get their degree and achieve their educational goals. Arkansas, sadly, is 49th in the United States among the 50 states in the percentage in the adult population that has a degree, above only West Virginia. That’s not because the people in Arkansas are not capable, it’s because opportunity has not been extended in this state the way in my opinion it should have been all of these years. So I’m proud of the fact that during my time here at Tech, of all the people that have ever earned a degree since 1909 — when this place opened — about 52% of them earned their degree during my administration and the other 48% during the other 84 years of the existence of the institution. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. We’ve helped lots and lots of people and that’s what we came here to do.
JS: That was a different response than what I expected.
Dr. B: We’ve more than doubled enrollment and we’ve more than tripled annual degree production. So not only are we enrolling more people but their graduating in a faster clip. That’s what you want to try to do. We do many things around here but in the final analysis we’re helping people graduate in a quality way. I think our accreditations and our national recognitions speak to that quality. That’s really the bottom line.
JS: Do you have any regrets about things you didn’t get to accomplish?
Dr. B: Sure!
JS: Is there one in particular that sticks out?
Dr. B: There’s not one in particular. If you think about the movie The Wizard of Oz and you think about the yellow brick road. One of the themes of that movie is the road is really endless, you’ve always got more things to do. I can think of about 20 more year’s worth of work that I’d like to accomplish here at Arkansas Tech, but the calendar and the time and your personal situation and the health of the institution all play into that decision and you know it’s not a mystery, I’m 69 years old. It’s time to do some other things. I could probably do this another 20 years, but I don’t think the Lord has that much time left for me, and I need to devote some time to my family and to some other pursuits.
JS: Besides the overall number of students, there seems to be more diversity among those students.
Dr. B: You need to have an experience in college that mimics the world that you’re going to go to work in. You want to have diversity in you student body for a number of reasons. That’s one of the key reasons; you want your experience in college to be a time when you can learn to deal with all sorts of people in all sorts of different situations. But in addition to that it’s the morally right thing to do. Arkansas is a place that’s about 16% minority, and we need to have those people represented here proportionally on this campus like we do everyone else. Now, like all colleges and universities, predominately we’re going to have people from our surrounding area always. That’s the way every college and university is. A big portion of your student body is going to come from 50 miles from your campus, but we’ve made a concerted effort to try and enrich the experience of our students here. One of the ways we’ve done that is with international programs. We enroll people now from about 35 countries. And that’s important because for many of our students this will be the only opportunity that they have to have a close association with a person from a different culture. We’ve enriched the faculty the same way. That’s important to our students. It makes their educational spirits better plus it helps the people who come here. So we’ve got people from Japan, China, Saudi Arabia, in fact we’ve got at least one person at this university from every continent in the world. And we’ve got 36 states, I think. It changes from year to year so I can’t quote all the numbers off the top of my head, but you get the idea.
JS: Yes. As a life-long River Valley resident, along with being a former and current Tech student, I’ve seen big changes.
Dr. B: And that’s by design. We tried to do that for the benefit of everybody.
JS: Where do you think Tech ranks in the state right now with the other state colleges?
Dr. B: Well in size, we’re fourth or fifth. In program offering I think we’re in the top three. You can do the same things at Tech and other places in this state. But Tech, a university up in northwest Arkansas, and a university in northeast Arkansas are the most complete institutions in the state. Our mission is not research. The University of Arkansas Fayetteville is a research university, where they’re trying to discover new knowledge as their first obligation. Our first obligation, although we do some research, is undergraduate teaching. That’s what we try to do.
JS: So it’s kind of an apples and oranges comparison?
Dr. B: Yes, it’s an apples and oranges comparison. At Arkansas State University it’s a blend they’re doing more research, but they also have an emphasis on instruction. So we are an instructional institution, we’re a teaching place. I tell everybody that wants to be on the faculty here that you may be the biggest researcher in Arkansas. You may serve on every committee that there is. But if you don’t make a connection with those students in a way that they understand, and the rest of us understand and its helping them achieve their educational objectives then there won’t be any unpleasantness. We’ll just help you find a place that is more in keeping with the talents you have and the interest you have other than Arkansas Tech. And that’s a real educational way of saying, teaching effectiveness comes first. So that’s the distinctive for Arkansas Tech. In that regard I would rate us, well let’s just put it this way, we would rate very, very high. I found in higher education as in many other things, sometimes you are not quite as appreciative of what is familiar. What is right under your nose is sometimes taken for granted. And I’ve noticed that people in this area are not very well informed about what goes on at this campus. They think they know, but their idea is 20 years in the past. It’s almost a biblical truth, you know, a prophet in his own land. Now I’m not a prophet but Arkansas Tech is a prophetic institution, and we’re not as appreciated in our home as we are farther away.
JS: Excellent Segway. I wanted your opinion of the community support. Have you seen it grow?
Dr. B: I’ve seen it increase and part of that is because we are such an important part of the local economy. Three or four years ago an associate of mine named Julie Trivet and myself – we’re both economists — we did an economic impact study on Arkansas Tech. We wanted to know how big a footprint we had in this area and we used very conservative methods because we’re both very conservative estimators. Very accepted methodology, nothing innovative here. We took the numbers from our budget and the numbers from people we attract here and our students and we determined that in the Pope, Yell and Johnson county area Arkansas Tech was about 18.9% of the economy. That’s getting close to 20%. That’s one dollar out of every five that flows in this area is connected someway to Arkansas Tech. Now we’ve got some pretty big industries around here, but we have a big impact. You think about a thousand people that work here. We have a $115-$120 million budget and most of that goes out in payroll.
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Our students come here and they buy pizza, and they buy clothes, and they put gas in their car, and they do all sorts of other things that impact the local economy, yet if you were to take that piece out of the local area, it would be a very different place. I think people are slowly starting to realize how important Arkansas Tech is to the local economy. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve enjoyed an increased level of public support.
JS: I know the business owners appreciate Tech. They’ve given me numbers even bigger than what you gave me. It feels like the town doubles in size when everybody comes back to campus.
Dr. B: Interview Judge Jim Ed Gibson at the courthouse and he can tell you what happens to sales tax revenue when they all come back. That’s a big difference in the county budget. We’re proud of that. One of the things we want to try to do is promote all local business growth and we do that not only with our size, but we’re supportive in other ways. We have lots of members of the Chamber of Commerce out here on this campus.
JS: Switching gears, I’ve got kind of a quirky question. I know what the official word from Arkansas Tech is about this, but I’ve got to ask you: Jerry the Bulldog.
Dr. B: Well sure, you’re sitting with the person who’s the inspiration. Jerry the Bulldog is a long held tradition here at Tech.
JS: I know but the word on the street is that this is an attempt to change the mascot.
Dr. B: Well if we wanted to make a change in mascot, we’d make a change in mascot. That’s not what’s going on here. Jerry is a symbol of Arkansas Tech, and it’s a symbol of our university life and our cooperation. The students love it and that’s very important. It’s a unifier for the community and it’s a revival of a very old tradition. No family in the history of this institution has been more connected than the young family. They’ve been connected here for about five generations, and it goes back to the nineteen teens. They were the people who owned Jerry and the ROTC people kept track of Jerry and took care of Jerry. So it goes back over 80 years and that’s important to a 105 year old institution. We were glad to bring it back because we were fortunate enough to get a beautiful, registered, fine-line bulldog who has become a celebrity around here.
JS: I’ve got two more questions for you. Obviously, you’re a man of great ambition, a lot of drive, and now you’re going to hang it up. Where are you going to channel all of this energy?
Dr. B: Well, Johnny, as you might expect, this is a business that requires your full time and attention. The average college president in this country lasts five to six years and I’m in my 21st year. So it’s time for me to slow the pace down a little bit. I’m going to rest for a few months.
JS: Are you really going to rest?
Dr. B: Yes I am. I have kept that promise with my wife for 46 years and I really will rest.
JS: Haha. Ok.
Dr. B: And I have to tell you while we’re on that subject and I want you to write this in your article. None of this would have been possible without her efforts and her support. She’s about the most pro-Arkansas Tech person I think there is and she has been willing to move here with yours truly and put up with all of my spending all my energy on this and all that sort of business.
JS: A good wife is priceless.
Dr. B: Absolutley. Besides that, I married someone who was a lot smarter than me and I’m very grateful for that. That is providential. I want you to put that in there. I reached way above myself when I got her. But I will take some time just to recuperate and reflect. And after that, my plans are kind of in a formative state. A person my age and stage in life is not prone to launch out on too many adventuresome things. But there may be some other things in my future. I’m probably not just going to sit the rest of my life.
JS: I didn’t expect that. Last question. Is there anything surprising, unique, quirky about you? Habits, interests, hobbies that you want to share?
Dr. B: Well I’m probably not the best person to ask that question. There are some things that I really enjoy that I don’t think people know about. I love reading about the history and structure of the American Railroad. I’m sort of a railroad aficionado. I’ve got models and books and that has been a continuing interest of mine and has been since childhood. That’s probably about enough.