Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School's Centennial History, 1909-2009. By James F. Willis. (Magnolia: Southern Arkansas University Foundation, 2009. Pp. 447. Preface, acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, notes, index. $34.99, paper.)
From a scholar's standpoint, most institutional histories stink. Given the university's centrality to scholarly endeavors, you might think that academic institutions would buck the trend, but that is too rarely the case. Typically, histories of colleges and universities are either hagiographic celebrations of mediocrity or poorly organized collections of vignettes and lists of personnel, popular athletes, and prominent donors. Fortunately for those in the Southern Arkansas University (SAU) family, James F. Willis's institutional history doesn't stink. Sure, at times the book lapses into ruminations on Xerox machine replacement and walking trail construction that only a true insider could appreciate, and on occasion it seems that anyone with at least five years of employment at the university garners at least one mention in the text. All in all, however, this centennial history is a solid account of SAU's story set against the backdrop of public higher education in Arkansas and the social and economic life of the southwestern part of the state.
SAU began life as Third District Agricultural School (TDAS). In 1909, responding to lobbying efforts by the Arkansas Farmers' Union and emulating recent educational efforts in other states, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 100, which provided funds for the creation of an agricultural high school in each of four districts. Magnolia won out over Hope, Mena, and other competing towns to claim the third district's school; Monticello, Russellville, and Jonesboro captured the bids in their respective districts. Though officially founded in 1909, TDAS commenced classes only in January 1911. Like similar institutions around the country, in its early years the forerunner of SAU was indeed a high school whose curriculum was founded on vocational agricultural training for prospective farmers and farm wives. Students produced much of what they ate in the school's dairy and farming operations.
In 1925, following the lead of the three other schools, TDAS underwent a conversion to junior college status as the result of another legislative action. For the next quarter-century, the school, renamed the State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Third District, or "Magnolia A&M" colloquially, experienced evolutionary cycles common to the state's institutions of higher education in that era-fluctuating enrollments, financial exigencies, the GI Bill boom days of the post-World War II years. …