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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Stirring up a small town – Arkansas Online

Batesville often gets called a nice little town. Lyon College nestled there often gets called a quiet little independent liberal arts college. Those descriptions always have seemed apt.

It was kind of jarring, then, when the Chronicle of Higher Education, a widely read national trade publication, ran an article on colleges’ safety concerns over racial politics in their communities. Both the aforementioned nice little town and quiet little college got oddly prominent mention.

The article included quotations from the Lyon College president of four years, Dr. W. Joseph “Joey” King, that the college was a bubble amid KKK members, other white supremacists and angry and disenfranchised people, and that Batesville had been the site of a large rally for Donald Trump in November 2020 attended by people carrying Nazi and Confederate symbols and necessitating a campus lockdown.

There wasn’t any such rally.

King put out a statement last weekend, nearly a month after the article appeared. The content of the article had begun to reach local attention and show up on social media.

The president said he had been misquoted about the rally and was seeking a correction from the publication.

He also contended that he meant by “bubble” not just the college but the much-appreciated protective immediate community, which would certainly include Batesville and perhaps all of Independence County.

Brock Read, the editor of the Chronicle, tells me the paper did not misquote King, but did report erroneous information based on what he told it, and would correct that.

It’s kind of convoluted, but Read said King told him earlier this week that he had been worried about such a rally occurring in Batesville on that November 2020 day and ordered a lockdown for the few students on campus during the pandemic. But the rally occurred elsewhere.

As is customary, the Chronicle had cleared its quotations of King with him, and he hadn’t objected to the rally reference as written–because, he said, according to Read, that he’d checked the text haphazardly on his phone and simply missed it.

In his weekend statement, King stood his ground on other quoted matters. He said that, while Batesville and the immediate community were fine, no one should pretend to expect inclusiveness in all areas of the state.

But any college president in Arkansas or much of the United States could say the same thing. The darkness of Jan. 6 didn’t come from nowhere, but everywhere. But why on Earth would any college president in Arkansas say so to the leading national higher-education journal? Especially a president of a quiet little college in a small town?

Batesville is riled up.

Robert Griffin, the Independence County judge, said he was “mystified” and “befuddled.” He said the county “has some good ol’ boys, of which I am one,” but that, in 67 years, he’d never been made aware of a single white supremacist or KKK member, much less any assembly of them, in the county.

Batesville is about 80 percent white and conservative, as most of white rural Arkansas is. But it’s always been something of its own place, not as racially diverse or poor as Delta communities to the east, nor as remote as hill counties to the west.

Griffin said Batesville had a recent Gay Pride rally downtown that came off without incident and a Black Lives Matter event in the park that occurred peacefully.

The fact is that this quiet little liberal arts school of Presbyterian founding and 600 to 700 students has been historically beneficial to the community and its quality of life.

But now this.

King is not from there, and, for that matter, is not of a traditional college president’s background. His doctorate is in human-computer interaction from the University of Washington. He has been a tech businessman, a Rice University special projects director, a vice president for innovation at a small Texas college, and a consultant to a president at a small Virginia college.

Some have described his personal style as isolated from townsfolk, even from the college community. A former student has assailed him for unresponsive leadership in a blog post widely circulated in Batesville.

Perhaps he suffers from misconceptions. Maybe he was simply misunderstood.

Whatever the case–whatever the level of inaccuracy in King’s accounts or errors in their retelling in print–it doesn’t seem at all smart for a small-college president in a small country town to disparage that town to a national audience.

I heard that the Lyon College Board of Trustees would meet today, presumably on this matter. But nobody with the school would confirm that. People started clamming up about midday Tuesday.

That’s fine. It’s a small, quiet private school with private business to handle.

But Batesville is a very public place and the Chronicle of Higher Education is a very public forum.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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