(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 81-86)
Governor [Thomas C.] McRae, like his predecessors Donaghey and Brough, was a progressive leader committed to improving Arkansas’s inadequate school system. With other reformers, he joined the professional educators of the Arkansas Education Association to form the Forward Education Movement in 1920. It soon enrolled thousands of the state’s citizens as members. McRae’s campaign for governor in 1920 promised even more, especially in funding for education. It soon became clear from expert studies, which McRae commissioned from the United States Bureau of Education, that upgrading public schools required improvements in higher education, particularly in teacher education programs. McRae’s action against the old TDAS board in 1921 [to dismiss it] was no doubt influenced by the idea that the school needed a new board for a new mission.
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Dr. [George F.] Zook’s 1921 survey on the university and the agricultural schools, released at the end of the summer, proposed a number of extremely controversial recommendations: (1) complete revision of the state’s tax system to better fund education; (2) placement of the four agricultural schools under the university’s board of trustees or, failing that change, at least more coordination of courses with the university’s agricultural program, which was not meeting the states’s needs; (3) concentration by the university on professional preparation of high school teachers and administrators; and (4) removal of the university to a more central location in the state. Some leaders of the legislature immediately rejected out of hand this last recommendation to move the university from Fayetteville; this led to a hard-fought battle in the 1923 session.
One outcome of the 1921 Zook report was Governor McRae’s appointment in June 1922 of “a permanent advisory council to meet quarterly for the purpose of acting on inter-institutional questions” between the University of Arkansas, the State Normal School, and the four agricultural schools. Its “primary purpose,” the governor declared, was “to work out a better system of credits between the institutions and for more uniform courses.” Representatives of these schools met at intervals during the following school year to carry out the governor’s assignment.
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The 1923 legislative session took up a number of the recommendations made in the several surveys completed since 1920. Governor McRae focused on tax reform to raise more funds for education. After a long struggle that included special legislative sessions in 1924, new taxes were approved, including a severance, income, and cigarette and cigar tax, resulting in larger funding for schools although the income tax was contested in court for several years. The bulk of the tax increase went to public schools, but higher education also benefited. A portion of the new revenues, in addition to a larger share of the property tax, enacted in 1921, resulted in the agricultural schools each receiving a biennial appropriation in 1925 ranging from $165,000 to $175,000. The university’s share exceeded a million dollars.
Among other legislative activity in 1923 affecting higher education, the Little Rock business community waged a vigorous campaign to move the university to central Arkansas; they very nearly succeeded, but they narrowly lost in the Senate. The agricultural school and local supporters at
Russellville feared its extinction if the experts’ recommendations [abolishing this Second District Agricultural School] were carried out since Pope County could not have afforded to maintain the school. To better justify continued funding, the Russellville school unsuccessfully sought to acquire the university’s college of agriculture and engineering.
These controversies overshadowed Special Act 229 (1923) that authorized the three agricultural schools at Jonesboro, Magnolia, and Monticello but not Russellville to establish a “department for the training of Rural School Teachers.” A subsequent conference of representatives from these schools, the State Normal School, and the State Department of Education developed plans so that “work in both the regular and summer normal courses be such as to accredit the student” to the university and to state normal.
In July 1923, a joint announcement of the university and these three agricultural schools made the institutions de facto junior colleges. The university agreed to accept “two years of advanced work in agricultural subjects” as “equivalent to two years of work in a junior college or the freshman and sophomore years in a standard college.” The university sent faculty to “inspect the College work” at the three schools to validate its quality. Playing an important role in the arrangement was a new university
agricultural dean, Dr. Bradford Knapp, who, unlike his predecessors, pursued a policy of “cooperation” with the district agricultural schools. The university’s administration, having narrowly defeated the removal movement, which could well reappear in the next legislative session, may have decided that increasing opportunities for college-level study across the state would take the steam out of that threat. The Russellvilleschool had gone its own way. Having failed get the university’s college of agriculture, it proclaimed itself a four-year college, a step from which it had to retreat within a few years when its degrees were not recognized.
TDAS proudly advertised its new status prior to the 1923 fall term. Its special advertisement in the Magnolia News declared, “For the first time in its history the Third District Agricultural School has attained the standard of a Junior College with our State University.” The 1923–24 catalog included a “college department” that provided a listing of courses “equivalent to the first two years of work given in the Colleges of Agriculture and Home Economics” at the university. The program included not only vocational subjects but also courses in English, the basic physical and biological sciences, math, and physical education.
The legislature in 1925 ratified the new status of the agricultural schools by approving a change in their names. A senator from northeast Arkansas first proposed naming all four schools agricultural and mechanical colleges, but Senator Robert Bailey of Russellville, who was then president of the Senate, seized the issue with his own bill that became Act 45 (1925). Because his school was seeking a different status, the act named it Arkansas Polytechnic College but named the others “the Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges of their respective districts.” The act altered only their names, leaving all other laws affecting the schools in place. This important step in expanding the state’s higher education system beyond the university occurred with almost no debate. The only explanation provided for change was that the name college would make it easier for students to transfer credits to colleges in other states. The measure passed both houses overwhelmingly. In this same session, the legislature also changed the name of the state normal school to Arkansas State Teachers College.