When Dr. Christy Drale came to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock 14 years ago, heading the school was the furthest thing from her mind.
“I was not really ever thinking about being a chancellor. I honestly was not,” she says. “In fact, I really wasn’t even thinking about necessarily becoming the provost, although that was certainly within my career path. I thought that opportunity might present itself, and it did. But chancellor was not on my radar at the time.”
She was, however, on the radar of University of Arkansas System President Dr. Donald R. Bobbitt and UA trustees, who on Sept. 12 named her to UALR’s top post. She took over from the previous chancellor, Andrew Rogerson, whose resignation was effective Sept. 1.
“Christy is a leader who has a sound knowledge base of higher education, our university and our community,” says Dr. Ann Bain, executive vice chancellor and provost. “She is a reasoned problem-solver who is forward-thinking. These attributes are critical to the current challenges we are facing and will enable us to position ourselves for the future.
“I agreed to serve as provost because she agreed to serve as chancellor.”
Drale believes her organizational skills, as well as her people skills, helped land her the job. “People have described me as calm, [as] unflappable,” she says. “I don’t … flame out [or] get rattled easily in any particular situation.”
Such skills certainly come in handy.
“When you’re an administrator … you are inevitably going to be mediating some kind of conflict. You’re going to be in a position to make decisions that people aren’t going to like.”
Drale’s first job at UALR was as associate dean of what was then the College of Professional Studies. She held the post for five years; in 2011, she became associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. In October 2018 she became interim executive vice chancellor and provost.
Things were already, so to speak, hitting the fan when she took possession of the office of the chancellor. UALR’s financial problems were making headlines.
“Coming into this job, I already knew there was this large budget shortfall, and I knew that was going to be job No. 1 … start addressing that,” Drale says. “We had a sharp enrollment decline that we had not budgeted for.
“There was the budget challenge. We had our institutional accreditation visit in February … And then by March, we had covid-19. And that brought more budget challenges. And, of course, now I would say also the recent incidents and protests. … I don’t regard it as necessarily a threat to UA-Little Rock, because I think that our values are pretty solid in terms of valuing diversity and inclusion. But … it has brought that issue to the top of the list now, where we can’t say, ‘Oh, you know, we’ll get to that next year’ or, ‘We’ll wait six months and make a statement.’ It’s become more immediate, and it is important.
“[The concern is] trying to do that in the midst of trying to figure out how you’re going to open your campus in the fall, with the virus,” she adds. “We will manage all of these things. But it’s been a heck of a year; I will say that.”
The university shut down in mid-March and has begun its reopening plan, set to begin July 20 in phases.
HEART OF A (UALR) TROJAN
Drale’s biggest concern has been dealing with the “dramatic adjustments” that came about due to the budget challenges.
“The university’s enrollment has been shrinking for a decade,” according to a March 31 Democrat-Gazette story. “It faced a $5.6 million deficit going into this year and incurred millions more in shortfalls through a more than 8% drop in enrollment, far more than projected in the budget approved by trustees last year. … Millions more in shortfalls were revealed after a UA System audit found years of discrepancies in budget reporting, pushing the total deficit beyond $11 million.”
Drale proposed reducing, eliminating or redesigning a number of UALR’s programs. Included: consolidation of the university’s schools, shrinking its colleges from five to three and saving $1 million annually; and a retrenchment, which allows a school to lay off tenured professors. The UA board of trustees on May 6 voted a final approval of the request to restructure UALR. Starting fiscal year 2021, the university will operate on a three-college model: the College of Business, Health, and Human Services; the Donaghey College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics; and the College of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences, and Education.
“That was a very, very painful process. We’re still sort of working through that,” Drale says. “I knew early on that we weren’t going to [solve our budget problems] without using the retrenchment policy, which would allow us to eliminate programs and reduce the instructional staff. I would say that was probably the most painful thing I’ve ever done. Very, very difficult process … and I hope I never have to do it again.”
But it was necessary — part of a larger effort to, as Drale puts it, “right-size” the university and, “more importantly than that, to put this university into a stable and sustainable financial position.
“We had lots of discussion [and] everyone said, ‘If we have to do it, let’s do it and get it over with … but let’s make sure that whatever we do, puts us into a position where we don’t have to do this again.’ And people in the business community had given me advice about that, too. They said, ‘Don’t do this in dribs and drabs. Just make some bold choices and get it done.'”
UALR is being reshaped by a chancellor who, growing up at a time when being a homemaker was more the rule than the exception for girls, was determined to go to college. “That was a must,” Drale says. “I knew that whatever I ended up doing, that college was going to help me get to a place that gave me more opportunities [and] choices of what I could do and where I could go.”
The youngest in a family of three children, Drale grew up in Torrance, Calif., in the Los Angeles area … “in an environment that even back in the ’60s and ’70s … was multicultural,” she says. The granddaughter of immigrants from Serbia and Montenegro in the former Yugoslavia, she was nurtured in a neighborhood where there were many second-generation and third-generation American children like herself. “You go down the street and there’s the Greek family and there’s the German family and there’s the Mexican family.”
After high school Drale headed to the University of California San Diego. “I originally thought that I was going to become a mathematician; I majored in math starting out,” she says. But she switched to computer science before settling on communications: “I ultimately decided I needed to do something that concerned people a little bit more.”
She went on to earn her master’s degree and doctorate in sociology, then taught part-time as an adjunct professor for a year before landing her first full-time time job at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. She spent nearly 20 years as media coordinator of the department of communications, chairwoman of the department of art and design and associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters.
Drale’s path to Little Rock originated with several colleagues who’d come to UALR. She arrived in 2006 and the rest, as they say, is history.
GOALS TO MEET
To get UALR moving in the right direction, it wasn’t just budget-cutting that needed attention, Drale says. The university’s revenue-generating ability also has to be addressed — “and that’s the enrollment piece.
“One of the things that we came to realize is that many of our recruitment and onboarding processes were not working very well; our financial aid office wasn’t working very well,” she says.
Drale praises the vice chancellor for student affairs, Dr. Cody Decker, for turning things around in those areas, specifically getting scholarships awarded much faster. As for Decker, he confirms that Drale’s unflappable demeanor paved her way to the chancellor’s office.
“She has a reputation as ‘No Drama Drale,’ and the phrase is meant as an ultimate compliment during these trying times,” he says. “Dr. Drale is unafraid to address problems but does so in a professional, data-informed approach that garnishes the support from even the toughest critics.”
Despite her belief that covid-19 will have some negative impact on enrollment, Drale and other UALR officials are optimistic that the school is turning a corner. They’re seeing a 50% increase in new students who have applied and been admitted to UALR, compared to this time last year, she says.
“We’re also working very hard on making sure that our fundraising efforts align with our institutional priorities. I think, up until very recently, we didn’t have a good focus there.”
The high point in Drale’s short but eventful leadership has been an anonymous donation of $25 million, the largest in the 93-year history of the school, announced in late May. “That was definitely a good day,” she says.
While $10 million of the gift “will go toward an endowment fund to expand student retention and success initiatives,” $15 million will go toward need-based scholarships during the next five years, according to a June 3 Democrat-Gazette editorial piece. Drale says that although there are still plenty of merit-based scholarships being offered, money will now be awarded to students who may not be honor students but are “very good, solid students with a great deal of potential.”
She calls the gift “a shot in the arm for all of us because we were starting to feel a little bit behind the eight ball there. This was just a wonderful vote of confidence that couldn’t have come at a better time.”
And going forward, the university will also be looking more into how to deal with the problem of rising education costs and the difficulties students have in finding jobs they were trained for, Drale adds. “We need to make sure that students are able to connect the dots between what they’re doing in the classroom, and the possibilities of what they may be doing once they graduate.” UALR is partnering with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and the four area school districts on this initiative.
Dr. Erin S. Finzer, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs for UALR, credits Drale with initiating “action-oriented planning and practical, future-looking initiatives,” which also include a new Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies, aka COSMOS, and a bachelor of science degree in cybersecurity. She refers to Drale as “a deliberate leader who understands UA-Little Rock’s unique urban mission and how to activate it with faculty, staff, and the community.”
Bain seconds that assessment of Drale. “We have made significant progress during the short time she has been chancellor. Processes and procedures have been improved and reimagined to better meet the needs of our students.”
LOVER OF KNOWLEDGE, NATURE
Needless to say, all the goings-on at UALR haven’t left Drale much time for hobbies. Her main one right now is reading, followed by “a little bit of gardening” along with some fishing. She also enjoys travel and claims to be somewhat of a foodie.
Her mother and two older brothers still reside in California. Here, her family consists of her spouse of five years, Cheryl Hellmann. The couple, who met in Springfield, have been together nearly 30 years. Making UALR a better place is, one could say, a joint effort: Hellmann serves as director of university television on the campus.
Drale’s ultimate goal as chancellor is stability for the school, success in serving its students — and that “this institution be in a place that it continues on that trajectory after I leave.
“We went out and did focus groups with community leaders and business leaders … Everyone is saying, ‘UA-Little Rock is really important to this community. We want it to succeed.’ … I think, as an institution, we have a lot going for us.”
• MONTH/YEAR AND PLACE OF BIRTH: October 1957, Los Angeles County, Calif.
• FANTASY DINNER GUESTS: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Toni Morrison, Yuval Noah Harari
• THE BIGGEST FISH I EVER CAUGHT: A 22-inch black bass at Table Rock Lake in Missouri. I’m a total novice, but I enjoy a day on the lake with a fishing pole.
• THE THING ABOUT ARKANSAS THAT REMINDS ME OF HOME: Lots of opportunities for outdoor recreation.
• MY GUILTIEST PLEASURE: A slice of coconut cake. I’m on a strict low-sugar diet, so this is a rare treat.
• ONE OF MY FAVORITE MOMENTS AS CHANCELLOR OF UALR: In one of our student activity events, a student won a door prize that was “coffee with the chancellor.” That coffee date was a lot of fun. I loved it! We ended it with a selfie of us together.
• HOW I HAVE SUMMED UP THIS YEAR SO FAR: Unprecedented challenges, but tremendous goodwill.
• BEST ADVICE GIVEN: When I first became an administrator years ago, one of my early mentors told me that as a leader, you don’t have the luxury of indulging your emotions when conflict arises. I’ve always remembered that lesson of self-control.
• A COMMON BIT OF ADVICE I GIVE YOUNG PEOPLE: Be brave. Get out of your comfort zone and be willing to be changed by your experiences.
• BEST BOOKS I’VE READ IN THE PAST FEW YEARS: “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, “The Overstory” by Richard Powers and “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride.
• BOOKS I’VE READ RECENTLY: “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich, “There There” by Tommy Orange, and “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” by Robert MacFarlane. I read a lot things that are work-related, but at the end of the day, I seek respite in other people’s stories.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Inquisitive
“Christy is a leader who has a sound knowledge base of higher education, our university and our community. She is a reasoned problem-solver who is forward-thinking. These attributes are critical to the current challenges we are facing and will enable us to position ourselves for the future.” — Ann Bain, executive vice chancellor and provost about Christy Drale
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)