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OPINION | REX NELSON: Lyon College’s gamble

by Rex Nelson | July 3, 2022 at 1:53 a.m.

In 1871, Batesville on the White River lost its bid for the state's flagship university to Fayetteville. Rev. Isaac Long and other ministers from the Arkansas Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States had another plan for Batesville.

Long was president when Arkansas College opened on the eastern edge of town in September 1872. There was one other college-level faculty member. There was also a grammar school and secondary academy. The grammar school was phased out in the 1890s. The secondary academy lasted until the 1920s at what's now known as Lyon College.

"Arkansas College featured a curriculum heavy on mathematics, the classical languages of Latin and Greek, and religious instruction," writes historian Brooks Blevins. "Originally located on the block now occupied by First Presbyterian Church of Batesville, the college remained under the guidance of the Long family for most of its first four decades.

"Isaac Long served as president from the college's founding until his death in 1891. His son, Eugene Long, served two terms as president (1891-95 and 1897-1913). The college was, from its inception, nonsectarian in philosophy and co-educational. Arkansas College's first class of graduates in 1876 included three young women who became the state's first females to receive bachelor's degrees."

The school's remote location and the small number of Presbyterians in Arkansas limited enrollment through the decades.

"Before World War I, college-level enrollment rarely exceeded 100, and there were no more than five full-time faculty, including the president," Blevins writes. "A post-war boom expanded enrollment to 200 students by the mid-1920s, and the college, whose tiny four-building campus had been surrounded by residences, looked to expand its physical plant by purchasing land in the East End Heights section of town, known after the college's move as 'middle campus.'

"The post-World War I decade also witnessed modernization of the curriculum, including a nearly wholesale abandonment of the traditional classical curriculum, the adoption of semester 'hours' and electives, and the introduction of fraternities and sororities, which replaced the literary societies that had played an integral role in student life since the 1880s. But the boom years of the 1920s faded quickly."

The Great Flood of 1927 and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 adversely affected Arkansas College's finances.

"By the early 1930s, the very survival of the college was in jeopardy," Blevins writes. "On two occasions, the Synod of Arkansas came within a few votes of closing the school. Only the tireless efforts of a group of Batesville supporters and alumni prevented the ax from falling, and only the timely generosity of a few Arkansas Presbyterian families sustained the school through the Great Depression.

"World War II decimated the institution's already small enrollment--the class of 1944 consisted of two students--but Arkansas College received a new lease on life after the war as GIs filled classrooms into the early 1950s. In 1952, Paul McCain succeeded Rev. John Spragins as president. The arrival of McCain, the first Arkansas College president with a university-earned doctorate, marked a new era, and his subsequent 17-year tenure witnessed a constant stream of change and progress."

McCain oversaw the move to the former Masonic Home for Orphans, a 100-acre plot with three large brick buildings. The college received accreditation from the North Central Association in 1959 and began to recruit nationally, positioning itself as a liberal arts institution for high academic achievers.

In 1994, the trustees voted to change the name of the school to Lyon College in honor of the support of former board president Frank Lyon Sr. of Little Rock. Earlier this year, two announcements were made that were among the most important in the history of the institution.

In April, Lyon announced it was developing plans for dental and veterinary schools in Little Rock as part of the Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences. Proposals have been submitted to the regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission. Following commission approval, Lyon will submit applications to the American Veterinary Medical Association's Council on Education and the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Classes could start in 2024 or 2025.

The college is partnering with a private company, OneHealth Education Group. If Lyon gets both schools open, it will accomplish something the University of Arkansas System has failed to do.

"With no in-state options, aspiring dental students in Arkansas are forced to pay out-of-state tuition, which is significantly greater than in-state tuition," says Andy Goodman, president of Arkansas' Independent Colleges and Universities, the association of the state's 11 four-year private higher education institutions (full disclosure: I served for five years as AICU president). "Once students migrate away from Arkansas for school, they're less likely to return, draining talent and energy from our state."

Arkansas ranks near the bottom in state rankings for dental health. Meanwhile, there are only 14.3 veterinarians per 100,000 people. Arkansas ranks 49th for its veterinarian-population ratio even though agriculture is the largest segment of the state's economy. The number of veterinarians entering the profession each year increases by just 2.7 percent, falling short of the 40,000 additional veterinarians the country is expected to need by 2030.

It's a gamble for a school with about 700 undergraduates. Based on the need and the private capital provided by OneHealth, I think it's a gamble that will pay off.

"Lyon has a 150-year history of providing exceptional and relevant education to Arkansans and students of the region," says Melissa Taverner, the school's president. "These plans are part of a comprehensive, strategic set of initiatives, all borne out of our vision for Lyon and higher education in Arkansas as we mark our sesquicentennial year. Our strength in education, coupled with our partnership with OneHealth, creates a unique opportunity to meet an important need."

In May, a second major announcement was made: OneHealth is purchasing downtown Little Rock's Heifer International campus to house the veterinary and dental schools. Heifer International will remain, leasing space from OneHealth. One of the founding partners of OneHealth is Merritt Dake, previously chief executive officer of Rock Dental Brands. In that job, Dake saw the need for more dentists.

Heifer opened its $17 million campus in 2006. The potential addition of hundreds of students and faculty members could revitalize downtown Little Rock, perhaps even convincing developers to renovate the currently empty Donaghey and Boyle buildings on Main Street for housing. The two schools also should spur continued development of an adjacent neighborhood now known as East Village.

The area is already home to the Clinton Presidential Center, the UA's Clinton School of Public Service, a campus of the eStem public charter school, and popular brewpubs such as Lost Forty and Camp Taco. Cromwell Architects Engineers moved its headquarters to the building that once was home of Stebbins & Roberts and later Sterling Paint. Dubbed the Paint Factory, the building includes 16 apartments.

When Cromwell built its previous building at the intersection of Markham and Spring streets more than four decades ago, the area was in need of redevelopment. Cromwell's move helped spur development of what's now the DoubleTree Hotel, Marriott Little Rock, Statehouse Convention Center, Stephens Building and more.

East Village was home in the 20th century to foundries, cotton mills, freight yards, lumber yards and furniture factories. If Lyon College's audacious move to establish dental and veterinary schools works, East Village in some ways will be the heart of the capital city.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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