Lyon College planning dental, veterinary medicine schools in Little Rock

The Lyon Building on the Lyon College campus in Batesville is shown in this December 2005 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)
The Lyon Building on the Lyon College campus in Batesville is shown in this December 2005 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Plans to start-up dental and veterinary medicine schools in Little Rock have been submitted by Lyon College to an accrediting body for review, the Batesville college announced Monday.

No such programs exist in the state, though another college, Arkansas State University, is considering the feasibility of a veterinary medicine school, a spokesman said.

Lyon College, a self-described small liberal arts college, has yet to begin hiring faculty, and no site in Little Rock has been settled on, according to the school's president, Melissa Taverner.

But with the help of a partner, Little Rock-based OneHealth Education Group, the doors could open to students as soon as 2024 at the proposed Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences, the school announced.

The nonprofit Lyon College submitted its proposal in mid-March to the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission.

A spokeswoman said the commission does not comment on pending accreditation activity, but that a review process may take up to nine months, referring to guidelines in place for considering whether to approve any "substantive change."

Last fall, the Batesville campus enrolled 581 students -- all undergraduates -- down about 12% from a year earlier, according to state data.

"Lyon College recently adopted a new mission statement that includes adding graduate programs," Taverner said in a statement.

She called the push to add veterinary and dental schools "just another step in achieving our strategic initiatives."

The college would also seek approvals from the American Veterinary Medical Association's Council on Education and the Commission on Dental Accreditation, according to the announcement.

The college's collaborator, OneHealth Education Group, is a limited liability corporation based in Little Rock and registered in February of this year, according to online records from the Arkansas Secretary of State's office.

"We are excited to convene Lyon College, dental and veterinary leaders, and other funders together to create this opportunity," Frazier Edwards, president of OneHealth, said in a statement released by the college.

Edwards previously served as executive director of the Arkansas Osteopathic Medical Association, and last year was announced as vice president of strategic partnerships and business development for the Arkansas Rural Health Partnership, a nonprofit whose board of directors consists of top executives from 13 hospitals.

OneHealth Education Group lists among its managers Merritt Dake, according to secretary of state records. Dake worked from 2012-21 as chief executive officer for Rock Dental Brands, according to his social networking profile at Rock Dental Brands is a group of dental professionals with locations in Arkansas and Missouri, according to its website.

Neither Taverner nor Perry Wilson, a Little Rock attorney and chairman of the board for the college, were available for an interview Monday, a spokeswoman said.

In response to questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Wilson in a statement briefly described how the college came to collaborate with OneHealth Education Group.

"After Lyon College began serious discussions on graduate programs, we were introduced to the team at OneHealth last year," Wilson said. "It was clear that our missions aligned, and, we quickly formed a productive, symbiotic relationship."

A site in Little Rock -- roughly 80 miles southwest of the college's campus in Batesville -- makes sense given the type of clinical training involved, Taverner said.

"The Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences has unique needs that will better serve students by being in the geographic and economic center of Arkansas. The location in Little Rock is critical for clinical placements for both of the programs. Lyon College is exploring multiple sites and hope to announce a selection soon," Taverner said.

As far as faculty hiring, Taverner said a "national search" will be done.

"Exact staffing needs will be determined throughout the accreditation process," Taverner said.

She also said the class sizes for both schools "will be determined during the accreditation process."

The Lyon College website included links for donors to give in support of the effort, with the website stating that the new programs "are estimated to develop an additional 500 Arkansas dentists and veterinarians over the next ten years, particularly in the places most in need of their services."

The college's announcement described OneHealth Education Group as working with consultants, specifically Atlanta-based Academy of Advancing Leadership and another consultant, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Animal Policy Group.

Arkansas is one of 14 states without a dental school or college, according to listings from the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Twenty-three states lack a veterinary school, based on data from the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences offers some dental programs but not a dentistry school,

"We do not plan to open a dental school but we do have strong dental hygiene and dental residency programs," UAMS spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said in an email.

Students from Arkansas seeking to become dentists can enroll in programs outside the state and receive some assistance.

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Dentistry accepts 23 Arkansas residents in each dental class, a spokeswoman for the Memphis campus said.

"We have a contract with Arkansas via the Southern Regional Education Board," said spokeswoman Peggy Reisser in an email. Reisser said the agreement includes payments to students that offset by about 56% the differential between in-state and out-of-state tuition.

The Southern Regional Education Board's website states that Arkansas students pursuing degrees in veterinary medicine also may qualify for tuition-savings programs, depending on where their school of choice is located.

There are 33 veterinary schools in the U.S., said Susan Leigh, a spokeswoman with the American Association of Veterinary Colleges. Data from the association shows that, in 2021, there were 41 first-year students from Arkansas enrolled in Doctor of Veterinary Medicine programs.

Arkansas State University in January 2020 announced that it would consider a public-private partnership with Adtalem Global Education -- formerly owners of the for-profit DeVry University -- to explore the feasibility of a veterinary school.

"Our discussions with Adtalem to establish a college of veterinary medicine at A-State are ongoing. Their representatives were in Jonesboro last week," ASU spokesman Bill Smith said in an email.

Smith said Lyon College's announcement "does not have any impact on our plans."