The Influencers: Laurence Alexander of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (44 hits)
by Kyle Massey
Laurence Alexander never saw Kellyanne Conway kneeling on the Oval Office couch.
The image came to him later, as it did for everybody else, through the media. While the Arkansas educator was actually across the room in February, he wasn’t looking at Conway.
“We were engaged with being photographed with the president,” the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff chancellor said. “Of course the picture of Kellyanne came out and became this big issue, but our reaction was like, ‘When did she get over there?’ ”
Conway’s relaxed posture was a trivial sidelight in Alexander’s trip to Washington. He was struck by President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of historically black colleges and universities, and happy to meet the White House team, including Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus and Trump aide Omarosa Manigault, who helped initiate the visit. “I thought it was a great idea, meeting the president and calling attention to our institutions. I thought, gee, wouldn’t it be nice to have one of these meetings each time there’s a new administration?”
While noting that the Cabinet is not particularly diverse, Alexander withheld judgment on Trump. “He’s a very cordial, personable guy,” the chancellor said. “Trump is not an ideologue, but a pragmatist. So we make no assumptions.”
Alexander described the Oval Office meeting from his own cluttered office at UAPB, where he had to clear off a glass-top table to let a visitor sit down. The picturesque view from his windows showed a neat campus blooming in clover, a stark contrast to Pine Bluff’s overall landscape of decline.
Alexander, 57, who took over Arkansas’ only historically black state school in 2013, sees it as a bright spot in Jefferson County and beyond, as well as an economic engine. The university has 650 full-time employees and 1,000 part-time workers, along with an economic impact estimated at $100 million a year in a region desperate for stimulus.
“Pine Bluff has gone through a very rough time for an extended period of time,” said Alexander, a New Orleans native and former newspaper reporter. “But exciting things are going on. Go Forward Pine Bluff is a project that I and many other people are involved in, including former Simmons Bank CEO Tommy May, Go Forward initiative Chairwoman Mary Pringos and UAPB Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Carla Martin. Then there’s Pine Bluff Rising and Tom Reilley of Highland Pellets. I like what they’re doing in getting people engaged in the city and its direction.”
Go Forward Pine Bluff, anchored by Simmons First Foundation Chairman Tommy May, has announced 27 recommendations for city betterment, including a temporary sales tax to rebuild downtown, soon to get a public vote. Pine Bluff Rising has more than a dozen ideas including neighborhood cleanups and converting a historic home into a bed and breakfast.
“We want UAPB to be involved in these initiatives,” Alexander said. “Our Economic Research & Development Center is helping 20 or so businesses by renting them space at low cost, fueling entrepreneurship. Our industrial technology management and applied engineering students are sought after in manufacturing, landing management jobs making $60,000, $70,000 a year. The university can be a force in this area. And we believe the quality of the graduates we’re producing could eventually tempt employers to locate here.”
When Alexander was lured away from his job as an associate dean at the University of Florida four years ago, UAPB was in a rough spot itself. Before enrollment grew by 6 percent this academic year and 6 percent the year before, it suffered through five consecutive years of declining enrollment, losing a third of its students. “One factor was the economy and jobs,” Alexander said. “Another factor was losing one of our popular programs, nursing.” Faculty professional development had stagnated, and graduates were failing the NCLEX-RN licensing test at rates that alarmed the state Board of Nursing.
“The nursing program was shut down in 2013,” Alexander said, just before he started as chancellor that July. Since then, the nursing program has gotten back on track, pursuing initial accreditation, and overall UAPB enrollment has rebounded to 2,821, up more than 300 since 2014.
While he wouldn’t speak about financial problems at some historically black colleges — Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock last week announced a faculty pay cut, hiring freeze and other measures after falling to an enrollment of 606 — Alexander did say UAPB has been spared dire economic pressures.
“The state can do better by this institution, but it has done what is necessary over the years to sustain it. It can do more to grow it,” he said.
Alexander wants the state to invest in top UAPB programs like agricultural sciences, biotechnology and nanoscience. He hopes for help in financing a master plan calling for new campus buildings like a student union and a biotech-and-nanosciences center, where Alexander envisions a science museum and an IMAX theater.
A new residence hall is going up, and a track and soccer facility is on the drawing board. “We want to diversify our revenue streams, both from development and from research grants,” Alexander said. “We hope to enhance the reputation of the university, emphasizing things we’re known for, like aquaculture and fisheries, our performing arts programs and education.”
The school is a leader in sweet potato science, providing virus-free slips (the plants are grown from slips, or cuttings, not seeds) to farmers. “The state is now sixth in sweet-potato production, and value-added products like chips and fries are popular,” Alexander said. “There’s also sweet potato wine, which we’d like to get out for people to enjoy.”
The chancellor is talking up the idea of an engineering program, encouraged by the success of some other UAPB specialties. “We offer workforce training, in a way. We have professional programs in everything from accounting to criminal justice, aquaculture, agriculture.”
Alexander’s own professional career made some sharp turns before he settled in academia. He earned degrees from the University of New Orleans and the University of Florida and worked for several years as a news reporter in New Orleans and Houma, Louisiana.
At the Times-Picayune of New Orleans in the 1980s, he wrote a series on race with reporting partner Dean Baquet, who later ran the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times and is now executive editor of the New York Times.
Then came law school at Tulane University, even though it never led to a legal career. He passed the bar, then got a call from a former UNO professor to join the journalism faculty.
“I had in the back of my mind that I would end up teaching,” Alexander said. “I just thought it would be after a 25-year career. But my law professors said opportunities like these are rare, so I took it. When I reflect, I believe the power of education transformed my life, and I wanted to give that to others.”
His path after law school included earning a Ph.D. in higher education from Florida State University.
“UAPB has a distinguished 143-year history as the second-oldest institution in the state,” Alexander said. “Only UA-Fayetteville is older, and it is the only other land grant college. Those are points of pride.
“But wouldn’t it be great to grow to the point where businesses decide to settle here, or expand here? We can be that catalyst for growth, just as colleges have been in Fort Smith, Jonesboro, Fayetteville and Conway. That’s the message and vision I’d like to get out.”
Photo: Chancellor Laurence Alexander of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff wants his institution to influence all of southeast Arkansas as a center for learning and as an economic engine. (Karen E. Segrave)