With LEARNS passed, we’re keeping our eyes on the state’s higher education systems

Session is over and our session roundup is complete, so let’s ponder what may be in the crosshairs of extremists during next year’s fiscal session and 2025’s legislative session. There’s no rest for the wicked! 

Higher education still sits in those crosshairs. 

The National Higher Ed Conversation

Alongside the organized push for legislative hate, legislatures are targeting their state’s higher ed systems. Florida has been in the news lately for its takeover of New College, and it’s part of a broader strategy that’s as organized as the anti-LGBTQ+ legislative push. This is a pattern, and Sanders loves to follow a crowd. 

The new Secretary of Education, Jacob Oliva, has some experience with gutting education programs, having learned the job in Florida under Governor Desantis. We have here both a broad national trend and someone with a history of attacking higher education. 

Shakeups at the Arkansas Department of Higher Ed

Long-time director of the ADHE, Dr. Maria Markham, got a call in March unceremoniously informing her that the Governor “was going in another direction.” Taxpayers were in the dark for a month about what this “new direction” would entail. 

On Monday, May 2, Sanders announced that Dr. Ken Warden of UA Fort Smith would replace Dr. Markham. We’ll likely have more to say about him later, but suffice to say his focus on workforce development, Sanders’ repeal of child labor laws, and the funding contained within LEARNS to prioritize technical education in high schools all point to an intention to restructure K-12 as incubators for businesses rather than opportunities for holistic development for kids. 

University of Arkansas-Phoenix? 

The University of Arkansas system has been looking at acquiring the notorious for-profit University of Phoenix, claiming that the future of higher education is online and that this acquisition would generate revenue for the system more sustainably than tuition increases. The board narrowly voted against the merger, but President Donald Bobbit could still move forward on his own with the deal. 

This would be a disaster for the system. Bobbitt claims this wouldn’t cost taxpayers any money, and he could be right, but it would cost the system reputation. In 2019, the University of Phoenix had to send around $50 million to students that it misled with false advertising. This isn’t something Arkansans want to put our good name on. 

We don’t yet know if Bobbitt and the Sanders administration communicated about the deal, but it’s hard to imagine she wasn’t aware of it. If she does want a fight with higher education, the negative impact of this acquisition would give her a reason to attack the University of Arkansas.

Keeping Our Eyes On the System

On one hand, we don’t have a full picture of what the future of Arkansas higher education looks like. For once, Sanders could surprise us and avoid catering to the national right-wing extremists. Dr. Warden seems to have the experience necessary for the position. Bobbitt could turn down the Phoenix deal. 

But on the other hand, we see early signs of another full-court press against the independence and effectiveness of higher education. Ripping money away from four-year institutions and coming for tenure-track professors, like Texas and Florida, will make the state’s brain drain exponentially worse.  

The University of Arkansas, Arkansas State, and Arkansas Tech are some of the best parts of the state, providing jobs, opportunities, and community (woo pig). We aren’t sure if Sanders really wants to pick a fight with them or what that fight will look like, but Arkansans should get ready to stand up for higher education.