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Going big

On the same day that a legislative session began in Little Rock, John Calipari was introduced in Fayetteville as the new head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas.

I have this thought: It's time for those who make public policy in Arkansas to follow the example of billionaire John Tyson and go big.

The Calipari hiring has received major media attention across the country and shook the sports world. Arkansas was in the spotlight because Tyson chose to go big.

A once-proud basketball program was without a coach, its players had left and two other coaches had turned down UA offers. At that point, Tyson, a former member of the UA Board of Trustees, took things into his own hands and provided the funds necessary to bring one of the most famous coaches in the history of the sport to Arkansas.

I look at Tyson's example and then dream about the exciting things that could happen on the academic side of higher education if our governor and legislators also would go big. Instead, we starve higher education at a time when those with college degrees are needed more than ever in our state.

Gov. Sarah Sanders has proposed cuts for most of the state's four-year public colleges and universities. The saddest thing about such a lack of vision is that it's occurring when the Arkansas economy is doing well. The state budget is performing above forecast. Just think what we could do if we invested those surplus funds into the lives of young Arkansans.

My hope is that the governor and a majority of legislators will take their cues from Tyson prior to the regular legislative session next January. Not only could they put more state revenue into higher education, they could set up a trust fund that uses tax revenue from the coming lithium boom in south Arkansas.

We need to look no farther than Texas for inspiration.

In 1876, the Texas Constitution set aside land in west Texas to support the University of Texas and Texas A&M. Today, that 2.1 million acres is leased to oil and gas companies whose wells generate revenue that flows into the Permanent University Fund. UT gets two-thirds of the benefits, and Texas A&M gets the other third.

The Texas endowment almost doubled during the fracking boom. Arkansas doesn't have millions of acres of state-owned land to devote to such an endowment, but legislators can make the decision now to put future state tax revenues from lithium into a fund that benefits public four-year and two-year institutions of higher education.

If the lithium boom plays out like I think it will during the next few decades, this endowment will be transformative for our state. If the Legislature won't do it, the voters should with a constitutional amendment.

John Tyson set the example. Arkansas can compete with anyone. Let's go big.

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