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A Brief History of Ouachita

Ouachita Baptist University's rich history and traditions date back 130 years. Founded in 1886 with 235 students, Ouachita had a total of three graduates in its first commencement service in 1888. Since that time, Ouachita has grown into a leading liberal arts university with more than 1,500 students from 30 states and 30 nations. 

In November 1885, a vote of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention authorized Ouachita Baptist College as an institution of higher education. The institution’s Board of Trustees voted in April 1886 to locate the school in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. In June 1886, the board elected J.W. “Dr. Jack” Conger to be Ouachita’s first president at age 29. Classes began on Sept. 6, 1886, and Ouachita has continued to operate in the same location from the 19th century to the present.

Reflecting Ouachita’s longstanding focus on a love of God and a love of learning, Dr. Conger declared in his inaugural baccalaureate address, “Knowledge is no blessing, unless it is used well and wisely. With it alone, life is not complete. In dealing with things you see, you must walk hand in hand with faith in the unseen, thus only making life beautiful and blessed.”

President Conger’s administration saw the construction of a number of buildings, including Old Main in 1888. During his tenure, the faculty expanded from six to 26, enrollment more than doubled to 476 and the graduating class increased to 34 in 1907. Dr. Jack’s legacy is kept alive today with a memorial on campus and the popular Dr. Jack’s Coffeehouse named in his honor in 2012.

In Ouachita’s early years, the Great Depression brought new challenges as enrollment dropped. Keeping the doors open was a struggle. Yet under the steady leadership of Dr. J.R. Grant, Ouachita’s eighth president, the college weathered the storm and experienced significant growth, including the construction of a gymnasium, student center, auditorium and dormitory. Student enrollment and faculty numbers increased, particularly after World War II when a high of 897 students was reached in 1947. After Old Main was destroyed by fire in 1949, the Grant Memorial Building was dedicated in 1953, honoring Dr. Grant’s achievements and housing Ouachita’s administration until 1995.

The tenure of Ouachita’s eleventh president, Dr. Ralph Phelps, Jr., saw a revised and expanded curriculum, the introduction of a graduate program, doubling of Ouachita’s endowment and a then-record enrollment of 1,881 in 1966. Major facilities constructed under Dr. Phelps’ leadership and still in use include O. C. Bailey Hall, J.E. Berry Chapel and Bible Building and portions of Riley Library and Verser Theatre. The Board of Trustees voted in 1965 to change the institution’s name to Ouachita Baptist University.

Academic and Christian Excellence

In 1970, Dr. Daniel R. Grant, who grew up as the son of Ouachita’s eighth president, followed in his father’s footsteps. During Dr. Grant’s tenure as Ouachita’s 12th president, the university experienced strong growth through an emphasis on “Academic and Christian Excellence.”

Advancements that reverberate to this day include international exchange programs, an expanded honors program and the establishment of endowed chairs of instruction. Much of the campus was rebuilt with the addition of Evans Student Center (1973), Lile Hall (1973), Mabee Fine Arts Center (1975), the campus drive and pedestrian bridge (1976), Eddie Blackmon Field House (1977), McClellan Hall (1978), Lancelot and Starlight Apartments (1981), Sturgis Physical Education Center (1983) and Riley-Hickingbotham Library (1987). The average number of graduates each year grew from 228 in the 1960s to 322 in the 1980s.

“My sense of mission at Ouachita, above everything else, was to make academic excellence and Christian excellence strong and inseparable,” said Dr. Grant. “That is Ouachita’s great tradition and great vision.”

Dr. Ben M. Elrod, a 1952 Ouachita graduate, was elected as his alma mater’s 13th president in 1988. Under his leadership, undergraduate enrollment grew by more than 30 percent and climbed to record levels during the 1990s. The university phased out graduate programs to concentrate on undergraduate education. A far-reaching emphasis on international education was developed through the Daniel R. Grant International Studies Program (now the Daniel and Betty Jo Grant Center for International Education). The number of international students and MKs grew to nearly 10 percent of the student body, and each year nearly 100 Ouachita students participated in international exchange programs with universities in several countries.

The campus took on a new look with the addition of R.A. Lile Hall (1989), Jones Performing Arts Center (1992), Anthony Residence Hall (1994), Maddox Residence Hall (1995), the Tiger Den (1996), the Katie Speer Pavilion and Gardens (1996-1998), the International Flag Plaza (1997) and the Harvey Jones Science Center (1997). Cone-Bottoms Hall, a residence hall for women from 1923 through 1985, was completely remodeled in 1994 to house the Grant Administration Center.

In October 1996, the Ouachita Board of Trustees voted to resume responsibility for trustee selection, as prescribed in the institution’s original charter. The amended charter reversed the provision of a 1914 revision that had allowed the election of trustees by messengers to the annual meeting of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Under Dr. Elrod’s leadership, the board continued to collaborate with the convention nominating committee in the trustee selection process.

“An institution such as Ouachita is a living entity, created afresh by each generation,” reflected Dr. Elrod, who has served since 1998 as university chancellor. “It is exciting to view a new Ouachita being built on the foundation of the past.”

Under the leadership of Dr. Andrew Westmoreland, elected Ouachita’s 14th president in 1998, the university continued its emphasis on strengthening undergraduate education. The CORE curriculum was fully implemented, reviewed and revised. The university was reorganized into eight schools, each led by an academic dean: the Frank D. Hickingbotham School of Business, the Chesley and Elizabeth Pruet School of Christian Studies, the Michael D. Huckabee School of Education, the School of Fine Arts, the School of Humanities, the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, the J. D. Patterson School of Natural Sciences and the W.H. Sutton School of Social Sciences.

During the Westmoreland administration, the Center for Family and Community was renamed in honor of Chancellor Ben M. Elrod, and the Sutton Center for Integrity was established in honor of longtime trustee chairman William H. “Buddy” Sutton and his late wife, Peggy. Additions to the campus during Dr. Westmoreland’s tenure included the Ouachita Commons dining facility (2001), the Crews Indoor Athletic Pavilion (2003), Hickingbotham Hall (2006) and the Pat and Willard Walker Conference Center (2006).

Dr. Westmoreland was elected president of Samford University in 2006. Looking back on his years as a Ouachita student, staff member and president, he said, “At the heart of the institution stood the members of our faculty, brought together from points around the world with a desire to fuse the love of God with the love of learning. To this day, I am inspired by them.”

Equipping “Difference Makers”

Dr. Rex M. Horne, Jr., was named by the Board of Trustees to become the 15th president of Ouachita, effective June 1, 2006. Prior to accepting the Ouachita presidency, he served 16 years as senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock as well as serving two terms as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

A call for Ouachita students, faculty and staff to be “difference makers” in all areas of life was a hallmark of Dr. Horne’s presidency. Under his leadership, Ouachita significantly enhanced and expanded campus facilities, including opening the Student Village and Ben and Betty Elrod Boulevard in 2009, Heflin Plaza and Georgia W. Hickingbotham and Westside residence halls in 2010, Cliff Harris Stadium in 2014 and new facilities for the Ben M. Elrod Center for Family and Community in 2015. Major remodeling projects that have added life and energy to existing facilities include Evans Student Center, Lile Hall, the Grant Center for International Education and the Rosemary Adams Department of Visual Arts.

President Horne facilitated Ouachita’s yearlong 125th anniversary celebration in 2011, including launching the university’s 125th anniversary “Defining the Difference” capital campaign. New initiatives during his presidency included launching the Ouachita at New Life Church’s Associate of Arts degree program, Ouachita Online, Biomedical Scholars Program and the Loan Affordability Pledge. The university also continues to gain national recognition for academic excellence among such publications as U.S. News & World Report and Forbes.

“Ouachita is widely recognized as an excellent university,” Dr. Horne said. “The future years will testify of excellence all around campus. Our teaching, student life, athletics, facilities and expectations will be marked by excellence. I know of no other word that should more fully describe Ouachita Baptist University.”

Dr. Horne served more than nine years as president of Ouachita. He resigned in 2015 to accept the presidency of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities, a consortium of 11 independent institutions of higher education throughout the state.

Dr. Charles Wright, professor emeritus of music and retired dean of Ouachita’s School of Fine Arts, was named interim president of Ouachita effective Aug. 1, 2015, and served through May 2016. Dr. Wright, who retired in 2004 following a 40-year career at Ouachita, returned to the university staff in 2013 as a development officer. He holds three degrees from Ouachita as well as a Doctor of Education degree in music education from North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas).

“I have spent most of my life at Ouachita and my love for her and our faculty, staff and students has no boundaries,” Dr. Wright said. “My personal challenge is to assist in every way possible to help Ouachita continue to make the amazing progress she has made under Dr. Horne’s astute leadership.

New Era of Leadership

Ushering in a new era of leadership at Ouachita, trustees elected Dr. Ben R. Sells as Ouachita’s 16th president effective June 1. 2016. Dr. Sells, who has extensive leadership experience in higher education, fundraising and missions involvement, previously served more than nine years as vice president for university advancement at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., where he directed record fundraising efforts and had responsibilities for university strategic planning.

Citing “a confident call specifically to Ouachita,” Dr. Sells declared, “I don’t come to Ouachita with a specific agenda for the future. I believe that such a plan will emerge as we seek the wisdom of the Lord, listen to the voices of the Ouachita family and engage in candid and respectful conversations.”

Dr. Sells holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., and two degrees, a Master of Arts and a PhD in higher and adult education, from the University of Missouri in Columbia. As an undergraduate, he participated in the Oxford Overseas Study Program and in 2012 he earned a certificate from Harvard University’s Institute for Educational Management.

Other higher education experience includes serving as vice president for admissions and student life and director of university ministries at Southwest Baptist University and as an English instructor at Huaiyin Teachers College in China. He also has served as vice president for Avis Industrial Corporation, senior vice president of development for Enactus, coordinator of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board’s International Learning Center and director of the IMB’s International Centre for Excellence in Leadership.

Dr. Sells’ wife, Lisa, served most recently as co-founder and executive director of Lift, an after-school faith-based initiative for elementary school students. They are the parents of four children: Emily (husband, Ben) Kenney, Patrick (wife, Sarah) Sells, Abby (husband, Tim) Miller, and Tyler.

Looking to the future, Dr. Sells said, “At our core, we are focused on forming people – what Ouachita so importantly describes as ‘fostering a love of God and a love of learning’ – and that must remain foremost.

“I cannot imagine a better time, a better opportunity for Ouachita Baptist University to lead the way in creating a more viable, more substantive and more enduring model of education,” he emphasized. “This is Ouachita’s opportunity to further define, to differentiate and to distinguish itself as a Christian university, as a Baptist college, that will provide to students unparalleled value over time.”

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