Paul Moffatt McCain (1920–2003)

Dr. Paul Moffatt McCain served as president of Arkansas College (which later became Lyon College) from 1952 to 1969, the second-longest consecutive presidential tenure in the institution’s history. Only the first president, Isaac J. Long, served longer. McCain led the college though a period of growth, with enrollment tripling, the budget increasing by more than 600 percent, the location moving a mile to the east, and new academic buildings and residence halls springing up. His most significant accomplishment, however, was gaining accreditation for the school from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, a step that gave Arkansas College greater credibility and opened the door to new funding resources.

Paul McCain was born on January 25, 1920, in Atlanta, Georgia, the fifth child of James Ross McCain and Pauline Martin McCain. His father was the second president of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb. McCain attended Decatur Boys High School, graduating in 1936, and then went on to Erskine College, a Presbyterian institution in Due West, South Carolina, where his grandfather, John I. McCain, taught English for fifty years. Completing a BA in history in 1940, he taught English, history, and the Bible at Darlington School for Boys in Rome, Georgia, and later earned his MA and PhD in history from Duke University; his revised dissertation was published by Duke University Press in 1954.

McCain served in the U.S. Army during World War II, rising to the rank of major. He taught military history for two years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After teaching history for two years at Brenau College in Gainesville, Georgia, he was elected president of Arkansas College in Batesville (Independence County) in 1952.

McCain was the first president of Arkansas College with an earned doctorate, and he struggled to improve the quality of the faculty, a quarter of whom had no advanced degree when he arrived. He reinstituted a four-level faculty rank system and made retirement mandatory at age sixty-five, with only a few exceptions for distinguished service. These measures thinned the ranks, and McCain tried to recruit new educators with doctorates. Low salaries, however, meant rapid turnover. As he worked to improve salaries, he concentrated on hiring people with master’s degrees and then providing resources for doctoral study. By 1969, six PhD-holders had been hired, and all remained through the end of their careers. During the McCain presidency, the number of faculty increased by fifty percent.

McCain was not considered a good communicator. He appeared to be cool, conservative, and unapproachable, especially to students. His take-charge, top-down management style made him unpopular with the faculty, and his decision to increase enrollment by recruiting heavily in the Northeast alienated him from many town leaders, who blamed him for the arrival in Batesville of the 1960s youth culture of anti-war feelings, drug use, “hippie” attire, and more-evident sexual activity. In the fall of 1962, more than a third of incoming freshmen were from out of state, with a heavy influx from New York and New Jersey. In the fall of 1964, the college enrolled its first African-American student, a transfer from Arkansas AM&N (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). As the Vietnam War wound down and fewer young men saw college as a way of staying out of the army, recruiting in the Northeast faded away.

Despite these issues, McCain’s professionalism, grasp of details, and management ability met a critical need to find the resources necessary to keep Arkansas College operating. The year before his arrival, the college suffered an operating deficit of nearly $10,000. The endowment was miniscule, and over a third was totally unproductive. Construction of a dormitory at the new campus had been halted because there was no money to pay the bills. Finding the funds to increase faculty salaries, hire more faculty, recruit more students, and create a new campus became essential, and here McCain succeeded.

When he accepted the presidency, he came to a college with three campuses: the original downtown campus, limited to a single square block surrounded by residences; the middle campus, which never grew beyond a dormitory/dining hall, gymnasium, football field, and two small houses; and the Masonic campus, with three handsome buildings constructed as an orphanage plus the uncompleted new dormitory. The original campus buildings needed major renovations and still did not support increasing the size of the student body, while the Masonic property had the acreage to develop an adequate campus.

In 1954, with help from the Batesville community, the college relocated a mile to the east to what is now its present campus. The orphanage buildings were repurposed, with the imposing central building becoming the library and chapel, with the student post office and bookstore in the basement. The building to its east became the administrative center, while the matching building to the west housed science, music, and student publications. All three offered classrooms and faculty offices.

After a major fundraising campaign, construction of the first new academic building was completed in 1958, Brown Chapel and Fine Arts Building, which included a 500-seat auditorium, a small chapel, a recital space, offices, practice rooms, and classrooms. In the 1958–59 academic year, a long-range plan was developed, leading to the construction over the next ten years of a dining hall, three dormitories, a recreation building, a science building, a library, and a physical education building, which was still under construction when McCain departed the presidency.

While this massive building campaign remains McCain’s most visible legacy, perhaps his most important achievement was gaining accreditation. Upgrading faculty credentials was part of this effort, as was the institution of a fifty-five-hour general education core curriculum for all majors. After two years spent on an exhaustive self-study, college personnel were disappointed when the North Central Association rejected their request for accreditation, largely because of the college’s continuing weak financial condition. McCain ramped up fundraising, got trustees more involved, and took advantage of federal programs to support small colleges. The college applied again in the summer of 1958 and was finally granted accreditation in 1959, providing access to grant funds and increasing academic credibility.

When McCain left Arkansas College, it was still small and underfunded, but he had built a solid foundation that supported further growth in the following years, keeping the institution viable and ready for ongoing expansion under the leadership of his successors.

He left after seventeen years as president to become vice president for development at Agnes Scott, retiring in 1984.

McCain married Eleanor Kerr Brown of Troutman, North Carolina, and they had two children. Two years after her death in 1979, he married Dorothy Blake Scott of Decatur. They moved to the Clinton Presbyterian Community in Clinton, South Carolina, in 1991. McCain died on January 1, 2003, in Clinton and is buried at New Perth Cemetery in Troutman.

For additional information:
Blevins, Brooks. Lyon College, 1872–2002: The Perseverance and Promise of an Arkansas College. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.

Obituary of Paul Moffatt McCain. Greenville Online. (accessed September 9, 2020).

Diane Tebbetts
Lyon College


No comments on this entry yet.