Except for Arkansas Tech, they all answered to “A and M” at one time or another, but the four of them weren't even Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges to begin with, just jumped-up high schools. A hundred years later, they're all universities, one even calling itself a university “system,” with a president in Little Rock and chancellors at the component campuses. All four universities have at least one branch campus in addition to the original.
The institutions of higher learning now known as Arkansas State University, Arkansas Tech University, Southern Arkansas University and the University of Arkansas at Monticello are celebrating their centennials this year. Act 100 of 1909 proved to be a greater leap forward for higher education in Arkansas than its sponsors intended.
Legislators, and Arkansans generally, weren't greatly concerned with higher education back then — keeping the elementary schools open was almost more than they could do — but they did see a need for farmers with some reasonable level of formal education. White farmers, that is. Black higher education, virtually nonexistent at the time, was a separate matter. (There are those who'd say that Arkansas is still not much concerned about higher education, but today just about every fair-sized town has a college of some sort, if not necessarily adequately funded. When Act 100 was passed, an “industrial university” later to become the University of Arkansas had been operating at Fayetteville since 1871, and a teacher-training college at Conway, later to become the University of Central Arkansas, had been authorized by Act 317 of 1907. That was about it for public higher education in Arkansas. Private colleges came and went.)
The Farmers Union successfully promoted the establishment of agricultural high schools that would go beyond the regular schools in the teaching of agriculture. Act 100 created four of these schools, one for each quadrant of the state. The schools were to teach horticulture and textile making in addition to agriculture. The exact locations of the schools were to be chosen, Act 100 said, on the bases of “the nature of the soil, healthfulness of location, general desirability, and other material inducements offered, such as the donation of buildings, land or money.” The First District Agricultural School went to Jonesboro, and is now Arkansas State; the Second District School to Russellville (Arkansas Tech), the Third District School to Magnolia (Southern Arkansas), the Fourth District School to Monticello (UAM).
Arkansas State University
The First District Agricultural School began classes, with 189 students, on Oct. 3, 1910. In May 1913, three boys and two girls became the first graduates of the school. In 1915, according to an ASU timeline, “The Animal Husbandry Endowment Association is formed, and brings the first Holstein cattle to the state of Arkansas.” In 1918, the school began functioning as a junior college, and in 1925 its name was changed to “First District Agricultural and Mechanical College.” The legislature promoted it to Arkansas State College in 1933.
A significant hire was made in 1951 — Carl Reng became president. He'd lead ASU for the next 24 years, most conspicuously when the legislature approved university status for the school, over the strong objections of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, which had had the university field to itself, and the editorial page of the state's largest newspaper. The university designation seemed big at the time; within a few years, all the state colleges had become universities.
Though it now extends over several campuses, ASU, like its 1909 siblings, is still considered a regional university — unlike UA, which is assigned a statewide role by the state Higher Education Coordinating Board. But Chancellor Robert Potts at Jonesboro likes to point out the Coordinating Board has granted ASU a statewide mission in certain research areas. And ASU partisans still think of ASU as a rival to UA; UA partisans do not. ASU football fans still cry for a game between ASU and UA. UA fans do not, and the UA athletic department has been fiercely opposed. Even ASU's move up to the highest level of college football, the same level where UA plays, didn't lessen the resistance. That move did, however, require the diversion of more ASU educational funds into the support of athletics, nettling the ASU faculty. Their discontent continues.
The president of the ASU System is Leslie Wyatt, who operates out of Little Rock. The ASU System has campuses at Beebe, Mountain Home and Newport as well as Jonesboro. It also has “degree centers” at Heber Springs and Searcy that are part of ASU-Beebe, a “technical center” at Marked Tree, and “instructional sites” at Paragould and Little Rock Air Force Base. ASU officials always prefer to give the system-wide enrollment — about 19,000 — when asked about enrollment at Jonesboro. ASUJ was once the second-largest college campus in the state, but its ranking dropped as the population of East Arkansas declined, and now both the University of Central Arkansas at Conway and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock have surpassed it. Potts says the Jonesboro enrollment has been “pretty much level” in the last few years, and ASU is trying to increase it. ASU has gotten deeply into “distance learning” in recent years. Students can obtain degrees — a master's for a school teacher, for example — through web-based study at nights and on weekends in their own homes. Potts concedes the “distance learning” has caused problems with fulltime faculty. “We've had some fence-mending to do.”
Potts came to Jonesboro in 2006 from a chancellorship with the North Dakota University System. He's an Alabama native with a law background; he was once general counsel to the University of Alabama. He left law for higher education 20 years ago.
Arkansas Tech University
The Second District Agricultural School was offering college classes by 1922, and it too got a new name in 1925 — Arkansas Polytechnic College, or “Tech” informally. “Polytechnic” refers to the teaching of technical subjects, and a Tech historian says the Russellville institution wanted the designation to further distinguish itself from its nearby and hated neighbor, the teachers' college at Conway. Although 20 students earned bachelor's degrees from Tech in the spring of 1925, the four-year curriculum was soon phased out, and the campus offered two-year associate's degrees until after World War II. High school classes were available on the Tech campus until 1930.
In 1932, J. W. Hull was named president. He would hold the job for 35 years, maybe a record for state college presidents in Arkansas. Like Reng at Arkansas State, like a lot of the old-time presidents, Hull was more politician than educator. Palling around with legislators was a big part of a president's job in those days, and palling around with legislators was the very thing Hull enjoyed most, according to a longtime associate. Today's presidents are lobbyists too, but now they spend a great deal of time soliciting private donations, and they're generally expected to be a little smoother, and a little better educated, than the old bunch.
In 1948, the Tech Board of Trustees decided — at Hull's urging, no doubt — that Tech should again be a four-year, degree-granting institution. In 1976, Tech began offering work toward a master's degree, and the school's name was changed to Arkansas Tech University.
Today, Tech's main campus in Russellville and a branch in Ozark serve about 7,500 students between them. Robert C. Brown has been president of Tech since 1993. He's been in the news more than any other leader of an Act 100 institution, the result of controversies over free speech, artistic freedom, faculty unrest and so on. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
The Third District Agricultural School was commonly referred to as TDAS in the early days. After the agricultural schools were promoted to junior college status in the '20s, the former TDAS became known as Magnolia A&M. The institution became a four-year college in 1950, and its name was officially changed to Southern State College in 1951. The state Board of Higher Education approved university status and the latest name in 1976.
SAU has a sense of history, evidently. James F. Willis writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture:
“The legacy of the Farmers' Union is evident today. SAU operates one of the nation's largest collegiate farms, and the school's colors — blue and gold — are those of the union. The school's agricultural roots are also evident in its unique symbol — Muleriders — adopted in 1912 when its football players rode mules, then ubiquitous and essential to Southern agriculture, to practice and games.”
SAU today has 3,100 students on the Magnolia campus, another 1,500 at a two-year branch in Camden. It teaches courses in the Texarkana area too.
David Rankin is in his eighth year as president, but he's been at the school since 1968, when he arrived as a professor of finance and economics. “We're working really hard to expand our master's degree offerings,” he said. Those now include computer science, business administration, public administration and agriculture. SAU hopes to add a master's in nursing in the next couple of years.
SAU commercials have become fairly familiar to Little Rock television viewers. “It's brand advertising, just letting people know where the university is,” Rankin said. “Regional universities have to advertise regionally.”
The University of Arkansas at Monticello
The southernmost outpost of the University of Arkansas System, UAM has the only forestry school in the state, and owns more than 1,000 acres devoted to forestry research and instruction.
Like Reng and Hull, Frank Horsfall is a memorable former president. In 1910, he was the first principal of the Fourth District Agricultural School, and according to a school history “took on many responsibilities … including teaching classes, managing the farm, maintaining school records, supervising the dormitories, and troubleshooting.” When the school became a college in the '20s, Horsfall was its first president. He was forced out by political pressure, but returned to the presidency three years later, and held on until 1935, when he resigned, again under pressure — over students' demands for more personal freedom, among other things. He was so intent on shooting down potential trouble caused by male and female students consorting, he'd required the opposing sexes to stay on opposing sides of an invisible line through campus. If the Horsfall Line isn't commemorated at UAM, it should be. But according to a UAM historian, Horsfall had worked diligently “to transform a Southern plantation into an agricultural school and then nourish its growth into a four-year institution.”
The school took Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical College as its name in 1935, and kept it until merging into the University of Arkansas System in 1971. The merger was controversial, some of the Monticello school's supporters fearing loss of identity and independence. Merger proponents argued that the college would benefit financially from being part of the UA system. The administrations at both A and M and UA supported the merger, and the legislature approved it.
UAM today has about 3,380 students, the largest enrollment in its history. Itself a branch, UAM has branches of its own at Crossett and McGehee, system upon system. Jack Lassiter has been chancellor since July 2004. A low cost of attendance and an open-admission policy attract many first-generation college students, Lassiter said: “Sixty-five percent of our freshman class last fall were the first in their family to attend college.”
Much of what UAM does depends on what Southeast Arkansas needs, Lassiter said — health science, for example. “We need more trained professionals in hospitals and doctors' offices, not doctors but people in support disciplines.” And social work: “There's a desperate need for professionals in that area. We have a very strong undergraduate program. Eventually we'll talk about a master's degree.”
Lassiter was a vice chancellor at UAM for 17 years, left for other institutions, and returned as chancellor in July 2004.
n Despite a substantial number of four-year and two-year colleges, Arkansas remains near the bottom of the states in percentage of college graduates. Some people stew over this, believing that an insufficient number of college graduates holds the state back economically. A few contrarians say otherwise, arguing that college education has been oversold, that many of the jobs available now and in the foreseeable future do not require a college education. Some even hint that higher education is overbuilt, that a comparatively few well-funded institutions would be preferable to many needy ones.
Unsurprisingly, the leaders of the Act 100 institutions — those who would talk — believe strongly that Arkansas needs more college graduates. “All of the economic numbers tell us, the more college degrees, the higher the per capita income,” Rankin of SAU said. He likes the access that the two-year community colleges provide. “I've had a lot of students tell me they started at a two-year campus, and that they hadn't even thought about a four-year degree before then.”
“Our economy is directly impacted by the number of college graduates who reside in the state,” Lassiter of UAM said. “They have better-paying jobs.”
Potts of ASU conceded there were jobs in the skilled trades that didn't require a college degree, and that two-year institutions could provide all the training needed for some jobs. “But a four-year degree gives a person the skills to shift from job to job,” he said. “People don't stay with one job for their whole lifetime anymore.”
Brown of Tech kept his own counsel.