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Historically black institutions of higher education must focus less on their heritage and more on creating the most academically rigorous programs possible, students and faculty members attending the 140th Founders’ Convocation Thursday at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff were told.

Charlie Nelms, vice president of student development and diversity at Indiana University, and a 1969 alumnus of Arkansas A.M. & N. (now UAPB), emphasized “the social landscape has changed since UAPB was founded. Today a black student can go where they want to go if they have the grades to get in. For the outstanding black student today race is now often an advantage instead of the hindrance it was 20 years ago.”

While an institution’s historical legacy must be appreciated and not forgotten, Nelms noted, to “succeed as an academic institution today HBCUs must have contemporary relevance and be responsive to their student body.”

Institutions of higher learning are chasing fewer dollars with budget cuts on the state and national levels. That makes it more difficult for poorly funded campuses to compete with schools that have modern buildings and the latest technology.

He challenged the students to raise the bar on expectations they have for themselves and come to UAPB to learn, graduating with degrees that allow them to compete globally.

That means HBCUs must have the same access to human and financial resources afforded to other institutions of higher learning. No excuses can be accepted.

School legacy

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Linda Lewis, vice president for academic affairs at Southeast Arkansas College, has been a fixture at the school for 47 years, signing on as a business teacher when it was called the Arkansas Vocational School.

The school’s name changed to Pines Vo-Tech upon her 1966 arrival on the campus to start the business program from scratch. She was a business teacher for the first 22 years in Pine Bluff.

The veteran educator with an institutional memory is retiring at the end of May.

Like many good teachers, she is proud of the many students she guided to careers throughout the decades. Lewis remembers fondly “seeing the light come on in a student’s head and seeing them able to do so much more than when they came in.”

The school’s transition from a vocational-technical institution to a two-year college in 1991 was just one of the challenges she faced over the years.

During her tenure Lewis has held a number of posts at the school, including assistant dean for instruction, dean of institutional and student services, dean of institutional reporting and public relations, vice president for student services, interim vice president for academic affairs and vice president for academic affairs and student services.

One co-worker said she has had almost as many titles as her colorful trademark scarves.

Two vocational-technical directors and two college presidents have come and gone during her tenure, with Stephen Hilterbran coming aboard as president in early 2011.

Lewis views the continuously changing environment as an enjoyable aspect of her career at SEARK, with no two days alike. She has witnessed growth of the college during her years on campus, recalling a few dozen students in 1966 and more than 1,700 enrolled for the spring 2013 semester.

She also notes she was afforded “a wonderful opportunity to help people.” That’s a great way to remember a career that impacted so many lives.

May 31 also means that for first time in 47 years she will have a summer off like the students that fill SEARK’s classrooms fall through spring.