This July marked a year since Dr. Terisa Riley took the helm as the third chancellor of UAFS. She moved to Fort Smith amid the historic floods and watched the community rise to recover as one in her first months on campus.
“I spent my first several weeks in Fort Smith marveling over the resilience of the people of the River Valley,” she said. “I heard our mayor say ‘Fort Smith Proud, River Valley Strong,’ and watched this city live it every day.”
Embarking on a listening tour in her first months on campus, Riley found the same pride and strength echoed across the UAFS campus and the community.
“This place is special,” she said. “The pride our faculty and staff have for this institution and the dedication they have to meet the needs of every student are unique. I’ve attended and worked at a lot of universities, and there is nowhere I’d rather live and work than at UA Fort Smith.”
Riley quickly immersed herself in her new home town. She serves on the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, United Way Board of Directors, Fort Smith Regional Council, Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority Board of Directors, and Regional Workforce Development Board.
As she discovered more about the ways UAFS shines, Riley also made careful notes of where the institution could grow, developing a strategy to showcase the university’s strengths to the nation.
“There are so many wonderful programs and professionals at UAFS, but we’ve been hiding our lights under bushels,” she said. “There is truly no reason anyone should want to go anywhere other than UAFS.”
Riley supported comprehensive reviews of the university’s branding, marketing, communication, and website to ensure the mission and story of UAFS reached wide-ranging audiences.
One of Riley’s first major undertakings was forming the first diversity, equity, and inclusion committee. “In my initial call for volunteers, more than 40 individuals raised their hands to serve,” she said. “I was so moved by their desire to do the hard work of ensuring that we create a climate of value and respect for all people. Making our campus welcoming and inclusive is deeply important to me, and it is abundantly clear it’s just as important to the people who call UAFS home.”
She also has strengthened the university’s dedication to shared governance, meeting regularly with the student government association, faculty senate, and staff council. She has held open forums and town halls, spoken on panels and at safe space events. She is hosting a year-long slate of virtual Chancellor Chats, ensuring everyone who holds UAFS dear has access to the university and its administration.
And then, just past her eight-month anniversary at UAFS, Riley was faced with leading a university through a global pandemic. She navigated uncharted territory with patience, avoiding rash decisions and consulting with leaders across campus to make the right choices for UAFS. She invited advocates from all areas of the institution to discuss plans for moving classes online, canceling the spring commencement ceremony, and finding innovative ways to pivot the university to ensure the safety and security of its members.
As she announced the cancellation of the spring commencement in a video, tears welled in her eyes. She felt the pain of the graduates, the stress of students preparing for an unknown future, and the exhaustion of faculty and staff making the rapid and challenging move to remote instruction.
She emphasizes the importance of empathy, compassion, and inclusion in her leadership, and she spreads credit for the successes of the spring transition or the university’s fall reopening.
“The truth is, the individuals at this institution have shown me grace through all of the events of this year. At every turn, when difficult decisions had to be made, and the devastating effects of COVID-19 turned our operations, budgets, and lives upside down, Lions have stood together. Everyone at this institution, from our first-year students to our most experienced faculty, worked their absolute hardest to make the best of the hand we were dealt. More importantly, they worked diligently to care for each other while maintaining exceptional educational experiences.“
As she begins her second year, Riley knows the university will continue to grow; Lions will continue to care for each other and will give each other grace when they need it. The gems of the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith will continue to shine beyond the bushels once hiding their lights.
“While my first year as chancellor was more challenging than anyone could have imagined, it was also a year of absolute joy. The faculty, staff, students, alumni, and supporters throughout the region make the University of Arkansas Fort Smith a special place that is destined to grow because of our strong partnerships and dedication to access, opportunity, and success. I feel honored and grateful to serve as the chancellor of this outstanding institution.”