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Familiar face returns to head UA System.

For Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System, the tumultuous world of higher education is exhilarating.

His high status means he must face the challenges in the world of higher education head on.

Bobbin called those challenges a "perfect storm." Federal budget disagreements are resulting in slashed funds across the board, including for Pell Grants, which grant students federal aid that does not need to be repaid. That cut will hurt colleges from the bottom up.

"Higher education is the ticket to transcend the class you're born into," Bobbitt said. "Social mobility can occur with higher education degrees, and the failure of the Pell Grant system could have important ramifications in society."

More challenges, Bobbitt said, come from a state budget that will likely not increase and tuition rates that are rising sharply.

Recent years haven't "been a bonanza for higher education," he said. "We're simply trying to maintain our current position. We're going to have to figure out what we can do to lower costs and reach more students if we want to survive."

Bobbin "caught the bug" of higher education while studying to become a research chemist. He taught chemistry at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville for 20 years. After moving up the academic ladder out of state, Bobbitt returned to Arkansas in November to succeed B. Alan Sugg as president of the UA System.

Bobbitt detailed several actions he hopes will increase the UA System's efficiency.

First, he will be working to determine which classes need to be taught in mass lecture form versus smaller, one-on-one mentorships. "We have to be very specific where we use our resources," he said. "We can't teach everything the same way with the resources we have available."

He also wants to pull in more non-traditional students: adults who have some college experience but no degree. Bobbitt estimates there are between 10,000 and 50,000 such students in the state.

"I believe we can create some innovative online programs to bring them in," he said. "That will create revenue streams to build new programs and supplant funding losses."

Finally, he is hoping to address the high and oft-hidden cost of textbooks.

"We have an initiative--just a pilot program--we asked each of the provosts to identify four or five, maybe 10 courses, taken by a large number of students, part of the core courses."

The courses' textbooks would be removed entirely, Bobbin said, and replaced by a free digital text.

The faculty for those courses would be paid a modest stipend for adjusting their curriculum.

"I threw this out as a pilot, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the faculty that's risen to the challenge to convert courses to this type of format," he said.

"I think what the faculty finds is that the material available online is as good, or almost as good, as the textbook format, as long as they're willing to put in the time."

If it catches on, Bobbin said, he hopes to change another handful of courses in the following year.

Bobbin said the diversity of the UA System "bodes well for students."

One of his major goals as president is to eliminate barriers hindering students from progressing from one UA college to another.

He also wants to use UA's brand recognition--it's the most recognized college system in the state, Bobbin said--to market to a wider array of students outside of the state.

Similarly, he wants to offer UA courses to more students who may not be able to attend classes in person.

"We want to offer programs through new technology, to do so with the same level of quality, the same level of rigor as face-to-face," he said. "I firmly believe we can do it." (See related story, Page 1.)

As for the importance of higher education, Bobbin said being able to consider multiple points of view is a skill that many without degrees never develop.

And the future of higher education, he added, will be a challenge for him and everyone else involved in the industry.

"That's a crystal ball that still has a little bit of haze," he said.

"Unfortunately, I believe the challenges we're facing are not limited to the next year or two. They'll probably be with us a decade or more, but I find that exhilarating. We need to rethink everything we're doing in higher education. We need to adapt and improve. It certainly won't be the status quo."

Donald Bobbitt

President, University of Arkansas System, Little Rock

Degrees: Bachelor of Science in chemistry, University of Arkansas; doctorate in analytical chemistry, Iowa State University

Start date: Nov. 1,2011

VIDEO: BOBBITT Watch more of our conversation with UA System President Dr. Donald Bobbitt at

By Luke Jones
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Title Annotation:SPOTLIGHT: Education & Business
Author:Jones, Luke
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 25, 2012
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