Though Lyon College's new dental school won't open for at least a year, it does have a dean, the college announced Wednesday.
Dr. Burke Soffe, currently assistant dean for faculty development and curriculum at the Roseman University of Health Sciences College of Dental Medicine in Utah, will lead what will be the state's first dental school, according to Lyon College.
Soffe will serve in an advisory capacity for the next several months before he officially begins his duties at Lyon's School of Oral Health and Dental Medicine on July 1.
"I was intrigued with the idea of joining Lyon College to develop not just a stand-alone dental school, but also a dental home safety net for the entire state that includes partnerships with local dentists and clinics," Soffe said in a news release from Lyon College. "As founding dean, I look forward to addressing the oral health needs of the underserved across Arkansas."
Soffe has been a full-time faculty member at Roseman University in South Jordan, Utah, since January 2013 and previously served as director of curriculum, director of clinical education, and clinical practice team leader, according to Lyon College. He practiced at a private clinic in Virginia for five years before joining Roseman.
"I look forward to the school improving oral health literacy, access to dental care, and enhancing the efficiency of dental education with a focus on quality, person-centered care," Soffe said in Lyon's news release. "I also look forward to working with state and local officials, organized dentistry, dental industry stakeholders, and dentists across the state to understand their professional needs and develop partnerships."
Arkansas is one of only 14 states that do not have a dental school or college, according to listings from the Commission on Dental Accreditation.
The state also fares poorly in dental health, ranking near the bottom for states. Arkansas had just 41.82 dentists per 100,000 people in 2019, ranked ahead only of Alabama, according to the national Library of Medicine.
Lyon College will collaborate with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences on the state's first dental school, joining forces where practicable and identifying opportunities for joint teaching, research, graduate education and professional development that benefit students and faculty, under a memorandum of understanding announced in November. The School of Oral Health and Dental Medicine will be joined by a veterinary school in Lyon's Institute of Health Sciences, and the college hopes to begin offering classes for students in both the dental and veterinary schools next year or in 2025.
In May 2022, officials announced that OneHealth Education Group, a partner in the Institute of Health Sciences endeavor with Lyon College, would purchase downtown Little Rock's Heifer International campus to house the veterinary and dental schools. Heifer opened the $17 million campus in 2006, and Heifer International will remain on the campus, leasing space from OneHealth.
"We are very excited that Dr. Soffe has agreed to serve as the founding dean," Lyon President Melissa Taverner said in a news release from the college. "His vision for dental education in the 21st Century completely aligns with that of Lyon College and OneHealth, so we believe that we have found the perfect partner to bring our collective vision to fruition."
Soffe has a Doctor of Medical Dentistry degree from the University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Dental Medicine, according to Lyon College. He also holds a Master of Education in Curriculum Design from Western Governors University and a Bachelor of Arts from Southern Virginia University.
As part of his application for the dean's role, Soffe described himself as "solutions oriented" and "eager to transform dental education and lead teams through change initiatives with a focus on developing positive culture in a supportive, structured work and learning environment."
Doctor of Medical Dentistry and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine professional degrees from Lyon College, as well as a branch campus in Little Rock to house the dentistry and veterinary medicine programs, were approved by the Higher Learning Commission Institutional Actions Council last year, according to Taverner.
That sets the stage for the college to complete and submit initial applications for professional accreditation to the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association and the Council on Education of the American Veterinary Medical Association this year.
Lyon College, a private, liberal arts institution founded in 1872, is located in Batesville, although the Institute of Health Sciences will be in Little Rock.