NINTH IN A SERIES
I’ll admit my bias on the front end. Trey Berry and I grew up together at Arkadelphia. Our parents were friends. Trey and I have been friends for longer than we care to admit.
I don’t make it a habit of writing columns about old friends, but what has been going on at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia in recent years deserves some coverage. Berry is the SAU president, and the school he heads has been one of the fastest-growing institutions of higher education in this part of the country since he became president in 2015. What’s truly amazing is that the growth came at a time when many small colleges across the country were struggling. It also has taken place in far south Arkansas, an area of the state that has suffered economically for decades.
Berry, who ranks among this state’s top historians, came to SAU in 2011 as professor of history and dean of the College of Liberal and Performing Arts. After just a year, he was promoted to provost and vice president for academic affairs. Before moving to Magnolia, Berry spent 18 years at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, two years at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and two years as deputy director of what was then the Department of Arkansas Heritage in Little Rock (now part of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism).
In February 2015, it was announced that Berry would replace the school’s popular president, David Rankin, who was retiring the following July.
“Dr. Rankin has set us up in such a good way for the future,” Berry said at the time. “Now we have to shift gears and focus on people, planning, programs and philanthropy. We have to raise money for this institution.”
As an expert on the history of south Arkansas, Berry knew how important it was to strengthen ties with residents of Magnolia and surrounding communities.
“We need each other,” he said.
Upon his arrival in Magnolia, Berry plunged into civic activities. He joined the Rotary Club and also served on the boards of the Golden Triangle Economic Development Council and the Magnolia-Columbia County Chamber of Commerce. Bobbie Ruth Webb of Magnolia donated to the school a downtown building that had been in her family for more than a century. Her grandfather, K.S. Couch, opened a grocery store on the courthouse square in the early 1900s. Berry turned the building into a university retail store and an event space to further ties to the community.
Back on campus, two additional dorms opened at the start of the 2016-17 school year and two more dorms (one in a converted skating rink) opened the following school year. Berry says his biggest challenge during his first several years as president was “keeping up with the growth and all it entails.”
Berry says that when Rankin was president, the school began trying to determine what areas of study might be popular during the next decade. Programs that were added include engineering, game design and animation, musical theater, cybersecurity and marine and wildlife biology. The academic expansion was coupled with an aggressive marketing campaign. SAU recruits the booming Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area and hired a full-time staff member to live in that region.
Crippling budget cuts at colleges and universities in Louisiana and Oklahoma caused students in those states to look elsewhere. Some ended up at SAU. Marketing efforts also picked up in central Arkansas. And due to the popularity of programs such as a master’s degree in computer science, the number of international students grew.
“We’re seen as a place that’s affordable and student friendly,” Berry says. “Our faculty and staff have open-door policies. These things have worked together to create a sense of momentum here. That momentum breeds additional momentum. We’re not in a town with four-lane highway access, but we decided to make ourselves a destination despite that shortcoming. We have a strong social media presence. A lot of students these days surf the web to find programs that interest them and are affordable. That’s why we have students from so many states and countries. If you can get two or three students from a high school and they have a great experience, the word will get out. Kids spread the word, and it just continues to build.”
Rankin oversaw a $100 million construction effort when he was president. The enrollment growth has meant that Berry also must keep construction crews busy.
With the growth of SAU has come continued growth in the neighborhoods surrounding the school and in downtown Magnolia. On the trip across south Arkansas on U.S. Highway 82, Berry hosted me for the better part of a day in Magnolia. One of the places we went was Mule Kick on North Jackson Street. All I could think was this: “It’s something I would expect to find in a much larger town.”
There was ice cream from Loblolly Creamery in Little Rock. There was an extensive collection of Arkansas craft beers from breweries such as Bike Rack, Core, Lost Forty, Diamond Bear, Ozark, Rebel Kettle and Superior Bathhouse. There were specially sourced coffees, pizzas, salads, homemade pastries and more. I heard about Vinyl Night each Monday, Trivia Night each Wednesday and the groups of students who would walk over from the SAU campus in those days prior to the pandemic.
In an era when much of south Arkansas is losing population, Magnolia has a different feel. Since 1990, nearby El Dorado has seen its population drop from 23,000 to 18,000 despite the tens of millions of dollars spent on initiatives such as the El Dorado Promise scholarship program and the Murphy Arts District.
During that same period, Camden’s population has dropped from 15,000 to 11,000. Magnolia, meanwhile, has held its own. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the population has increased slightly from 11,300 to 11,500 since the 2010 census. In south Arkansas these days, holding your own is a victory.
Berry has made SAU an economic and cultural engine for south Arkansas. He hails from a college town (Arkadelphia) and understands the importance of a four-year university to a community. It’s why he was insistent on opening the SAU Beyond the Campus store on the downtown square. The same person who designed the courthouse square at Magnolia designed the square in booming Oxford, Miss. Berry, who earned his master’s degree and doctorate from Ole Miss, saw how the energy of the Oxford square helped school officials there when it came to recruiting students. Along with SAU, a strength of Magnolia is that it still has a vibrant downtown business district.
The SAU store is in a 3,400-square-foot building. It carries products and apparel promoting the Mulerider brand. The front half of the building is devoted to retail. The back half has a meeting room with a full kitchen that can be leased for various activities. Webb, who donated the building, was a 1949 graduate. Graduate students manage the store, which opened in August 2018. They learn skills such as supply chain management.
Along with connecting to the community, a key to SAU’s success has been the establishment of programs that are popular with students. Our next stop was the engineering building, which was dedicated in October 2016. What had been an Arkansas National Guard armory was given to the university in 2015. That led to a $1.4 million renovation project. The building houses the only accredited engineering program south of Little Rock. The program, which started in the fall of 2014, has seen steady enrollment growth. There are now about 220 engineering majors, and Berry says the program places 100 percent of its graduates in jobs.
The interior of the facility was named for Robert and Edna Cook Norvell. Edna Norvell gave $1 million to the school to honor those who had helped her at what was known as Magnolia A&M when she was a student. Areas of emphasis for the SAU engineering program include mechanical engineering, engineering technology and a welding engineering technology program that’s one of the few of its kind in the country. The program provides highly skilled welding supervisors for the region’s defense, aerospace and oil and gas industries.
Former Gov. Ben Laney, who died in 1977, spent his later years on a farm near Magnolia. The 700-acre farm was donated to SAU, and Berry has big plans for that property. Laney was governor from 1945-49.
“His most notable achievement was the state’s 1945 Revenue Stabilization Law, which prohibited deficit spending,” Tom Forgey writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Though he once said, ‘I’m not a politician,’ his conservative views put him in the spotlight at a time when the Democratic Party was becoming more liberal. Although he opposed desegregation, the University of Arkansas School of Law became the South’s first all-white public institution to admit black students during this tenure.”
Laney was born in November 1896 at Jones Chapel in Ouachita County. He was one of seven children, and his father was a farmer. Laney entered Hendrix College at Conway in 1915 but left the following year to teach. After having served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, he received a bachelor’s degree from what’s now the University of Central Arkansas at Conway in 1924. Laney worked in business and banking at Conway in 1925-26 and married Lucille Kirtley there in January 1926. The couple had three sons.
“In 1927, Laney returned to Ouachita County, where his business dealings included oil, banking, farming, cotton gins and retail stores,” Forgey writes. “He was the major of Camden from 1935-39 and a member of the Arkansas Penitentiary Board from 1941-44. His activities on behalf of John L. McClellan’s 1942 U.S. Senate bid solidified a friendship and political alliance. A relative unknown when he ran for the 1944 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, he had the support of conservative business and financial interests. His opponents were former Congressman David D. Terry and state Comptroller J. Bryan Sims.
“Sims withdrew 10 days before the election amid accusations of a negotiated deal, and Laney easily defeated Republican opponent H.C. Stump in the general election, as was the norm in this essentially one-party political era. His renomination and re-election in 1946 were effortless. The governor’s work on behalf of efficiency, economy and consolidation in state government and his encouragement of industrialization and broadly based economic development earned him the nickname Business Ben. These activities and his opposition to organized labor strengthened his ties with Arkansas business conservatives.
Laney pushed the Revenue Stabilization Law through the Legislature in 1945.
“Before 1945, appropriations were tied to specific taxes; as a result, some revenue streams came up short while others had more money than needed,” Forgey writes. “The new law created a single general fund from which all state appropriations were made and prohibited departments and institutions from spending if cash was not available. It also created an orderly system of budget cuts if the revenue was not available. In 1947, he successfully urged the Legislature to create a Legislative Council to provide research and bill-drafting assistance for Arkansas’ part-time legislators. However, Laney is remembered less for his streamlining of government structure and finance than for his opposition to proposals that would alter race relations and weaken or end segregation.
“Laney spoke out against progressive federal initiatives to outlaw lynching and the poll tax and quietly worked to prevent desegregation of state professional and higher education programs. Laney claimed that his actions were based on constitutional principles and states’ rights philosophy and not on racial considerations. But he had praised Arkansans as being close to what he described as good and pure Anglo-Saxon stock.”
Gunshots can be heard these days on the old Laney farm, which SAU is transforming into a world-class trapshooting facility. The school’s shooting team competes in the Association of College Unions International Collegiate Clay Targeting Program. When work is completed, the Laney farm will feature a clubhouse and three shooting ranges with each range consisting of five concrete lanes with high and low skeet houses.
It’s the same kind of innovative thinking that led SAU to establish a bass fishing team along with men’s and women’s disc golf teams. In what’s otherwise a grim period economically for south Arkansas, the SAU Muleriders are kicking it.
Last September, Farmers Bank & Trust of Magnolia donated $220,000 to help with construction of the facility.
“The impact of Farmers Bank & Trust is evident across our campus, from academic programs, to student scholarships, to our athletic programs,” Berry said at the time the gift was announced. “Trapshooting has become increasingly popular not only among youth. It’s also increasingly popular as a corporate event. The gift from Farmers benefits us all. SAU will be the only institution in the region for students to compete at the collegiate level, and our high schools benefit from having a facility to call home and both practice and host events. Companies and the community will be able to host events once the range is fully operational. This can really be a draw for visitors to Magnolia.”
More than 50 students signed up for the inaugural SAU team.
“Because of the commitment and dedication the sport requires, the caliber of students who shoot at this level is a perfect fit for SAU,” said Steve Crowell, the school’s trapshooting coach. “The clubhouse building and range will allow us to immediately become a force in recruiting on a national level. We’ve already had interest from students in New York, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Minnesota, South Dakota, California, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.”
Crowell grew up in southwestern Minnesota on a dairy, hog and crop farm. He has volunteered at every school in the Magnolia School District, served as a high school football referee and served on the city council.
Participants in the program must maintain a 2.0 grade point average for undergraduate students and a 3.0 grade point average for graduate students. Students have the opportunity to compete at the intramural level or the intercollegiate level. Students must provide their own guns, which are then stored in a secure campus location.
The school also features SAU eSports, which has been a hit among gamers. They live, study and practice together and then travel to competitions across the region. Their dedicated space on the second floor of the Reynolds Center has been expanded and has the latest in game technology so they can host tournaments. Meanwhile, the school’s disc golf teams compete in the national college championships. The bass fishing team was established in 2012 and also competes in tournaments across the country.
Berry sees it all as part of the plan to make SAU a center of activity for south Arkansas.