Arkansas began the twentieth century with a renewed dedication to higher education. Colleges across the state were quickly established by the state legislature, including Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.
However, enrollments and financial problems nearly shut down Arkansas Tech quickly. In 1918, a new college president, Hugh Critz, stepped in and saved the college from closing.
Arkansas Tech had been founded as the Second District Agricultural School in 1909. The state legislature set it up as a series of four schools around the state designed to teach skills to future farmers as well as prepare rural students for college.
Similar schools established at the same time were founded in Jonesboro (the future Arkansas State University), Monticello (the future University of Arkansas at Monticello) and Magnolia (the future Southern Arkansas University).
The Russellville school had a promising start with 186 students for its first semester in fall 1910. By 1914, enrollment had more than doubled. World War I then hit the school hard, as the U.S. entered the war in 1917.
Funding dwindled, and between enlistments and the draft, students quit attending the school. By the time Critz stepped in as president in spring 1918, the school was down to 57 students.
Hugh Critz, born in Starkville, Mississippi, in 1876, had previously worked as a school teacher, superintendent for Starkville schools and president of Bolton College in Tennessee. His record of promoting growth had gotten the attention of school trustees in Arkansas.
He was hired as president at a salary of $3,500 per year. The future was uncertain. Instead of layoffs or cuts, Critz kept the faculty intact and worked to promote the Second District school.
In fall 1919, he hired a teacher and football coach who put together a popular team, which attracted attention and money to the school. While the country was devastated by a postwar recession, Critz kept building.
By the early 1920s, he expanded the offerings of the school to include two-year degrees. By the time the fall 1922 semester started, some 623 students had enrolled, a tenfold increase.
By the time he left his position as president at the end of 1924, the Second District School was offering four-year degrees and teacher training for agriculture teachers and enrollment was building steadily.
In one of his last acts, Critz pushed to give the college a special designation, fearing competition from the Arkansas State Normal School in nearby Conway (now the University of Central Arkansas). The legislature agreed, and in 1925, changed the name of the school to Arkansas Polytechnic College, a name it would hold until it became Arkansas Tech University in 1976.
In 1930, Critz was lured back to Mississippi to become president of Mississippi A&M, which would eventually become Mississippi State University.
He stepped down in 1934, briefly returning to Arkansas and becoming president of what would become the University of Arkansas at Monticello from 1935 to 1936, guiding that college in its early life. In 1936, he quietly slipped into retirement in Mississippi before his death in 1939.
Critz is still remembered for his work on behalf of these universities. Both Arkansas Tech and Mississippi State have named dorms in his honor.
Today, Arkansas Tech boasts more than 11,000 students at campuses in Russellville and Ozark, with programs ranging from vocational programs to graduate degrees, stemming from the work of one president to keep the college alive a century ago.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@ southark.edu.