Ever since Hernando De Soto explored Arkansas in 1541, the natural beauty, the fertile soil, and varied landscape of the state predisposed it to a rich life of agriculture. During the next few hundred years, European explorers and settlers would join Native Americans in discovering the potential of the land. However, it was not until after Arkansas became a U.S. territory in 1819 that agriculture began to flourish.
Drawn by the promise of a good living, more people came to the Arkansas territory, and schools opened their doors as early as 1822. There were private tutors, private schools, and even—for a time—public schools. However, even after Arkansas was granted statehood in 1836, it would take several decades before the State of Arkansas began a path toward higher education.
With Act 100 in 1909 of the Arkansas General Assembly, Arkansas Governor George Washington Donaghey proposed the establishment of four Agricultural High Schools in the four quarters of Arkansas. All of the schools eventually became junior colleges, then four-year colleges and, finally, the universities they are today:
The success of these institutions would pave the way for further educational institutions in Arkansas. Other factors, it seems, were at work as well. Throughout the 1920’s and by the influence of Governor Thomas McRae, Arkansas experienced tremendous educational reforms. Different forms of funding were established, and more high schools were constructed, especially in the rural areas of the state. Thus, interest in developing an agricultural school—which was initially prohibited from becoming a college—was carefully considered for Arkansas.
In 1927, State Senator William H. Abington, a medical doctor and a prominent member of the Beebe community, proposed and successfully lobbied for legislation to establish an agricultural school in the center of the State of Arkansas. The legislation was written specifically to set up such a school in Beebe, the only town that met the act’s criteria and that made a bid for the institution. Arkansas General Assembly Act 132 stated that the school should be within 50 miles from the center of the state and at least 70 miles from another agricultural school. In addition, the town gaining the school had to donate at least 320 acres of land near a hard-surfaced road within two miles of a railroad. The road at the time was the Des Arc Road (now Highway 31), and the St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railroad Company had created the Beebe station in 1872. Two brothers, William and Eugene Abington, and others donated the land.
Signed into law March 8, 1927, Act 132 also stipulated that courses would include experiments and lectures on agriculture, horticulture, poultry, dairying, truck farming, small fruit growing, and marketing of farm products. The principal of the school would be a graduate of an agricultural school.
Act 282 of the 1927 Arkansas General Assembly established the institution as the Junior Agricultural School of Central Arkansas. After the first building was completed, the following buildings would be constructed by the students, and no tuition would be charged. The first classes were held in October 1929 with 38 students enrolled. Curiously, none were from the Beebe school district.
Act 68 of 1931 expanded the institution’s mission by changing the name to Junior Agricultural College of Central Arkansas and by enlarging the curriculum to meet the requirements of a junior college. The first graduating class was in 1933. With the need for funding beyond that provided by the legislature, the college began charging tuition. The tuition was set at $7 per semester with room and board set at $11 per month.
Through the Great Depression, the college and the local high school shared facilities and faculty. In 1939, State Hall was completed as a depression era public works project (the building still serves as the administration center to this day). During this time, students received leather bound diplomas saying, Graduate of Beebe High School and Junior Agricultural College of Central Arkansas.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the college began running buses to pick up students who could not afford to live on campus. One bus went to Bradford (36 miles), one to Romance (14 miles), and another to Hickory Plains (12 miles). The bus system was discontinued in 1955 when the college at Beebe became a part of the Arkansas State College system.
In 1951, with the death of Senator Abington, a central figure in the development of the college, the future of the institution became uncertain. Boyd Johnson (1950-53), President of the college in Beebe, worked hard to maintain state financial support, and a merger with a four-year state institution was at this time first considered. In 1952, some state legislators considered abolishing the school and formed a committee to investigate. Committee Chairman State Representative Williams reported that not only should the school remain open but that state government funding should be increased. Positive relationships with various governmental entities and a central Arkansas college identity began. The institution operated as an independent state-supported junior college until September of 1955.
To secure the future of the college, the college board began looking for a senior institution with which to become associated. The board approached several college presidents without success, including those at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and State Teacher’s College (now the University of Central Arkansas).
B. E. Whitmore (1953-56)6 and members of the board visited Dr. Carl Reng, president of Arkansas State College in Jonesboro, to discuss a possible merger. Reng asked for a few days to think about the proposition, and through a friend in Little Rock, Reng discovered that Senator Abington, before his death, had been able to secure the passage of a wine tax that could be used only by the college in Beebe. With such funding established for Beebe, Jonesboro agreed to the merger.
On July 1, 1955, Junior Agricultural College of Central Arkansas became a branch campus of Arkansas State College in Jonesboro (Craighead County), now Arkansas State University. The Arkansas General Assembly, by Legislative Act 84, abolished the institution as an independent organization and its administrative functions were assigned to Arkansas State College - Beebe Branch, which now operated under the authority of the president and board of trustees of Arkansas State College but ran its programs independently. Also in 1955, the title of chief administrator was changed from president to dean in keeping with the titles of administrators on the Jonesboro campus. B. E. Whitmore was the first to serve as dean of the college during his last year at the school.
The college’s affiliation with Arkansas State College enhanced the institution’s ability to combine the openness and flexibility of a community college with the stability and tradition of a state college system. The merger required the separation of facilities between the college and the high school.
During the late sixties and seventies, ASU-Beebe bloomed under the leadership of Dean Walter England (1964-1977). People, places, and things came together in a remarkable way. The Vietnam War doubled enrollment from 184 in 1964 to 445 in 1966 because college students were not being drafted. Returning Vietnam veterans took advantage of liberal and well-funded GI Bill programs, which further enhanced enrollment. Along with these, the whole concept of non-traditional students was maturing; veterans, spouses, and others were looking to advance their education.
The college began teaching classes at the Little Rock Air Force Base (LRAFB) in 1965. Growth there was substantial, expanding the future security of the college. ASU-Beebe programs at the LRAFB, then as now, operate under a Memorandum of Understanding with the United States Air Force. The Memorandum provides facilities used by ASU-Beebe and other higher education institutions to operate programs as a part of the LRAFB Education Center.
By Act 3 of the 1967 Arkansas General Assembly, Arkansas State College became Arkansas State University on July 1, 1967. The Beebe unit became Arkansas State University - Beebe Branch.
During this decade, the English and Fine Arts division began one of the longest running Shakespeare Festivals in the south—with continuous production for nearly 50 years.
In 1977 the title of the top leadership position was once again changed, and William Echols (1977-81) became the first to hold the title of Chancellor.
Early in the decade, federal grants produced Title III funding for four years, which financed a variety of campus initiatives.
In 1985, the Arkansas State Technical Institute (ASTI) was created by ACT 496 of the Arkansas General Assembly, in response to a proposal submitted by ASU-Beebe seeking to establish a state technical institute to provide one and two-year training and short courses in the "Hi-Tech" fields. It was charged with providing meaningful educational opportunities appropriate to the needs of individuals (training and retraining) that related to their futures in business, industrial, and technology areas. ASTI was also charged with providing workforce training on a statewide basis. Through its inclusion as part of ASU-Beebe, ASTI was set up as the only technical institute in Arkansas whose programs lead to Associate of Applied Science degrees and Technical Certificates. ASTI had a separate organizational structure and funding through the state legislative process similar to other state agencies in Arkansas. In the fall of 1986, the first pilot classes were offered in quality assurance technology.
The Miss ASU-Beebe pageant served as a preliminary for the Miss Arkansas beauty pageant in 1988, a distinction that lasted until 1998.
As the campus at Beebe continued to experience growth and change, this included the addition of other campuses and curricula, which expanded ASU-Beebe’s mission. Act 1244, enacted by the Arkansas General Assembly in 1991, established the merger of White River Vocational Technical School with ASU-Beebe. The school was re-named ASU-Beebe/Newport and provided both entities opportunities for positive growth and change.
During Spring 2000, the ASU Board of Trustees, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, and the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the status of ASU-Newport as a stand-alone campus pending completion of stated milestones. ASU-Newport met all the stand-alone requirements and now reports directly to the ASU-System President and Board of Trustees.
Chancellor William H. Owen, Jr. (1981-1994) had brought to the college a strong commitment from the community. He was a native of Beebe, a graduate of ASU-Beebe, a teacher for ASU-Beebe, and had worked as the University’s Registrar/Dean of Students. Chancellor Owen had ushered into ASU-Beebe not only the technology programs of ASTI but also the University’s first additional campus (located at Newport). Sadly, Chancellor Owen died suddenly in 1994. In honor of his contributions to ASU-Beebe, the University Center was re-named the Owen Center. Dr. Eugene McKay, the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, was appointed Interim Chancellor before becoming Chancellor—a position he continues to hold today.
In Fall 1997, ASU-Beebe agreed to offer courses at Heber Springs using classrooms at the Heber Springs High School. Higher education classes had been offered at Heber Springs by ASU-Jonesboro, but due to the high cost of tuition, enrollment was low. After discussions between the President of ASU-Jonesboro and the Chancellor of ASU-Beebe, responsibility for offering classes at Heber Springs was transferred to ASU-Beebe. The University conducted a Needs Assessment among several entities in the community and the surrounding areas. It was concluded that Cleburne County would benefit from a two-year college due to the geographic area and local support.
Arkansas General Assembly Act 426 of 1999 officially established ASU-Heber Springs, a center of ASU-Beebe in response to the community’s desire to have a two-year college presence in Cleburne County.
As time progressed, classes were held in the Courthouse Annex on Main Street, using part-time faculty as well as compressed or interactive video courses. The community continued to show support for the ASU-Heber Springs campus, and in 2000, the constituents of Cleburne County voted to support the campus with a sales tax revenue. As the school grew, a search began in earnest to find a suitable site for the campus that would allow growth to continue. The need for a permanent home became apparent as student demand was unabated, and in 2000, the first ASU-Heber Springs facility was built in the Cleburne County Industrial Park on Highway 210 East. Known as the John L. Latimer Skills Training Center, the building was a 25,000 square foot multi-functional facility, which was used at that time for ten classrooms, two computer labs, and a large industrial-type training room that could be converted for classes to meet the training needs of local industry.
ASU-Beebe began delivering courses via the Internet in 1999 with one course. Since then the demand for this alternative form of educational delivery has grown substantially. Eighty-seven courses have been developed as online offerings with 40 of those offered every semester, including summer sessions.
Act 90 of 2001 by the Arkansas General Assembly removed the term ―branch‖ from legislation affecting ASU-Beebe. The institution, with its campuses in Beebe, Heber Springs, Searcy, and at the LRAFB, is now referred to as ASU-Beebe, and continues to function as an operationally separate institution in the ASU System.
ASU–Beebe began the concurrent enrollment program in the Fall 2001. The total concurrent fall enrollment was 295 students. High schools that participated the first year were as follows:
Act 1097 of 1991 and Act 936 of 2007 of the Arkansas General Assembly provided for students who have completed the eighth grade, are enrolled in an accredited high school, and meet the admission standards of ASU-Beebe can concurrently enroll for academic courses. Qualified students can earn college credit prior to high school graduation. Act 936 also distinguished between students taking college courses at high schools (Endorsed Concurrent Enrollment) and those students taking college courses at the University (Concurrent Enrollment).
Foothills Vocational Technical School was established in 1965 and has operated at its present location in Searcy, Arkansas, fifteen miles north of Beebe, since its inception. In 1991 the school’s name changed to Foothills Technical Institute due to Arkansas legislation.10 Effective July 1, 2003, Foothills Technical Institute in Searcy merged with ASU-Beebe to become ASU-Searcy, A Technical Campus of ASU-Beebe. It was understood that the campus would maintain its technical emphasis, offering occupational training in a variety of technical fields.
In 2007, ASU-Beebe celebrated its 80-year anniversary as the oldest two-year institution in the state of Arkansas with a week full of activities. The festivities included: a charity golf tournament, piano concert, a variety of alumni receptions, an alumni basketball game, an annual 5k race, a family picnic, and an alumni dinner and awards ceremony.
Cabot High School and civic leaders approached ASU-Beebe about providing classes to the local community. With an initial offering of nine classes and an enrollment of 59 students, ASU-Beebe began offering evening classes at Cabot High School in Fall 2009. ASU-Beebe part-time and full-time faculty provide students the opportunity to earn credits toward a degree.