ASU System Trustees Hear Updates on Campus COVID-19 Impact, Plans
SEARCY, Ark. — The Arkansas State University System Board of Trustees heard updates and reviews on the impact of COVID-19 at the seven member institutions during its regular meeting on the ASU-Beebe campus in Searcy.
System President Chuck Welch commended campuses “for doing a tremendous job throughout the COVID-19 pandemic” and expressed optimism about the months ahead.
“Our campuses handled it better than we ever imagined,” he said. “Now we’re in a time of transition. The governor’s announcement about directives has our campuses looking at what it means for us. We don’t anticipate major changes through the spring semester. But hopefully for summer and most certainly fall we’ll return to some level of normal.”
The three rounds of federal COVID-19 stimulus for higher education institutions and students have been very beneficial, Welch said, especially since the campuses were already financially sound and “we didn’t have to have the money just to survive.” Guidance has only recently been received for the second round of funding, he said, so students will start seeing those benefits soon, followed later by the third round of support.
“We’re looking at how we can use funds for strategic purposes and maximize opportunities post-pandemic,” Welch said. “State budgeting in Arkansas continues to excel. General revenues are outperforming the state forecast by $529 million. My colleagues around the country are not experiencing that. We feel better about not facing budget cuts for the coming year.”
In their reports to the board, chancellors at various ASU System institutions shared updates on pandemic-related events and all of them acknowledged the extraordinary efforts of their staffs, faculty and students in handling the situations of the past year.
ASU-Beebe Chancellor Jennifer Methvin said adjustments to some online teaching required for the John Deere mechanics training program surprisingly led to a national pilot training program to work with dealerships in North Dakota and South Dakota. ASU-Mountain Home Chancellor Robin Myers said nursing students had been back in class since last summer and on the front-line assisting hospitals in the COVID-19 response. ASU Mid-South Chancellor Debra West said 32 percent of her spring enrollment is exclusively online compared with only 9.1 percent in spring 2020, and that CARES Act funds allowed for improved technology and enabled students to remain in college instead of dropping out.
Arkansas State Chancellor Kelly Damphousse said fall 2021 enrollment projections are “looking good” and that the campus is currently “in a very good position” with COVID-19. Fewer than 10 students have been reported as positive during the past month while no employees have tested positive since the beginning of February. He noted A-State was the first institution in Arkansas to vaccinate all employees who wanted the vaccine.
Henderson State University Interim Chancellor Jim Borsig told trustees that the system had been very important in strengthening the university and that joining the system “made things stronger as we lay a platform in place for the next chancellor to address the future. Perception about Henderson is lagging reality about what’s happening on campus. Everyone through the pandemic has done terrific work to adjust.”
Trustee Tim Langford said the system “had crisis leadership reserves and had the right people in place to navigate the pandemic.”
Julie Bates, executive vice president of the ASU System, reported on the system’s annual consolidated financial statements, excluding new addition Henderson. The ASU System was prepared financially to handle a major interruption such as the pandemic, she said. State appropriations were drastically reduced in March 2020 as a result of the pandemic, and institutions cut expenses and budgets accordingly. Later all but $257,000 in funding was restored, she said, so campus reserves were strengthened.
Amid the pandemic, Moody’s Investor Services confirmed an A1 stable rating for ASU System bond debt and noted sound system financial management, Bates said. Moody’s cited a growing multi-institutional system with strong operating performance and stable state support while noting state and national challenges on student enrollment.
Board Chair Price Gardner said the system’s fiscal path has been disciplined and that the Moody’s report reflects strong financial management efforts. Trustee Niel Crowson said that, as in his business, “I take great deal of comfort knowing financials are accurate and I don’t have to worry about that. Financials are sound and being handled in a responsible manner.”
Welch also noted Moody’s upgraded Henderson’s outlook to stable because of its move to join the ASU System and the additional oversight.
Welch observed the historic nature of the meeting with the system now including seven institutions and leadership growing to seven trustees. He welcomed new trustees Paul Rowton of Harrisburg, Bishop Robert Rudolph Jr. of Bryant and Steve Eddington of Benton, as well as new ASU-Newport Chancellor Johnny Moore, to their first meeting. Gardner acknowledged the service of outgoing trustee Stacy Crawford of Jonesboro.
In other business, the board approved resolutions to:
- Revise the ASU System Board of Trustees bylaws to update the board name and expansion resulting from Act 18 of 2021.
- Name the farmers’ market facility at Arkansas State in Jonesboro the Judd Hill Farmers’ Market in recognition of contributions by the Judd Hill Foundation to the A-State College of Agriculture.
- Approve the ASU-Beebe Shared Governance Council Charge Document and the bylaws of the Shared Governance Council.
- Approved ASU-Beebe to offer a Technical Certificate and a Certificate of Proficiency in Marine Technology. The campus has been notified of approval from the Higher Learning Commission for the program. Methvin said the program will help meet area demand for mechanics to serve boat owners at nearby Greers Ferry Lake.
- Approved ASU-Newport to offer a Certificate of Proficiency in Welding Fundamentals.