UA Rich Mountain History
The University of Arkansas Rich Mountain is isolated on the west central edge of Arkansas. UA Rich Mountain’s main campus is located in Mena near US Highway 71, the main artery between Fort Smith and Texarkana. State highways from UA Rich Mountain’s service area to larger cities are narrow and winding. Mena is a minimum of 1.5 hours in any direction from a larger city. The closest four-year institution is the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, which is 82 miles to the north. Henderson State University is 85 miles to the east. Traveling to Little Rock, the Arkansas capital, is a 2.5- hour one-way trip. Students pursuing further education must conduct a dangerous commute, relocate, or look for online or hybrid options.
Tucked at the foot of Rich Mountain, Mena offers a rich abundance of untouched scenic beauty and natural resources. Rich Mountain is the second highest mountain in Arkansas and sits in the heart of the Ouachita Mountain range, the highest range between the Appalachians and the Rockies. The 54-mile Talimena Scenic Drive includes the summit of Rich Mountain and the Queen Wilhelmina State Park and Lodge. The region features numerous crystal-clear rivers, lakes, streams, the Ouachita National Forest, Wolf Pen Gap and other ATV trails. There are a variety of outdoor activities including canoeing/kayaking, horseback riding, fishing, boating, hunting, golfing, hiking, crystal digging, camping, and more.
The most recent College history is significant: the 2017 merger with the University of Arkansas System. University of Arkansas Rich Mountain is the result of Rich Mountain Community College (RMCC) merging into the University of Arkansas System. As outlined in the 2016 merger agreement between the University of Arkansas System’s Board of Trustees and President and RMCC’s Board of Trustees and President, Rich Mountain Community College became a system institution and was renamed to the University of Arkansas Community College Rich Mountain.
The UA System merger allowed for retention of existing mission, vision, philosophy and scope, and strategic goals. UA Rich Mountain continues to serve the community as an open enrollment, state-supported, comprehensive, two-year community college. The College continues to provide the highest quality of instruction, services, and resources. With increased flexibility and transferability for College constituents, the ability to serve our institutional mission has never been greater. The merger gives expanded program options through transfer and articulation agreements with University of Arkansas four-year institutions. The merger includes a network for collaboration opportunities of professional development resources for faculty and staff, educational delivery processes and resources, and employee health insurance cost sharing.
UA Rich Mountain grew from the one original building to having buildings in all three counties in its service area. Multiple progressive renovations to campus buildings have taken place over the years. The College has had four presidents, two interim presidents, three names, and at least four logos and three different color schemes. What follows is a recap of our rich history.
In 1973, the Arkansas Department of Vocational Education established Rich Mountain Vocational-Technical School. The service area included Polk, Montgomery, and Scott counties. Vo-Tech classes began in 1975 with Dr. Mary Louise Spencer as president. In 1976, Henderson State University came to Polk County as an outreach program and offered residents the first two years of general education courses toward a bachelor’s degree. The Polk County Committee for Higher Education formed under the direction of Rachel Goforth as chair and began work to establish a college in Mena that combined these two services.
Arkansas Act 16 of 1983, authored by State Representative Ode Maddox, established the community college system in Arkansas. In April of that year, Polk County voters approved a 5-mill tax to establish the Polk County Community College District. With Dr. Mary Louise Spencer as its first president, Rich Mountain Community College opened July 1, 1983, with an enrollment of 290 students. The College immediately applied for candidacy for accreditation with the North Central Association.
During the tenure of Mr. Bill Abernathy, who became president in 1987, development of community college programs began in earnest. After the required number of compliance years, Rich Mountain Community College received full accreditation in 1990, as well as obtaining approval for Waldron as an off-campus site. Under Mr. Abernathy’s leadership, the College received five-year reaccreditations in both 1995 and 2000.
To acknowledge the early community leaders’ significant contributions for higher education in the region, the Board dedicated buildings on the Mena campus to bear the names of Mr. Ode Maddox (in 1998), Dr. Mary Louise Spencer (1986), and Mr. Bill Abernathy (1992).
By 1993, just ten years into its successful history, enrollment had increased to 766 students. Programs and offerings changed over the years to include computer programming while course offerings in the math and science fields increased substantially. During Abernathy’s presidency, multiple federal grant program applications for areas with low poverty rates netted funding that ensured access to higher education and student success. Under each of the College’s presidents, new and renewed federal and state grants continued to benefit service area students. In 1995, the St. John Library expansion project was completed, and the College acquired the historic National Guard Armory, also known locally as the Historic Armory.
In 2000, Dr. Janet Smith became the third RMCC president. The Fall 2001 semester enrollment reached the 1,000-student mark. The increase was primarily due to the Aalfs Manufacturing Company plant closing. Aalfs had employed about 500 people in Mena to manufacture denim jeans. NAFTA helped navigate the way for students to enroll in college for training in new fields. The College purchased the adjoining 75.97 acres laying directly behind the College property from the Watkins family during 2002. The acquisition protected the College from becoming landlocked and provided for growth and expansion of the campus footprint for decades to come.
Renovations in 2003-2004 focused on the Maddox building and converting the diesel mechanic bay into a Student Center and exercise room. The RMCC Radio/TV program moved into a dedicated space to house the equipment and editing machines. New construction included two buildings to accommodate advances in the Machine Tool Technologies program and to house the Maintenance department and staff. At the completion of the 2005 reaccreditation process, the Higher Learning Commission designated Rich Mountain as a “model rural community college” and awarded the first 10-year accreditation in the College’s history.
Between 2001 and 2005, Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council (ANCRC) grant funds covered renovations to the Historic Armory. Over the next few years, subsequent ANCRC grants provided funding to renovate both the upper and lower ponds and campus walking trails and to construct an outdoor amphitheater. Progress continued, in partnership with the City of Mena, with the addition of a hangar and shared offices and classrooms at the Mena Intermountain Airport for an aviation maintenance program. The hangar was converted later to house an expanded welding program.
In 2006, an RMCC Board of Trustees directive to College administrators was to expand access to education to the entire service area and to improve technology for an increase in online course offerings. By designating a portion of the budget annually to the directive, the number of online courses via a Moodle platform quickly increased from nine to over thirty per semester. Other technology improvements include electronic teaching stations and smartboards in classrooms, and the new desks in the computer technology classrooms allow monitors to be in a raised or lowered position, providing flexibility of courses taught in those classrooms. Technology and access increased further in fall 2013 when outreach expanded, and courses became available through compressed interactive video (CIV). Because of the investments in equipment in Mena and at the Waldron and Mount Ida sites, classes made that would not have in earlier years for the low enrollment numbers at each separate location. A savings in the cost of instruction was (and continues to be) an added benefit – one instructor for three locations. Equipment installed in 2014 at service area high schools further increased concurrent opportunities, which continues to increase enrollment. Computer lab equipment stays current. Wireless Internet capabilities exist campus wide. ZOOM capability offers online face-to-face contact between instructors and students. Social media outlets further expand contact with students, alumni, community members, and potential students.
RMCC formed a one-year lease partnership with the Waldron School District for two vacant classroom buildings in 2005. In 2006, a five-year lease set the stage for a dramatic increase and expansion of classes offered in Waldron. No longer were students required to make the drive to Mena for some courses needed for an associate degree. Initially, students could complete the two-year degree in three years. Within a few years, all classes were available in Waldron, and the timeframe of two years for a degree was standard. By 2010, the lease agreement became a long-term lease. In late 2016 under President Wilson, the Waldron School District deeded the property to the RMCC Foundation. The cut rock building on site is in the process of an “historical” designation. With plans to renovate the building for community use, the College is hopeful of acquiring an ANCRC grant to make it a reality. Other long-range plans include renovation to the classroom building and a consolidation of administrator spaces into the same space.
The College established an active presence in Montgomery County in 1994 after being funded with the first Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) grant for the service area. An EOC representative worked in Montgomery County two days per week. In the next few years, class development began, and, by 1996, a limited number of general education classes were offered at night at the Mount Ida High School. In 1997, the College partnered with Adult Education, JTPA, and EOC to establish a bigger presence in Montgomery County by renting a building on Elder Street in Mount Ida. Signage on the building informed constituents of the College presence. During the 1999-2000 academic year, a lease was signed with a local businessman for classroom facilities on Main Street, and the College moved. Computer classes and night classes were offered on site. In 2002-2003, due to increased enrollment, the College entered into an agreement with Montgomery County to lease space at the County Annex where additional classes could be offered instead of using the high school facilities. Enrollment continued to increase in the years to follow. While focusing on the 2006 Board of Trustees expansion of outreach facilities directive, the search began for a location for a stand-alone building. In 2009, acreage with an existing structure in Mount Ida was purchased by the College Foundation with plans for the College to renovate over the next year. In 2011, the College entered into a long-term lease partnership with the RMCC Foundation for the Mount Ida property. Today’s technology continues expanding educational opportunities for Montgomery County residents.
In 2006, the College collaborated with the DeQueen-Mena Educational Cooperative (DMEC) and Mena Regional Health Systems (MRHS) to establish an ABC Preschool program on campus. The preschool provided services to students, employees of MRHS, and other qualifying residents and was located in a modular building on campus. In 2011, at the end of the five-year agreement, DMEC decided to move the program to another facility. The modular building became property of the College as part of the original agreement. This building has served the College in various ways including as a temporary food service facility and as office spaces. Additional collaboration with local governmental units provided opportunities to develop athletic fields for the soccer, baseball, softball, and the cross-country track.
By 2008, the RMCC Strategic Plan included renovations to accommodate growth and floor plans to centralize the admissions process. In 2009, during the tenure of President Wayne Hatcher, the timeline drastically changed after an EF3 tornado destroyed parts of the campus in Mena. Damage totaled $3.6 million. Although every College building in Mena was impacted, credit classes and student services were never interrupted. Credit goes to the community for helping provide temporary spaces to house the displaced departments and to the area high schools for providing space for the end of semester work and the summer sessions. When the rebuilding and repairs were complete, the Tower Room housed the one-stop admissions center.
In 2010, a greenhouse construction project added new opportunities for botany students. Propagation and germination education also benefit the College. Within a few years, students began growing some bedding plants from seed for college use instead of Physical Plant staff purchasing all the annuals each spring. Long-range goals are to add more perennials to the landscape each year, further reducing recurring facility and labor costs. Cost savings continue to grow.
UA Rich Mountain demonstrates a true dedication to the concept of lifelong learning with programs ranging from Kids College to 55+ program. Throughout its history, the College has offered enrichment opportunities for its residents. Kids College is a popular summer day camp for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. An assortment of sessions addresses the interests of children, ranging from fishing and gardening to digital photography/newsletters, art, and dance. What used to be the 60+ program is now 55+/Double Nickel. Numerous history and exercise classes are offered tuition free to qualifying senior citizens. Lifelong Learning (LLL) schedules short courses in subjects like QuickBooks, Computer Basics, digital photography, and quilting. Culinary classes range from cake decorating and candy making to puffed pastry and turkey carving knife skills. Approximately 75 LLL classes are offered each year.
On the Workforce side of lifelong learning opportunities, EMT, welding, CNA, and truck driving are among the courses taught each year. Each are on career ladders to other courses. Statewide efforts are working to further develop several trades’ apprenticeship programs. Currently, only the plumbing program exists in the service area. The Medical Billing and Coding certificate and degrees were initially developed by the LLL/Workforce team to address community needs.
What started as a Lifelong Learning cooking and baking classes taught in the Historic Armory kitchen evolved into Culinary Arts certificate programs with the first credit courses offered in Spring 2010. A need for an expanded space was obvious. By 2012, due to creative planning, property across from the front NE corner of campus (originally purchased in 2007 primarily for expanded parking) was identified as an ideal spot to relocate the existing modular building from another area of the College property. The city formally annexed the property into city limits for the needed access to the water infrastructure. The state-of-the-art Culinary Arts building opened its doors for credit classes in Spring 2013. Soon after, the certificate of proficiency was expanded into a technical certificate. Both credit and non-credit culinary classes are currently offered each semester. The Foundation’s Supper Club uses the facility each year to prepare seven course meals with proceeds in support of scholarships, campus special projects, and/or the culinary arts program fund.
In 2013, the existing library footprint was expanded to create the Edward and Deedie Johnson Learning Commons by adding Student Support Services (SSS) staff for a centralized location for studying, tutoring, and advising. SSS staff includes full- and part-time tutors plus a dedicated computer lab among other services available to students. The library space still contains the St. John Library book collection and an open computer lab with extended hours of operation. New study rooms are equipped with Wi-Fi and large wall-mounted monitors for presentation practice or group study. Other new amenities include student/public access to a document scanner, academic databases that have gone through the vetting process, and the Coogan Special Collections, an archival documents storage room designed to house relevant historical documents.
The creation of the Student Union involved relocating the bookstore and student activities meeting room and building in-house food service for the Mountain Range Grill. The Grill is open for breakfast and lunch with the bookstore providing convenience store items into the evening hours. The Student Union became a collegiate space for students to recharge or study. With the addition of campus housing, the Student Union was expanded to include a full-service cafeteria. Outside activities include a practice soccer goal and a 9-hole disc golf course.
The Ouachita Center opened its doors in August 2014. The Ouachita Center (OC) provides a 13K square foot flexible space, outfitted with retractable dividing walls and retractable seating for 219, or 700-800 chair theatre-style seating for larger groups. Equipped with a catering kitchen and dining tables, the OC can accommodate banquets for 350-400 seated guests. Examples of events held in the OC include faculty/staff meetings (Inservice), student meetings (Senior Day, Junior Day), Honors Evening, graduation ceremonies, Theatre department performances, the annual science fair, and banquets. An art hanging system is used for exhibits and shows. The building design includes a geothermal HVAC system, providing comfort more economically than a traditional system. Beginning with the Fall 2020 semester, the College opened four townhouse-style campus housing units to include 152 beds for resident students. The Bucks Training Facility, open to students and employees alike for physical workouts, also opened in the Fall 2020 semester.
From its inception, the College has awarded thousands of degrees and certificates in various fields of interest. Under the direction of Chancellor Wilson, plans are to build on the past and continue developing programs that meet community needs. In the last decade, new programs include cosmetology, massage therapy, culinary arts, welding, and advanced manufacturing, advanced nursing, healthcare billing and coding, database design, and online delivery of entire degrees.