Ex-Miss America from Arkansas squares off with state senator

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A former Miss America says that while an Arkansas politician is criticizing a public university that put up a billboard touting its dance program, society needs both entertainers and engineers to move forward.

Savvy Shields, who danced to jazz music on her way to the 2017 Miss America title, disagreed with Sen. Bart Hester on Twitter this week after he questioned whether the University of Arkansas at Little Rock had misplaced its priorities.

"Why higher ed does NOT need increase funding," Hester tweeted Monday. "They lease a sign to encourage computer science degrees or math teachers? No they push for dance majors. Lots of hardworking Arkansans subsidizing this! Not OK @UALR."

Shields wondered why the state had to choose. "In the Renaissance, we had the growth of both the sciences and the arts," she said in an interview Thursday night.

Hester, a Republican from Cave Springs, said arts programs are important but shouldn't deter from developing highly skilled professionals.

"We are starving for an educated workforce," Hester said. "A state school should be supporting the needs of the state on a priority basis."

College advertising sprouts every midwinter, as schools hope to attract high school seniors. UALR's series of billboards include one showing a dancer and the words "Dance Major" and "Unlimited pathways. Close to home."

Shields, an art major at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, said investments in the arts run to the millions of dollars. At the time the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in 2011 — eight miles from Hester's home town — it was revealed that the Walton Family Foundation had set up $800 million in endowments.

"The arts influence everything without you realizing it — advertising, graphic design, marketing, the clothes you pick out," she said. Even telephones, once they're engineered, are fine-tuned for their aesthetics, she said.

Hester, who played baseball for the University of Arkansas, said he hadn't seen any number of billboards that promote public college sporting events.

"At the end of the day, the universities can spend their money how they want to," he said. "They're saying they don't have enough money, but they want to spend it on things that are not clearly a priority for the state right now. ... As legislators, we debate on what a priority for spending is."

Arkansas legislators will begin work Monday on next year's budget.

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Follow Kelly P. Kissel on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kisselAP

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