A Curious Mind: Lyon College boss works to meet important Arkansas needs

When Dr. Melissa Taverner was young, she wanted to be an astronaut. Science and especially the natural world fascinated her. When she was in junior high, she discovered something that she loved even more — the world of biology. Taverner traded her dreams of flying through space to study life and the processes around it, she told Talk Business & Politics.

Taverner was appointed as the 19th president of Lyon College in February. She is the first woman to serve as the college’s president in a permanent capacity. Her unique resume — she has a doctorate in environmental sciences and a master’s degree in virology — may serve Lyon College well as it looks to open a dental school and a veterinary school.

“Life is extraordinary on every level. … Understanding the pieces of life’s puzzle is fascinating,” she said. “I’ve had a lifelong curiosity about it. … I believe a curious mind is an engaged mind.”

The new president joined Lyon College in October 2017 as provost and dean of faculty. Before joining Lyon, Taverner was an associate professor of Biology at Emory & Henry College, a national liberal arts college in Emory, Va. From 2016 to 2017, she was the interim vice president for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College. In her 22 years at Emory, she also was chair of the Division of Natural Sciences, director of Assessment, and chair of the Department of Biology.

Taverner received her doctorate in environmental science from the University of Virginia, her master’s degree in virology from the University of Reading in United Kingdom, and her bachelor’s degree in biology from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.

The Virginia native didn’t set out to be a teacher even though she comes from a family of teachers, she said. Taverner worked as a manager for a cancer research lab for a few years. It didn’t take her long to realize that she yearned to return to the classroom to prepare others for careers in the biological sciences.

A few months after she had accepted the position of president, Lyon College made statewide news when it announced it was formulating plans to open the vet and dental schools in concert with OneHealth Education Group. OneHealth utilizes private sector capital and consultant solutions to support the launch of professional health science programs. The group aims to reduce the debt burden of graduating professionals and to provide solutions for communities that lack ample access to healthcare.

Lyon College officials had pondered an expansion into the two sectors for a couple of years, and OneHealth seemed like the right partner, Taverner said. The Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences was born.

OneHealth bought the Heifer International campus in Little Rock and the two schools will be housed in the building. Lyon College and OneHealth expect it to take three years to get the proposed schools operational, she said.

The Natural State is in desperate need of both schools. Last year, Arkansas ranked 51st in the country for dental health and is experiencing a dentist shortage.

“With no in-state options, aspiring dental students in Arkansas are forced to pay out-of-state tuition, which is significantly greater than in-state tuition fees,” said Andy Goodman, president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities. “Once students migrate away from Arkansas for school, they are less likely to return, draining talent and energy from our state.”

With only 14.3 veterinarians per 100,000 individuals, Arkansas ranks 49th in the country for its veterinarian-population ratio, and agriculture makes up nearly 15% of Arkansas’ economy with poultry, cattle, and equines accounting for the largest share of that. Demand is expected to increase. A recent study predicts Americans will increase their spending on pet healthcare by 33% in the next decade, while the number of new veterinarians entering the profession each year increases by just 2.7%, falling short of the need for 40,000 new veterinarians in the U.S. by 2030.

“Our strength in education, coupled with our partnership with OneHealth, creates a unique opportunity to meet an important need that affects every Arkansan,” Taverner said.

OneHealth has partnered with the Academy of Advancing Leadership (AAL) and the Animal Policy Group for guidance in developing the schools. The AAL is a health and higher education consulting firm assisting with the dental school development, and the Animal Policy Group works with the veterinary industry and schools in the U.S. and throughout the world.

The accreditation process has gone smoothly to this point, she added.

“No, there haven’t been any surprises. OneHealth has been in the dental space before. They’ve developed a lot of relationships in the space. We are moving quickly and that’s a good thing,” she said.

Lyon College, like other higher education institutions, faces a gauntlet of obstacles in the coming years. College enrollments nationwide are expected to plunge by as much as 25% from 2025 and onward. This downward trend is a result of people having fewer children after the 9/11 attacks and the Great Recession in 2008.

The new schools will help, but that’s not the only proactive measures the college is taking, Taverner said. Lyon College has expanded programs in exercise science, business, data and computer science and others.

One program set to expand, the school’s nursing program, came after White River Medical Center approached the college with a real-world problem, Taverner said. Many area nursing students have left to complete their education elsewhere and it makes it difficult for White River to compete for nurses. Earlier this year, the college announced a collaboration with WRMC in Batesville to develop an RN to BSN program.

Does Taverner have any regrets about not venturing into space and spending her career in higher education?

“No. This is what I want to do,” she said.

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