Jack and Judy Lassiter reflect on early UACCB for its 25th anniversary
When Dr. Jack Lassiter and his wife, Judy, drove up from Monticello one Sunday afternoon some 25 years ago, they didn’t even know where Batesville was, nor could they find the Gateway Technical College campus. This trip was the beginning of a chapter that would not only change the Lassiter’s lives, but also have an immeasurable impact on the people of Independence County.
“There was no signage, we couldn’t figure out how to get here. Nowhere in town had an arrow pointing turn here to go to Gateway Technical College,” Judy recalled. “Finally we stopped at a service station and asked somebody where the technical college was. We drove in, and there was a metal arch over this driveway that led to a gravel parking lot, and it said ‘Gateway.”
At this time, there was only the Main Classroom Building and a building for the nursing division. “It looked like a factory,” Jack added. That is something Judy would later remedy by insisting to her husband to plant the now iconic blooming trees that line the college’s drive.
Jack always had the ambition to become a college president or chancellor. His first position at University of Arkansas Monticello was vice chancellor for student affairs, and when the college began its Foundation division, he was asked to also serve as vice chancellor for development. In 1994, he was then asked to be vice chancellor for academic affairs, which Lassiter thought would be a “natural progression” to the presidency one day. He didn’t know that his dreams of presidency would take him to a new community with a growing college.
Unbeknownst to Jack, Dr. Alan Sugg, University of Arkansas System President had called Fred Taylor, then chancellor at UAM, and asked for a meeting with the Lassiters. At this meeting, it was Sugg who asked: “Would you do me a favor and go to Batesville, Arkansas, to be the interim president?”
Jack learned that the campus he would be leading was still called Gateway Technical College, and a merger with the UA system was in the works. The president there was leaving. Dr. Sugg said, “Fred said he can spare you for 90 days.”
Jack took the temporarily, not knowing that it would come to define his career and the community.
Shortly after Jack took over, the entire UA Board of Trustees, Dr. Sugg, and some of the UA system’s officers met at Batesville City Hall. “That was when the Board took the action of merging Gateway Technical College into the University of Arkansas System,” he said.
Judy said one of the UA Board of Trustees members, Lewis E. Epley Jr., who also served as chairman in 1997-99, had researched and discovered that the University of Arkansas flagship campus was almost located in Batesville. In the late 1800’s, Arkansas’s state leaders were trying to decide where to put the University of Arkansas, a public, land-grant institution to be established as part of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862. Batesville and Fayetteville were the two finalists.
According to Jack, once the board made their decision to bring Gateway Technical College into the UA System, “Mr. Epley said, ‘We came to Batesville finally - just 125 years late.”
With the affiliation with UA complete, the Gateway campus officially became the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville, and Jack was named the permanent chancellor.
Jack knew there would be a lot of work to do. His primary focus was on the passage of a countywide sales tax to aid in the continual development of the college and to show community support for the merger. From October to the election in February, Jack met with community leaders and constituents to garner support and get the sales tax passed.
The night of the election, the Lassiters waited in the courthouse as the last box was walked down the hallway to be tabulated. Jack said he and Dr. Sugg were calling back and forth. “We were behind, and it was that last box that put us over.”
The tax was a game changer for the college.
Jack said a quarter cent sales tax would start out raising $600,000 a year, but 25 years later that figure is $1.3 million a year. “It’s made a huge difference, having that kind of revenue, because at the time we had 450 students, when I came,” he noted. “Five years later, we were right at 1,500, so we needed the space.”
One of the biggest accomplishments was the building of Independence Hall, which fulfilled a promise to the voters to have a facility the entire community could use and enjoy. In fact, naming the building “Independence Hall” was a tribute to the voters who helped make the facility a reality. It was also during Jack’s tenure that the college built the math and science building, and the adult education building. Growth and construction has continued with the library, cosmetology, nursing, and maintenance buildings, and the workforce training center added to the campus over the years.
“To see what it is now - it’s easy to forget the early days,” Judy said. “I know it gives (Jack) a lot of pride to know you were in on the ground floor and helped pull all the strings together.”
Jack uses the term “communiversity” to describe UACCB’s role in Batesville and the surrounding area. Jack explains, “Too often universities want to isolate and be away from the community,” but that’s not what he wanted for UACCB. Today, the college remains focused on community by supporting its students in and out of the classroom and expanding learning opportunities to promote growth of the local workforce.
“UACCB is everybody’s college,” Jack says, adding, “We’re here to serve this community. A lot of people [have] changed their lives, and still do, right here on this campus.”
Now retired from higher education, the Lassiters spend their free time traveling and visiting their seven grandchildren. He said he may not miss the work, but he does miss the students and especially the faculty. “I will always cherish the place and the people,” Jack said.