Melissa Taverner’s love of biology stems from its elegant complexity.
“When you look at a biological system, whether it’s a cell or an organism or an ecosystem, you’re looking at a complex, multi-factor system that, the way it interacts, creates an emergent property for cells,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s hard and it’s complex and there’s still a ton that we don’t know.”
Taverner’s description of the science she adores is wrought with symbolism.
Since being named president of Lyon College in Batesville in February, Taverner has been involved in forging complex partnerships among the private college, the private Little Rock-based OneHealth and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to create the state’s only dental and veterinarian school on the Heifer International campus in Little Rock.
“That’s not a lift we can do on our own, but I don’t know anybody who can do that lift on their own,” says Taverner of the unique collaboration. “It’s the thing that’s going to allow us to be successful because we can be very nimble. We can make decisions, we can work together to develop things.”
Taverner was hired as provost and dean of faculty at Lyon in 2017, about a year before joining discussions about the potential and logistics of veterinary and dental schools.
“We started doing some research on it and we sort of put together a proposal internally to think through, ‘Would this make sense?'” she says. “And then covid happened.”
The idea was put on a back burner until 2021, when Lyon — which celebrated its 150th year this year — began looking at ways to increase enrollment. Andy Goodman, president and chief executive officer of Arkansas Independent Colleges and Universities, helped connect them with the leaders of OneHealth, who were also mulling over starting veterinary and dental schools.
“They told us a little bit about what they were thinking for the dental school and the vet school, which was more of a distributed model and a three-year model, which is year-round rather than a four-year model, so there’s cost containment for students, and introducing direct clinical experiences earlier in their training,” Taverner says. Conversations progressed, both sides conceded and planning began in earnest.
Skip Rutherford, a Batesville native and a member of the Lyon College Board, marvels at how having as many as 1,000 more young professionals in downtown Little Rock year-round might breathe life into the area. Rutherford is dean emeritus of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, which is adjacent to Heifer International and which breaks for summer each year.
The effect the professional track might have on Lyon College is also significant, Rutherford says.
“The addition of dental and veterinary schools will be significant chapters in Lyon College’s storied history,” he says. “As someone once said, education has to be invented and reinvented for each generation. Lyon is doing that through expanding exemplary academic programs on its beautiful Batesville campus and adding professional dental and vet programs in the state’s capital city. It’s a winning combination for Arkansas.”
Taverner expects the schools to welcome students in 2024 or 2025, although that timing is subject to meeting various goals along the way.
“We’re not rushing anything. We’re doing it right,” she says. “We want to be very careful to say that the date of opening, the first class size, those sorts of things are something that we work out with our accreditor, and they have the ultimate responsibility for that.”
Taverner sees this effort as filling a need. Arkansas has a shortage of dentists and of small-animal veterinarians as well as vets who specialize in agricultural practices.
“It’s exciting,” she says. “At every step we have been very deliberate about how to make this successful, so that we can train vets and dentists to stay in Arkansas, rather than leave because the data indicate that people who go to professional school, whether it’s med school, dental school or whatever, tend to stay where they train.”
WICKED SENSE OF HUMOR
Perry Wilson, chairman of Lyon’s board of trustees and a lawyer at the Barber Law Firm in Little Rock, approached Taverner, then provost, about taking the helm at Lyon after the resignation of W. Joseph King in August 2021.
“She is absolutely, without a doubt, 100% the right person at the right time for Lyon College, with everything we’re doing,” he says. “That’s based on her background, it’s based on the fact that she’s an academic — she didn’t necessarily intend to ever be president of a college, but because of circumstances that occurred she became the right person, because of the initiatives we’ve been looking at.”
Wilson appreciates Taverner’s “wicked sense of humor,” which he says was apparent in her inauguration speech, when she told the audience that she had not aspired to the office.
She took a tenure track position teaching biology at Emory and Henry College in Emory, Va., when the oldest of her two daughters was 2.
“It was doing research, working with students, all that sort of stuff. Year three, my senior colleague said, ‘I don’t want to be chair anymore. You’re chair.’ I said, ‘What? I’m not qualified,'” she says. “I ended up exploding the program, growing it so that we went from six graduates to 20, went from three faculty members to six, and I said, ‘Good. OK. I can do this. I’ve learned how to budget and do paperwork and how to articulate with the other programs.'”
She was granted tenure, and then the dean asked her to serve as director of assessment.
“I’m a good team player so I said alright,” says Taverner, who continued serving as chair of the biology department.
From there she became division chair of natural sciences, and when the dean became president of the college he asked her to serve as interim vice president of student affairs.
“I’ve had this opportunity, at a number of different steps, where I was given a chance to do something that I didn’t expect to do, but I went into it with the knowledge that people would support me, and that if I didn’t know something people would help me learn,” she says.
She considers herself fortunate.
“I kind of describe it as a ladder, but not a career ladder — a perspective ladder,” she says.
Each role, she explains, gave her a broader view of the way various components within a university work.
“It comes back to the organism, the complex interplay of all these pieces, and you get this emergent property of an institution that’s going to change people’s lives,” Taverner says.
SMALL TOWN GIRL
Taverner grew up in the small town of Danville, in the Piedmont region of Virginia, the only child of a grocery store produce manager and a teacher.
“My dad was probably one of the most social people in the world that I ever saw. He worked at a small locally owned store, and people would come to this store because they knew he would be there,” she says. “He would give everybody a hug and say, ‘Here, let me show you what I’ve got going on.'”
Her maternal grandparents and two aunts lived close by, and Taverner and her parents ate dinner with them often. Her grandparents picked her up from school some days and she wandered through their two-acre garden with her grandfather.
“I’ve always loved science,” she says. “I was a kid, like a first- or second-grader, when the Apollo mission landed on the moon and my mom was always a huge supporter of all things science-y, which was really cool. So I thought, ‘I just want to be an astronaut. I love science and I love learning about things.’ And then I hit seventh grade and biology and that was it. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I love that stuff.'”
She intended to be a pre-medicine major at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Ashland, Va., but by the end of her freshman year she realized that was not the path for her.
“I didn’t really want to do medicine, I just wanted to do biology,” she says.
She wasn’t sure what she would do with her degree in biology but she stuck with it.
“I think that was either really insightful or really goofy, but you go into something and you study it because you love it, and that’s kind of what I did,” she says. “I didn’t know that I loved microbiology until I took it, and I took it because I thought that sounded fun, then I was like, ‘Whoa.’ And then I took a subsection of that, virology.”
LEARNING TO ROW
She became interested in virology while she was studying abroad during her junior year at the University of Reading in England. She later completed a master’s degree in virology at Reading.
Taverner learned to row crew during her time in England.
“We were rowing on the Thames, because Reading is about 30 miles west of London and the Thames just goes through there. It was neat to try that,” she says. “We did some traveling around England and Scotland and Wales and we went to Penzance.”
She met her husband, David, there, too. He returned to Virginia with her at the end of her study abroad year and they married a month later, just before her senior year at Randolph-Macon.
Taverner was one of about 30 Americans in a group, says David Taverner.
“I guess we were both quiet,” he says. “I think we would, just the two of us, sort of hang back a bit and we just connected in that way.”
He still characterizes her as “quiet,” though her current position puts her more in the public eye.
“She’s a genuine person and she’s focused on the job at hand. She’s always thinking about making connections and how to make things happen with the institution, how she can get people together to make the next thing happen,” he says.
Waking up early to spend time outside, often walking the dogs, gives her a chance to compose herself for the day, he says.
“We have family time, so we’re quiet together and go out and do what we do,” he says. “I think it’s just recharging.”
They have been together for 40 years. Their daughters are Rachel Titus of Lansing, Mich., and Jordan Taverner of Estes Park, Colo.
After she finished college, Taverner worked in cancer research, studying oncogenic retroviruses associated with cancer for two or three years and though she says “that was fun and I would never have traded that for the world,” she realized that wasn’t the right path for her either.
She went to the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Va., for a doctorate in environmental science.
“I was interested in population regulation,” she says. “I worked on insects as population, and so viruses as biological control agents.”
All of her research positions led her to the one at Emory and Henry, and she found her niche in academics.
Joseph “Jody” Smotherman is executive vice president and chief strategy officer at White River Health in Batesville as well as a Lyon alumnus, and says Taverner was key in Lyon’s move to add a bachelor of science in nursing, in response to needs expressed by his employer, even before she became president.
“One of the things that I appreciate about her is her willingness to try new things. Lyon College and White River Health, where I work, have established a partnership with her as provost and interim president,” Smotherman says. “She’s very community-minded and family-oriented. She’s very approachable and people who get to know her find her easy to talk to and engage with, which is not always a trait in a college president. Folks here in our community absolutely love her.”
Smotherman and White River Health Chief Executive Officer Gary Paxon worked with Taverner to get the initial accreditation for the program.
“In an area like ours, when you recruit nurses to stay here, the opportunities they had for education and further training were not local. They either had to move somewhere or they had to do it online,” he says. “It was a desire to give local nurses an opportunity to further their education locally and on a flexible schedule the non-traditional way, but also for those students to stay here, at Lyon, which has a great academic reputation.”
Ginger Long-Smith of Springdale is chairman of the Lyon College Board of Visitors and a 1993 Lyon College graduate. She first met Taverner, then provost, while touring the campus with her daughter, now a senior at Lyon.
“One of the things about Lyon College is not just that you’re going to have a dental and veterinary school, or their acceptance rate to medical school — which is very high — they also have great acceptance into law schools and grad schools,” says Long-Smith, explaining why her daughter chose the school.
She talks with Taverner often, occasionally touching on their shared affinity for “Star Trek.”
“When I was delivering my address at her inauguration, I jokingly said I had so wanted to turn to her and give her the Star Trek symbol of ‘Live long and prosper,'” Long-Smith says. “She said, ‘Oh, please do it.'”
“The college has gone through transformations over the years, some good, some bad … but with that said, when you watch her and her vision that she has for the college you can see the passion, you can see the forward-thinking and you can see she’s taking us into the future,” Long-Smith adds.
Long-Smith, director of global controllership at Walmart, is pleased that the college is expanding its accounting program.
Lyon’s first graduate program — a master of arts in teaching — will also be available next summer.
“I come from a family of teachers, and my mom has 32 years teaching fourth grade. She’s the most natural teacher I’ve ever seen in my life,” Taverner says. “I was very lucky to have been able to watch her.”
Taverner misses teaching biology, but she does teach a freshman seminar class each year. She says that gives her a chance to maintain a connection with students and shows them she cares about teaching.
“The important thing for me was being able to talk to my students and show them the things that I loved, and to do that with some passion and with excitement,” she says of teaching her favorite subject, “because I’m still excited by biology.”
• A BOOK I RECENTLY READ AND LIKED WAS: “Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator,” by Timothy C. Winegard.
• MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY: I was probably 5 or 6 and I was at the beach with my whole family. My dad was the one who would take me into the water and there’s a picture of me and my dad and he’s holding my hand, right as the waves are breaking.
• A MEAL I FIND COMFORTING: Potato soup and fresh bread.
• THE TRADITION I LOVE MOST: Professionally, commencement. People are graduating with a degree and they’re going to go off and do awesome things. Personally, Christmas — our family has Christmas crackers, with dad jokes and hats and things.
• THE BEST TIME OF DAY FOR ME: Early morning. I love mornings because I love the fact that the sun came back. Mornings are beautiful to me. It’s like there’s still good that’s going to happen.
• MY FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH: The Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado.
• THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: A dozen people over the course of my life have said, “You need to calm down. It’s gonna be OK.”
• IF I COULDN’T BE A COLLEGE PRESIDENT, I WOULD BE: Teaching biology somewhere and working with students to help them develop their research projects and work on lab reports or prepping the next micro lab.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Collaborative