University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS)

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) is a state-supported liberal arts institution of higher education with its main campus located near Interstate 540 in the north-central part of the city. The 164-acre campus is a local landmark highly prized by area citizenry for its well-kept beauty.

Founded in 1928 by the local school board as an extension of the high school, Fort Smith Junior College (FSJC) had thirty-four students in its first class. Financed in the beginning out of the high school budget, the college was established during a national educational movement toward two-year colleges. In 1937, FSJC students moved out of the high school itself into their own classrooms, which had been built into the new football stadium. In 1950, the college separated altogether from the high school and moved to the outskirts of the town into a spare building on the county poor farm. There, along a narrow street shaded by oak trees, FSJC re-chartered itself as a private institution and sought to support itself solely through tuition and private donations. Elmer Cook became the first president of the college with its move to the separate campus.

Students, faculty, and administrators swept hallways, washed windows, and painted the inside walls of the brick three-story building that was soon rechristened Old Main and which would house offices, classrooms, a student lounge, and a cafeteria. Students laid out a baseball field on the farm’s former garden plot. The Lions basketball team and its pep band hitched rides across town for practice and varsity games in the gym and facilities of the Fort Smith Boys Club. The college named its two annual faculty achievement awards after Lucille Speakman and Luella Krehbiel, pioneering instructors who, in the early years, sometimes returned part of their meager paychecks to help keep the college solvent.

The private college struggled financially until Amendment 52 to the state constitution in 1964 allowed two-year colleges, for the first time, to receive public funding. This was brought about particularly by the persuasive work of Shelby Breedlove, the third president of the college. For the now publicly supported college, stability brought with it a steady growth over a period of years. To reflect increased educational responsibilities and programs, the governing board of trustees changed the name of the institution in 1966 to Westark Junior College (WJC) and then in 1972 to Westark Community College (WCC). Fort Smith native Joel Richard Stubblefield, who served as president of the college for twenty years, oversaw the mushrooming student enrollment, millage support from the city and county, and the construction of impressive new facilities during this time period. In 1998, the institution became Westark College.

Westark College had gained a reputation as the flagship of Arkansas junior colleges because of the academic achievements of its transfer students at four-year schools, a tenured faculty, its substantial endowment fund, and enthusiastic community support. However, it was increasingly clear that a city of more than 80,000 with a seven-county commuter area of 270,000 people, the second-largest urban area in the state, needed a full-fledged university. On January 1, 2002, the college formally merged into the University of Arkansas system and became the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. In ceremonies on November 14, 2006, over 1,000 faculty, staff, students, townspeople, state representatives, and University of Arkansas system dignitaries participated in the investiture of Chancellor Paul B. Beran, who in his acceptance speech put forward his goal for the institution to become a leading regional university. In 2019, Terisa Riley was appointed chancellor to replace Beran.

UAFS has about 210 full-time faculty members. The main campus consists of forty-one buildings, including dormitories; a 3,100-seat all-events arena; a student center; the Boreham Library; a state-of-the-art health sciences building; a performing arts auditorium; and the Baldor engineering building. The Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center houses student activities staff, the campus bookstore, recreational rooms, a ballroom, and a food court. A seven-acre parcel of land in Van Buren (Crawford County) was purchased with an $800,000 grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council. The site includes the Drennen-Scott Historic Site, a circa 1836 log house, which, with help from a grant by the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, opened as a museum and visitors’ center staffed by students in UAFS’s historical interpretation program. In early 2015, UAFS broke ground on a 100,000-square-foot facility intended to house an osteopathic medical school. The following year, the university opened its new recreation and wellness center.

For the fall 2014 semester, 6,823 students were enrolled in undergraduate studies, seeking one of the thirty-two baccalaureate degrees offered. A variety of clubs, Greek sororities and fraternities, intramurals, and cultural activities make up student life. Applause, the campus literary magazine, has been acclaimed for its student and faculty compositions.

Four-year athletics have replaced what had been nationally competitive two-year athletic programs. The school’s teams, the Lions, have won three national basketball championships—two men’s (1981 and 2006) and one women’s (1995). The existing basketball, tennis, golf, volleyball, and baseball teams are supplemented by two other sports, as UAFS joined the NCAA Division II Heartland Conference, leaving the Bi-State Juco Conference of which it was a charter member.

For additional information:
Combs, Roger, and J. C. Hoffman. “Westark Community College: The Early Years.” Unpublished manuscript, 1996. On file at the Pebley Center, Boreham Library. University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Higgins, Billy, Stephen Husarik, and Henry Rinne. History of Westark College. Fort Smith, AR: Westark College Foundation, 1998.

University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. (accessed March 22, 2017).

“Westark Community College.” Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society 15 (April 1991): 3–16.

Billy D. Higgins
University of Arkansas at Fort Smith

Last Updated: 03/22/2017