Lyon College plans to open Arkansas’ first dental and veterinary schools at Heifer International’s Little Rock headquarters, which is being sold to a private health care company based in Little Rock.
The Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences’ dental and veterinary schools will occupy the bottom two floors of the facility and could open as early as 2024-25, depending on the accreditation process.
Heifer International will purchase a long-term lease for the top two floors from Little Rock-based OneHealth Education Group, which has signed a binding agreement to purchase the 94,000-square-foot headquarters.
The announcement was made Thursday (May 19) at the headquarters, which sits on 28 acres in the East Village area of Little Rock. The purchase terms were not disclosed. The paperwork was signed May 16.
OneHealth provides back office structure, real estate, technology and educational support for health care entities. OneHealth Founding Partner Merritt Dake said funding would come through philanthropic donations and financing options. Dr. Melissa Taverner, Lyon College president, said financing is “still in development right now.”
Taverner said in the press conference that class sizes will be determined largely by national accrediting agencies. She said the college would work with those agencies to determine the optimum number of students that can be trained effectively.
Taverner said dentistry and veterinary classes have never been offered in Arkansas. She said Arkansas students must obtain their educations elsewhere and often remain in those places rather than come back to Arkansas to practice.
Arkansas ranked 50th in the United States – ahead of only Alabama – in the number of dentists per capita with 41.82 per 100,000 residents in 2019, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. Arkansas is last in the number of veterinarians and also pays them the highest salaries, according to veterinarians.org.
She noted that the campus will be centrally located in Arkansas in a federally designated opportunity zone in an area that is being revitalized. She emphasized that Lyon College’s flagship campus will remain in Batesville and said the educational opportunities in Little Rock will enhance the student experiences there.
Taverner said the veterinary school should have an agricultural component because Arkansas is an agricultural state. Lyon College will be working with accreditors to determine how to make that happen.
“I would say that we’re not saying no to anything, except maybe an elephant. I don’t know that we would do an elephant so well,” she joked.
Lyon College is a private liberal arts college that educates between 550-600 students, which is down from its peak of 758 roughly 10 years ago. It is already adding graduate programs in teaching and education and is planning programs in a couple of other areas. She said other schools are looking at graduate programs because colleges are facing stressors including a “demographic cliff” and the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Our outcomes in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) are ridiculous,” she said. “They’re so good. Our med school acceptance rate is more than double the national average, and it’s been that for 20 years. So we have a STEM basis that is incredibly strong, so this is a logical buildout of, ‘OK, we’re really good at this already. Let’s take what we know, and leverage that to the next space.’”
Hilary Haddigan, chief of mission effectiveness at Heifer International, said the agency’s 165 employees in Little Rock have grown accustomed to working remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it no longer needs as much space. The two top floors will be adjusted to be more collaborative and more connected to its hunger-fighting teams around the globe. Heifer also operates the Heifer Ranch in Perryville.
She said employees “love the flexibility to come to the office or not, to have collaborative space here or work from home for focus, and so we want to support their wish to continue that way.”
Haddigan said Heifer executives were questioning what they would do with the building when OneHealth approached them unsolicited, and conversations began.
Dake said the three came together because, “We were all having similar conversations around different pieces and parts of this, and a mutual friend said, ‘Hey, you guys need to talk to each other.’”
Conversations are ongoing about how the campus will look. Dake noted that synergies are possible between Heifer’s livestock-oriented mission and Lyon’s future veterinary school.
Haddigan said Heifer is in a “strong position financially” with half a million U.S. donors, but the need for alleviating hunger is great. She said the sale will let Heifer focus more of its resources on its programs.
“We are unlocking funding that we used to build this campus for programs that will deliver long-term solutions and change for communities,” she said.