Mark Allen Poisel has been vice chancellor for student affairs at UA Little Rock since 2017. In an interview with the Forum, he talked about some of the effects of this year’s budget shortfall and gave the best of his knowledge regarding eStem, while highlighting the student government’s efforts to address the latter issue.
Questions and answers have been trimmed to ensure brevity and clarity while also ensuring they retain their original context.
1. What measures are being taken towards resolving some of the issues on campus regarding eStem?
The idea right now is to look for a short-term plan and a long-term plan. “Is there something that we can do in the interim that would give eStem their space so that their students can interact–particularly during that two and a half hour timeframe, which is essentially the lunch hour–when they’re predominately here in the student center?” We’re looking at what we can do in the next couple of months and then what we can do in the long run, because as the numbers of students in eStem increase, we’ve got to find a long term solution. And so, the eStem folks have been working with the chancellor and the system office to come up with options that are reasonable, manageable, and cost efficient. And right now they’re looking at a couple different ones. They haven’t landed on any because they’re trying to figure out the strategy of how to do this where we’re not necessarily flush with space.
2. Do you have any information on what those options look like as of now?
It’s all being handled by attorneys at this point, so I don’t have any of the details to be able to tell you that. I think the focus is: try to find a temporary space on campus outside of the DSC for a year or so while they figure out what the long term solution will be. Obviously, the long term has got to be something more than temporarily relocating them, because the eStem plan is to increase enrollment. We don’t have the space to manage. Any solution would have to involve either an addendum to the current memorandum of understanding or a separate one. Since we currently have the agreement in place, anything we do has to be formalized and legalized, at which point it goes off to attorneys and they negotiate their own pieces and parts.
3. So, you wouldn’t know about the possible time frame for when they want a solution ready?
Well, we want the solution as soon as possible. As long as both sides can agree and the attorneys can work out an MOU, the idea is that a short-term solution would be effective this semester. If it could be effective this spring, it may have to last for a year or 18 months while we figure out what the long-term solution is. The goal would be: can we come up with something for this spring that might last 18 months while we figure out what the next stage is going to be?
4. So a several year process, probably?
To have a permanent solution? Probably.
5. Shifting into the budget issues: how is the budget shortfall most directly affecting students?
I think that’s a question for students. When I worked with my team around our budget, we were careful in beginning at the first part of the year to set aside a contingency of funding that we wouldn’t use–in order manage any kind of budget shortfall–and then built our programming and initiatives around that. So, we’re doing what we can to manage the financial piece of it, and not impact directly students. Now, you could say that that’s happening. We’re trying to manage around that. I’ve been very protective of not cutting the student activity fee, for example. Or, we haven’t cut the Forum’s budget yet. So I’ve been very careful to not touch those kinds of things. That’s more of a last resort than a first resort. So we’ve looked more at: are there things internally that we can manage, are there some things that we can do without? We’ve been very careful and cautious about any positions that we do fill or don’t fill, so that we can manage the impact on students. We’re trying to minimize that as much as possible, so that students won’t notice that.
6. UALR works received some pretty big cuts. What is the future of this program in light of the budget shortfall?
We didn’t do the program in this spring. It was set for a fall-only program, and right now it’s not planned to continue. What we tried to do is: for any of the students that were on UALR works, we went back and looked at whether or not they would be eligible for work study. We were able to move some, but not everyone. There was about 70 students in the program and, of course, not all of them were eligible for work study. For the ones that were, we were able to put them into work study and try to keep them in their current roles, but just in a different way. But right now, there isn’t any plans to continue the program next year.
7. What effect has the shortfall had on veteran’s services?
One of the things that I did with that program this year is that I increased their budget because it was lower than other departments in my area. Any cut they took, they were still better off than they were last year because, although they took a small cut, it was still less then what I added to their budget. They have their own VA work study program, so they can hire their VA students to work in the office, and we are actually looking at some specific initiatives to recruit military students. So again, they shouldn’t be feeling a major strain.
8. There were some complaints at the open forum last semester about students not feeling that the financial aid department was serving them the best that it could. Have there been any more complaints, or has any action been taken to rectify the problems that might have been going on?
Financial aid at every institution is the one office that everybody complains about, because you’re dealing with people’s personal money. It’s always a challenge. Part of it is just that the process is incredibly complicated. Whether you’re filling out state forms, federal forms, local forms, processing them a complex thing to understand. So financial aid tries to address the individual questions one-on-one. We did bring some people over this spring from some other offices to help answer phones and handle those kinds of questions, because financial aid gets a lot of them and, if you are asking questions, that means somebody is not processing aid. Most of the issues revolve around the crunch-time, when it’s the busiest. We’re certainly working on that. We’ve recently filled positions and we’ve got new people starting so that there’s actually more people in financial aid.
9. What areas of the budget would you say are prioritized the most highly?
The part of total university budget that I have influence over is student affairs. So, I am certainly cautious around things like admissions, financial aid, counseling–certainly military. I really try to look at those services that are the most critical. We have a behavioral intervention team, and we have some of those sorts of things that we try not to touch. But we’ve got a balance, as everything is a balance. Everybody has to pay a little bit, but I do try to be very careful of certain things that I know that might directly impact enrollment or directly impact student success in order to ensure that we can balance that as much as possible. My part of the budget is usually what gets cut first. It’s like, “Ok, well, I’ll do without that, or I’ll do without that.” We try to consider, “Where are we able to cut something that might not have a direct impact, or can we do without it this year and do it next year if we need to?” We have to start looking multi-year in our budgeting process.
10: As vice chancellor for student affairs, is there anything you would like to remind the student body of in particular?
Anything in general? That’s a broad question. I think the biggest thing is certainly, be persistent in what you do. We want you to be successful, and that means that you continue to do the academics, explore those opportunities that are going to help you be valuable in your career. Whether it’s a signature experience, an internship or those sorts of things, you need to continue to do that. The job market is looking for students who have a strong experiential learning background, who can take what they’re learning in the classroom and apply it. So, I would certainly encourage students to find ways to apply what they’re learning in the classroom, how to develop their analytical skills, their team building, those sorts of things. From a student services perspective I would emphasize trying to do things on time. We’ve got a lot of students that wait till the last minute, which then makes it harder on financial aid and admissions. Do it early. Financial aid is critical , because the university is only given so much money and it goes by who applies first. Another thing is: continue to voice your concerns about eStem. Student government did a petition, trying to get people to sign it, trying to get students to support that, in order to make it clear that students do consider this to be an issue.
11. SGA President Larry Dicus said that he thinks communication is one of the biggest things that this campus doesn’t get right. Do you think that there’s anything student affairs could do better on that front?
Communication is an interesting thing. I teach leadership and I talk a lot about communication. I don’t know that a lot of large organizations communicate at the level that everybody wants to be communicated to. We have students today who want it from Twitter, from Facebook, and from Instagram too. If we take out physically mailing something and we take out email, how do we communicate en masse to students? The toughest part is: how do we communicate to a vast audience, particularly one as incredibly diverse as ours? There are some students who will check email, while we know that some have never opened an email. It makes it a little bit challenging to find a single method of communication that’s going to get everything out. On the other hand , trying to do it multiple ways can be challenging as well. The hard part too is finding the balance of what it is that the majority of students want to know. There are some students who respond back, “Why are you wasting my time? Don’t send me emails.” It’s tricky. I don’t have an easy answer and I don’t think we as a society have figured out the one method of communication that’s going to keep everybody informed. But it’s something we always need to work on.