I’m touring the Southern Arkansas University campus with Trey Berry, the SAU president and a friend since childhood. When you’re the head Mulerider in Magnolia, you drive a pickup, of course. Berry steers his truck down streets, through parking lots and even down trails so I can witness what I refer to as “the SAU miracle.”
Most of south Arkansas is hurting these days. Almost every county south of Little Rock is losing population as the region’s business and civic leaders struggle to reverse the trend. But SAU is thriving.
This newspaper has devoted thousands of column inches in recent years to stories about the struggles of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia, which once had a larger enrollment than SAU. In the last school year, Henderson’s enrollment was down to 2,900 students. SAU had 4,400.
Graduate enrollment was up 29 percent at the Magnolia institution in the 2021-22 school year. The areas of growth included master of arts in teaching, master of business administration, master of computer science, master of educational administration and supervision, and master of science in clinical and mental health counseling.
There’s even a new doctoral program in rural and diverse educational leadership. It’s the only educational doctorate offered south of Little Rock. There’s also a new health-care administration major offered by the Rankin College of Business.
Since becoming president in 2015, Berry has been a master at creating academic programs for which there’s student demand. Programs such as computer-driven game design and animation have led to an increase in international students. Last fall, there were 55 international undergraduate and 277 international graduate students from 39 countries.
I made a similar campus tour with Berry several years ago. At the time, a building was being transformed into the school’s engineering facility.
“Can you believe we now have more than 200 students in that program?” Berry asks as we drive past the building. “In fact, three-fourths of our students are in the College of Science and Engineering.”
That college is receiving outside grants, such as the $1 million federal grant announced in April for implementation of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiative aimed at reducing health-care disparities in rural communities.
SAU’s rural-service roots date back to its founding in 1909 when Gov. George W. Donaghey signed Act 100, creating the Third District Agricultural School. The other three district agricultural schools created by that act went on to become Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, Arkansas Tech University at Russellville and the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
SAU remains true to those rural roots in more ways than one. As we ride past a chicken house, Berry points out that the school offers the state’s only poultry-science degree outside the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The school farm remains vibrant and now includes one of the most popular walking trails in this part of the state.
Friends and alumni are noticing the progress. The university’s fundraising campaign exceeded its goal by 33 percent, raising $29.7 million in five years.
A 750-acre farm, which was donated by descendants of former Gov. Ben Laney, will be transformed into what’s known as the conservation campus. Berry hopes to work closely with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and its foundation to help the farm achieve its potential, thus benefiting wildlife and marine biology students.
Berry envisions a system of nature trails, a barn turned into a youth hostel, and much more, making the property a regional attraction. Private developers plan to build a hotel and two restaurants on nearby university-owned land. The property also will help grow the school’s club sports such as fishing and trap shooting. The Laney Farm already is home to SAU’s state-of-the-art trap shooting facility.
The farm includes the Sensitive Scientific Study Area, where academic field research is conducted. Faculty and students collect samples and do research in the designated zone, which includes a hay field, pond, woods and wetlands.
Berry is a historian by training with a deep understanding of south Arkansas’ past and a vision for its future.
“College towns are the beacons of hope for our part of the state,” he says. “In an otherwise rural area, college towns will provide the quality-of-life amenities people are looking for these days. We’ve seen quality-of-life enhancements drive the spectacular growth in northwest Arkansas. We won’t see such growth levels here, but the same type of enhancements can certainly play a role in ending outmigration.
“For many years, we chased the industrial development rabbit. Everything was about landing a manufacturing plant. These days, it’s quality of life that drives economic development. The kinds of things we’re doing at SAU and in Magnolia will allow us to keep some of the younger generation in south Arkansas.”
Berry views it as a modern approach to economic development that’s still firmly grounded in the region’s rural past.
“Agriculture and wildlife biology are programs that are growing rapidly at this school,” he says. “Students understand they can have good careers in those areas and still remain close to home. Rather than sitting around and complaining about the population losses, we need to give young people a reason to stay in south Arkansas. If we make the right moves now, many of them will stay. Our job it to continue laying that groundwork.”
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.