In 2009, Donald Weatherman, who wrote a weekly column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette when he was a political science professor at Lyon College, returned to Batesville as the school's president. A year later, Weatherman was among the college presidents who hired me to head Arkansas' Independent Colleges & Universities, the association of the state's 11 private four-year institutions of higher education.
When I left that job in 2015, Weatherman was chairman of AICU's council of presidents. I went to Batesville to inform him of my decision, had dinner with him and spent the night in the president's home. Weatherman retired at the end of the 2016-17 school year and was replaced by Joseph King, who left last year after his comments on racial attitudes in the Batesville area upset civic and business leaders. King was replaced by Melissa Taverner.
It's Taverner who's leading an audacious effort: a school with fewer than 700 undergraduate students is seeking to establish the state's first dental and veterinary schools. That initiative was the subject of Sunday's column. I'm biased since I worked for Lyon, but I think it will work.
Colleges and universities across the country are facing what's known as the enrollment cliff, a drop in the number of college-age students. Taverner is counting on a shift in focus toward graduate programs.
Earlier this year, Lyon announced a collaboration with White River Medical Center in Batesville to produce more nurses. Taverner says partnerships with WRMC and OneHealth Education Group are "intentional efforts to continue providing excellent undergraduate education at our central campus in Batesville while also expanding to offer graduate and professional programs in Little Rock and beyond."
OneHealth has partnered with two of the country's leading education consulting firms, the Academy of Advancing Leadership (AAL) and the Animal Policy Group, to develop the dental and veterinary schools.
AAL is an Atlanta-based firm founded in 2005. The collaboration of educational specialists and academic leaders provides professional development and consulting services to individuals and organizations in health and higher education. Its clients include universities, corporations and associations.
Animal Policy Group works in the areas of animal health and welfare. It was founded by attorney Mark Cushing, a former political strategist, government regulatory adviser and corporate executive.
"The partnership between Lyon College and OneHealth will launch a community-based model of education and clinical care to meet the significant oral health needs of Arkansas," says Karl Haden, AAL's president.
Little Rock attorney Perry Wilson, chairman of Lyon's board of trustees, says the establishment of dental and veterinary schools is "consistent with the long-standing mission of Lyon and will propel the economic growth of our state." Lyon's bold move is already receiving national attention.
"The plans are ambitious for a college of modest size and wealth, and its leaders acknowledge they didn't make the decision lightly," David Steele wrote for Inside Higher Ed. "They say Arkansas desperately needs both professional schools and is losing students, including undergraduates educated at Lyon, to out-of-state dental and veterinary schools. They've enlisted a private capital group to help fund the two initiatives.
"Arkansas needs veterinarians and dentists. It's 49th in the country in veterinarian-to-population ratio and 51st in access to dental health care, according to the college's announcement about its plans. Veterinarians and dentists in the state are beginning to retire, Taverner said, and there are no obvious sources of replacements coming."
Of Lyon graduates who applied to medical school during the past 10 years, 87 percent were accepted. Almost 95 percent of all graduates were employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation.
"We knew our programs worked," Taverner told Steele. "The other part of the equation was 'what are the needs?' ... We've had some very honest conversations about the future of higher education. We asked the hard questions instead of saying 'this would be a great direction to go in.' From the beginning, we did everything the right way. This is a private-to-private partnership. We've done our homework."
Andy Goodman, who has my old job at AICU, calls Lyon's partnership with OneHealth "highly innovative."
"I won't be careless and call it radical because it's well-thought-out," he says. "But it's definitely highly innovative. ... It's fairly aggressive, but the need has been there for years. The industry really demanded it. Lyon identified its need for developing professional programs as well. There has been talk for years of the need for small- and large-animal vets. We're an agricultural state."
Wes Ward, the state agriculture commissioner, told Steele: "We're excited for the students of Arkansas. Hopefully it will give them the opportunity to get veterinary education in the state and give them the chance to stay. ... It's a commonly held opinion that wherever you go to school, you tend to stay there."
According to the state Department of Health, eight of 75 counties have no registered veterinarian, and 10 others had just one in 2020. There are 33 U.S. veterinary schools in 27 states.
Ten counties had nine or fewer dental professionals, including dentists, assistants and hygienists. The number of dental professionals in Arkansas fell by 3.5 percent last year. There are 70 dental schools in 36 states.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.