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Preserve history or build sorority houses? It's a hard choice facing the administration of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, but the sororities are winning. History is bunk, Henry Ford used to say, and he was rich.
The preservationists are still scrapping, though, still hopeful a way will be found to save the historic V. C. Kays house on the ASU campus, still voicing their objections to administrators directly and in the pages of the Jonesboro Sun, the local newspaper.
Kays was the first president of the institution now known as Arkansas State University. He was head of it for 33 years, and continued working as business manager even after he left the presidency in 1943.
Kays was hired in 1910 as the first principal of the agricultural high school that would later become a two-year, then a four-year college. In 1936, while he was president, he built the Kays house with his own money. He was the only ASU president to live in the house. Subsequent presidents lived in a different house that was purchased by the university.
ASU Interim Chancellor Dan Howard announced March 7 that site preparation and construction of four sorority houses would begin next month on ASU property where the Kays house and other old houses are located, necessitating the removal of these houses. ASU had bought the Kays House in 2004 and used it as temporary housing for new employees until last year. Now, Howard says, "The Kays house has so much deferred maintenance it cannot be used for that purpose anymore. It would cost more than $440,000 to renovate the Kays house and at least another $250,000 to make it handicapped-accessible."
Sororities at ASU now lease space in university dormitories. But sorority houses are included in a master plan for development of the Jonesboro campus. Howard said in his announcement that "New sorority housing will enhance the living and learning environment of the university and will help to attract additional highly qualified students."
Announcement of ASU's plan for removal of the Kays house drew protests from faculty members, retirees and other preservationists. Scott Darwin, a retired professor of German and one of the more outspoken critics, wrote:
"Why is it that the university administration always pleads poor when a worthy project such as the preservation of the Kays home is presented to them, but they always find money for $800,000 PER YEAR football coaches, hundreds of thousands for a house in Little Rock for the ASU president and even more for recreation centers and sports fields?" (ASU recently hired a new football coach at a salary of roughly $850,000. ASU once consisted of only the Jonesboro campus, but now has several campuses, and the president of the ASU System lives in Little Rock.)
"Why is the administration in such a hurry with this project?" Darwin wrote. "Since the sororities have lived comfortably for decades in the dormitories, could they not continue to do so for another year and allow for a complete and open debate of the matter ... " Or, he said, administrators could simply have chosen a different site for the sorority houses, "since there is an abundance of property available all around the campus."
Besides his complaints to ASU administrators, Darwin appealed for help to Gov. Mike Beebe, an ASU alumnus. He said he hadn't heard back.
Some faculty members have suggested that the Kays house could be converted to a bed-and-breakfast for faculty and staff interviewees and other university guests. Henderson State University at Arkadelphia did that with an old house on its campus. Someone else suggested that if the Kays house was on the national register for historic preservation, ASU might be prohibited from moving it or tearing it down. (A spokesman for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program said the Kays house was not on the register, and even if it were, ASU would still own the property and be able to do what it wanted, unless it voluntarily relinquished ownership.)
John D. Hall, a professor of psychology and counseling, wrote that Kays was "not only the first president of our institution but the most instrumental in terms of our very existence."
"The university is considering fully all of the communications it is receiving about the Kays house," Howard said. "However, the plan to construct much needed sorority houses on university property located on and adjacent to the property on which the Kays house sits remains unchanged."
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