(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 186-92 and 195)
Magnolia A&M’s leaders considered and rejected the idea of becoming a senior college on several occasions before finally taking the step in 1949. Each time one of the other original agricultural schools had made that decision the question was considered at A&M. The Jonesboro institution moved to a four-year status in 1930 and gained North Central’s accreditation in 1933. The school at Monticello followed in 1933 and was accredited in 1940. Arkansas Polytechnic College at Russellville tried unsuccessfully in 1925–26 to offer a bachelor’s degree, decided to try again in 1947–48, and gained accreditation in 1951. Russellville’s school kept the name it had secured from the Arkansas legislature in 1925, but Jonesboro changed to Arkansas State College (Act 222 of 1933) and Monticello to Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical College (Act 106 of 1939). Only Monticello obtained new and direct legislative authorization, in the language of Act 106, for its board “to operate and conduct said school as a senior college.” The other institutions took the position that board powers conferred in Act 100 (1909) and Act 45 (1925) implied authorization to add courses of study that led to a bachelor’s degree. When the Magnolia A&M board determined to offer the four-year degree, it followed Jonesboro and Russellville’s example rather than Monticello.
At the time of Jonesboro’s decision in 1930, the A&M board adopted a resolution on July 14 rejecting the idea of becoming a senior college. The board’s reason was that it would “increase the cost to the student and the state.” When Monticello was accredited in 1940, President [Charles A.] Overstreet stated in an interview with the Bray that A&M as a “junior college can serve in a better capacity this part of Arkansas than would a senior college.” He cited the inevitable extra expenditures necessary for a four-year curriculum. He also advised students that it would be more advantageous for them to “graduate from a larger college whose name carries weight” than from A&M as a small unknown and likely inadequately financed and staffed institution. After Arkansas Polytechnic’s announcement in 1948, the A&M board again took up the senior college question on October 19 but decided “no change on status as this time was desirable.” Yet within one year, that negative decision was reversed.
Several converging forces and events must have influenced this change. The huge enrollment increases beginning with the influx of veterans in 1946 undoubtedly encouraged thoughts of continued growth. Certainly, many citizens of Columbia County and other communities in Southwest Arkansas wished that they could have all the additional educational and economic advantages a four-year school would bring. That sentiment was widespread enough that Harry Colay made an appeal to it when he ran for the state senate in July 1944 and promised in newspaper ads to work for a “full, four year A&M College.” Many current and former students also wanted their alma mater to gain the new status. The alumni association reflected that desire in a resolution adopted at its 1947 homecoming meeting. [Academic] Dean [E. E.] Graham wrote in his brief history of the school that area teachers who needed in-service work or to complete a degree urged A&M to become a senior college. Dean Graham and other individuals connected to the institution, however, remained opposed. They believed that Magnolia A&M was an outstanding junior college and feared that the school might be only a mediocre senior college if the state of Arkansas gave it insufficient resources, a prospect that they thought likely. This last point of view apparently prevailed until 1949.
What seemed to have produced a different board decision in 1949 than in 1948 was an intervening event. Graham listed among the motivations for the senior college decision the fear that remaining a junior college of relatively low enrollment might lead the state to abolish A&M or to withdraw its financial support. Such action would leave the school to be supported by the local community. Magnolia leaders were certainly aware that the El Dorado Junior College established in 1927 had failed because of insufficient local financing. The legislative session of 1949 was the key intervening event. A controversy there made the fear of A&M’s loss more than a vague possibility and required prompt response.
As legislators gathered in early January 1949, the new president of Arkansas State College (ASC), Dr. William J. Edens, complained loudly about equal college appropriations in a way that placed a bull’s-eye on Magnolia A&M. The 1917 reform of Governor Charles Brough had until 1945 guaranteed that the four agricultural schools’ primary appropriation came from a fixed and equal percentage of the statewide property tax. In 1945, Governor Ben Laney persuaded the legislature to adopt a major change in taxing and appropriation—the Revenue Stabilization Act. Under this law, all taxes would be placed in a general fund that would be distributed each biennium according to the state’s changing needs and priorities. In the 1945 and 1947 legislative sessions, the legislature continued the tradition of equal appropriations to the four schools. Dr. Edens challenged this arrangement. “Senior colleges,” he declared, “need and deserve larger appropriations than the smaller colleges, especially those of junior rank.” The only school with junior rank left among the original four agricultural schools was Magnolia A&M. He specifically pointed out the numerical and financial disparity between ASC and A&M. Magnolia received more funding per student than any of its larger sister institutions. A&M got $621 per student while ASC received only $237.
To head off what threatened to become a major legislative struggle among the colleges that would divert attention from his higher education agenda, Governor Sidney S. McMath quickly announced that for the 1949 session “college appropriations will have to remain on a parity.” He did not want a fight that would undermine his requests for more financing for the University of Arkansas Medical School’s new medical center and for renewed efforts to gain accreditation for the all-black AM&N College at Pine Bluff. To deal with the funding issue in the future, the governor called upon the legislature to authorize a commission to study Arkansas’s higher education system and to consider creating “some central administrative body set up for the purpose of determining the funds required by each of the institutions.” Act 67 (1949) quickly passed without debate and provided for a twenty-one-member body of senators, representatives, college presidents, and appointees of the governor to study higher education issues and make recommendations. This commission had not been a part of the governor’s original agenda. He was probably inclined to pursue this solution by President Harry Truman’s appointment in 1946 of the President’s Commission on Higher Education whose report had been recently published.
The controversy over funding and the proposed solution of a central authority over higher education posed a potentially ominous threat to Magnolia A&M. Unless the board acted promptly to move to senior-college status, A&M likely faced stagnant or reduced budgets as a junior college. Moreover, the board’s power to establish a four-year institution might be lost to the central authority.
The 1949 legislative session had scarcely ended before the A&M board acted. Its subsequent steps suggested the decision to become a four-year college was made on an informal basis in March or April. The board then built support for the change. The board on April 29 directed Colonel Wilkins to solicit the alumni’s opinion and on July 22 sent a delegation to confer with Governor McMath about four-year status. McMath was a native son of Columbia County, living there until the age of twelve, and raised no public objections. The board in any case took the position that it had the power unilaterally to establish a senior college. The board contacted Dr. M. G. Neale, the consultant from the University of Minnesota who advised Arkansas Polytechnic College on becoming a senior college. When the board received the formal report of alumni opinion on October 24, it directed Wilkins to submit a formal recommendation. He submitted a plan within a couple of days, and on November 24, 1949, the board voted to elevate A&M from a junior to senior college. Immediately, a press release from the college outlined a plan devised by Dr. Neale, the consultant. The school would offer a third year of college work in 1950–51 and a fourth year in 1951–52. New faculty would be hired, and both bachelor of science and bachelor of arts degrees would be offered in five broad fields, including arts and sciences, geology, business administration, education, and physical education. Agriculture, engineering, and home economics were to remain two-year programs.
Among the steps the board approved to prepare the institution for senior status was new construction in 1949–50. Colonel [Charles] Wilkins and plant superintendent Lake Greene managed several projects that would virtually double the size of the central campus. The board issued $550,000 in bonds to build a new one-hundred-room women’s dorm on the east side of campus. It was to be located on the site of the infirmary that was then moved across the street near Caraway Hall. Ten new faculty houses were built along a new street, Crescent Drive, located further east, behind the future location of the new women’s dorm. These houses were to provide accommodations for the planned increase in faculty. A new power plant was built on the site of the old one in the center of campus, behind Old Main. Dr. Wilkins told the board that Dr. Neale had stated that a new library building would be required as well as more books and periodicals. The board did not, however, take immediate action on that matter. The board, finally, in 1949 officially named the new administration building, now five years old, for the former president Charles A. Overstreet.
Many students were most excited about new athletic facilities. For the first time, a real football stadium would be located on campus. Columbia County’s representative Harry Colay shepherded a special appropriation of $60,000 (Act 384) through the 1949 legislative session to build it. Coach Elmer Smith’s squads had continued to play at Columbia Stadium. Built before the war for use by Magnolia High School and the college, its limited wooden seating could not accommodate the large crowds that a growing senior college would attract. The new stadium at the campus’s north end had steel bleachers for four thousand fans and dressing rooms for both home and visiting teams. The Arkansas Highway Department paved the road on the campus’s east side that led to the new field. Colonel Wilkins enlisted earth-moving equipment, welders, and volunteers from local oil companies to speed up preparations that were delayed by summer rains so that Mulerider Stadium, the name conferred by the board, would be ready for the 1949 season’s opening game. Welcoming the new stadium and four-year status for Mulerider football, the Bray featured a new graphic logo in 1949–50—the bucking mule with a rider. That graphic became one of the school’s most enduring symbols. Decades later, Mulerider stadium would be renamed for President Wilkins.
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Legislators [in 1951] did easily pass Colay’s bill (Act 11) to change the name of Magnolia A&M to Southern State College (SSC). The new name took effect on January 24, 1951.