Lyon College is developing plans for veterinary and dental medicine schools — which, if successful, would make them the first in-state schools of their kind.
The private liberal arts college in Batesville plans to house the two graduate schools in its new Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences in Little Rock, Lyon College President Melissa Taverner told Arkansas Business last week during a Zoom meeting. Lyon is considering several locations in Little Rock and expects to announce the site soon.
Few details of the programs — including startup costs and enrollment — were available as Lyon is in the early stages of developing the schools and said many of the details are contingent on approval from accrediting bodies.
But pending the accreditors’ approval, the inaugural classes could start in the fall of 2024, Taverner said.
“This is ridiculously exciting stuff for us,” said Taverner, who was named president of the school in February after holding the position on an interim basis for about six months. “This is a part of our larger vision for Lyon College moving forward.”
Lyon College has partnered with OneHealth Education Group of Little Rock, which was incorporated in February, to help with the process. OneHealth is led by President Frazier Edwards, a former president of the Arkansas Osteopathic Medical Association, and Merritt Dake, the former CEO of the dental health care provider Rock Dental Brands of Little Rock.
“We are here to support Lyon and what they’re doing,” said Edwards, who supported efforts to start the osteopathic medical school in Fort Smith. “And we’re going to be looking at bringing together all of the necessary resources that we can to help them make this a reality.”
Lyon also has partnered with the Academy for Advancing Leadership of Atlanta to consult on the dental school and the Animal Policy Group of Scottsdale, Arizona, to advise on the veterinary school.
“Both of these groups have been instrumental in helping us to develop the curriculum and the preparation for accreditation moving forward,” Taverner said.
If Lyon is successful, it will create Arkansas’ first dental school. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences of Little Rock, which operates the state’s only teaching hospital, considered starting one years ago but didn’t.
In the early 2010s, UAMS said one of its goals was to have a dental school. In 2013, it opened the UAMS Oral Health Clinic and operates dental hygiene and dental residency programs. But at the time, then-Chancellor Dan Rahn said a full dental school at UAMS was about eight to 10 years away.
In 2016, UAMS hired a consultant to study the feasibility of adding a dental school as many prospective dentists from Arkansas attend the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis for their dental training.
“We did a feasibility study to determine the need and cost for a dental school,” UAMS spokeswoman Leslie Taylor told Arkansas Business last week via email.
“Although an established need exists, we did not move forward because of competing priorities and financial constraints.”
Arkansas State University of Jonesboro also has said it is considering adding a veterinary medical school.
In February 2020 — about a month before the pandemic upended daily life — ASU announced an agreement to collaborate with a publicly traded, for-profit education company, Adtalem Global Education of Chicago, to explore the feasibility of creating the medical school. Adtalem owns the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in St. Kitts and Nevis.
A spokesman for ASU said last week that there were no developments on the project. The “pandemic really delayed any progress,” Jeff Hankins, vice president for strategic communications and economic development for the ASU System, said via email.
Lyon’s Taverner said that since Lyon is a private college and working with another private entity, OneHealth, that “gives us a little bit of nimbleness and agility” that larger entities might not have to start the schools.
Graduate Programs Lyon Board Chair Perry Wilson said discussions started at Lyon about graduate programs more than a year ago. “This is not something that we jumped quickly or lightly into,” Wilson said.
And about six months ago, Taverner said the idea for veterinary medicine and dental medicine arose.
“We’ve been here for 150 years,” she said. “And these plans are part of a comprehensive and strategic set of initiatives that are all born out of our vision for Lyon and higher education in Arkansas.”
In February, Lyon announced a nursing partnership with White River Health System of Batesville where registered nurses can earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Meanwhile, OneHealth Education Group also was working to improve access to health care in many communities, said Dake, the company’s principal. Last year, Arkansas ranked 51st in the country for dental health, he said.
“This just became a personal project of mine,” Dake said. “Just having clinics in these markets is not the only way to address this. It wasn’t really addressing the provider shortage issues.”
About six months ago, Dake and Edwards began talking with Lyon’s team. “A light bulb went off,” Dake said. “We can do this.”
Wilson said that the agreement between OneHealth and Lyon “is a true partnership to develop these programs.”
“Many private colleges are entering into these kinds of partnerships with great success,” Wilson said. “And we feel like it’s a great opportunity for Lyon and the state as a whole.”
Having medical schools in Arkansas also will keep aspiring dental students in the state, Andy Goodman, president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities, said in a statement provided by Lyon College last week to Arkansas Business. “Once students migrate away from Arkansas for school, they are less likely to return, draining talent and energy from our state,” he said.
One of the first steps in opening the medical schools is getting approval from Lyon’s regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, to offer the graduate programs. Lyon applied last month and expects to hear back from the HLC around the first of 2023.
After that approval, Lyon then can move forward with accreditation applications to the Commission on Dental Accreditation and the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Education.
Meanwhile, Lyon is looking at several sites in Little Rock for its Institute of Health Sciences.
Lyon decided on Little Rock and not Batesville because of the capital city’s size and amenities.
Little Rock will be “critical for the clinical placements for both of these programs, and its central location in the state is beneficial for accessibility for our potential students,” Taverner said.
Taverner told Arkansas Business that Lyon is working on what the costs will be to start two medical colleges and how they will be paid for.
“We want to make sure that whatever we’re doing here [in Little Rock], we are still able to maintain the success of the undergraduate campus in Batesville,” she said.
Taverner also said that the initial enrollment numbers are going to be determined by the accreditors.
The graduate programs should help Lyon with declining enrollment.
Lyon had 661 students enrolled in the fall of 2020. A year later, the number had fallen to 581.
Lyon’s enrollment peaked at 715 in 2015.
“We really do feel that having both of these graduate professional schools in health care is really going to shine a spotlight on the strengths that we already have,” Taverner said.