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OPINION | REX NELSON: The Lyon roars

by Rex Nelson | March 15, 2023 at 4:49 a.m.

Social media has its drawbacks--far too many to name here. When used correctly, however, it can connect us with interesting people. I've long used my Facebook page to feature Arkansas stories and photos. One person who commented frequently was Wallie Roettger, who was president of Lyon College from 1998-2009.

Roettger, who spent his retirement years in upstate New York, died at age 81 in late January. During his tenure as president of the small liberal arts institution in Batesville, Roettger oversaw the distribution of laptop computers to all students and the opening of one of the premier science and mathematics facilities in the region. Lyon was recognized by U.S. News & World Report as being among the country's best liberal arts colleges.

While Roettger was president, Lyon produced the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's Arkansas Professor of the Year nine times.

The erudite Roettger received his bachelor's degree from Stanford University in 1963. He later earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Colorado and completed a higher education leadership program at Harvard University. He found Arkansas to be a fascinating state filled with potential and continued to keep up with what was going on here.

He was excited about little Lyon's audacious plans to open the state's first dental and veterinary schools. A few days before learning of Roettger's death, I had lunch with the architect of this bold vision, Melissa Taverner. She became the interim president of Lyon in August 2021 and later had the "interim" tag removed.

Taverner moved to Arkansas in October 2017 when she accepted the position of provost and dean of faculty. Before coming to Lyon, she was an associate professor of biology for 22 years at Emory & Henry College, a well-known liberal arts school in southwest Virginia.

Taverner, a Virginia native, received her bachelor's degree from Randolph-Macon College in Virginia (the second-oldest Methodist-affiliated college in the country) and her doctorate in environmental science from the University of Virginia.

Last April, Lyon announced it was developing plans for the dental and veterinary schools in Little Rock as part its College of Health Sciences. The college is partnering with a private company, OneHealth Education Group.

In May, it was announced that OneHealth is purchasing downtown Little Rock's Heifer International campus to house the schools. Heifer International will remain, leasing space from OneHealth. A founding partner of OneHealth is Merritt Dake, previously chief executive officer of Rock Dental Brands. In that job, Dake saw the need for additional dentists in the state.

Arkansas is 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 sector of the 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.

Heifer opened its $17 million campus in 2006. The addition of hundreds of students and faculty members is expected to help revitalize downtown Little Rock.

"Soon after I got to Lyon, we began having serious discussions about the future of the school," Taverner told me. "People mentioned that the time had come to add graduate programs, so we began to examine where the gaps are in higher education in Arkansas. What were the greatest needs? We also asked ourselves what were our strengths and how could we play to those strengths. Well, we're really good in science and math. And Arkansas has a real need for dentists and veterinarians. It seemed to fit."

Taverner was introduced to the folks at OneHealth.

"They had a space identified for the schools in Little Rock," Taverner said. "And I felt we had the ability to do this from an academic standpoint. So we decided to move forward. Often the biggest impediment when a school wants to do something really bold is finding the right people with whom to partner. It just all fell together for us."

As part of Lyon's five-year strategic planning process, there was an in-depth examination of the state's demographics. That deep dive led Taverner to conclude that the schools will be a success. Lyon also will add a master of arts in teaching program at the Blytheville campus this fall.

"All of our planning has involved the faculty and staff," Taverner said. "We've been as transparent as possible. I want them to be open and honest with those of us who are administrators. I want them to let us know if this fits our mission. As far as I can tell, folks are on board."

In January, Taverner announced that Burke Soffe of Roseman University of Health Sciences College of Dental Medicine in Utah will be founding dean of Lyon's School of Oral Health and Dental Medicine.

"His vision for dental education in the 21st century completely aligns with that of Lyon and OneHealth," Taverner said. "We believe we have found the perfect partner to bring our collective vision to fruition."

Soffe will begin work July 1.

"I was intrigued with the idea of joining Lyon to develop not just a stand-alone dental school, but also a dental home safety net for the entire state that includes partnerships with dentists and clinics," he said. "As founding dean, I look forward to addressing the oral health needs of the underserved across Arkansas."

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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