Hall of Distinction Welcomes Monts Saturday

It took courage to grow up in Little Rock with the national spotlight shining on a troubled time of social change.

It took courage to become the first African-American student to enroll in the music program and the first to live on campus at Arkansas Tech University.

It took courage to help prepare a case that would be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It took courage to consult Steven Spielberg on a major motion picture.

And it takes courage to hold a leadership position at one of the most prestigious institutions of learning in the country.

In recognition of a lifetime of courage and excellence in the field of higher education, Arkansas Tech University will present Dr. Lester P. Monts with the highest honor it can bestow upon an alumnus — induction into the Arkansas Tech Hall of Distinction — at spring commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 15.

Monts will be inducted during the 10 a.m. ceremony at John E. Tucker Coliseum.

“I don’t know that the students at larger universities receive the kind of attention we received at Tech back in the 1960s,” said Monts. “When you think about what you pay for education…we paid $90 per semester my freshman year. What I received from instructors like Bob Bright and Gene Witherspoon, you cannot put a price tag on that. Students where I work now, at the University of Michigan, some of them pay $45,000 per year. That still would not be enough for the grounding and fundamentals in education that I received at Tech.” Monts is a native of Little Rock. He was a 10-year old fourth grader when his neighbor, Carlotta Walls, and eight other African-American students began attending Central High School in the fall of 1957.

He was an eyewitness to history, and that defining moment for America became a defining moment for Monts.

Faculty members such as Witherspoon, Bright, Joan Wainright, John Nelson and Ed Connelly welcomed Monts to Arkansas Tech and helped him persist to graduation with a Bachelor of Science degree in music education in 1970.

“That was an era when many of the various changes were taking place in our society,” said Monts. “The welcoming response I received from Chief Witherspoon, who in my eyes is the greatest mentor who ever lived, and Bright was a significant comfort for me. Of course, they weren’t with me 24 hours a day and there were some things during my freshman year that caused me some concern. But that was the way things were back then, and I accepted them and moved on.

“I found out some 30 years later that Chief Witherspoon had called all the seniors in, including Ed Marlar and Andy Anders, and basically told them that he did not want anyone messing with me,” continued Monts. “Ed and Andy are still among my closest friends today. That’s the wonderful thing about Tech. People I knew 45 years ago like Ed, Andy, Travis Beard, Tommy Reynolds, Julie Nebben (Morgan) or Hiram Byrd…I can pick up the phone and have a conversation with them as if we were still in the lounge at DuLaney Hall. I must say the bottom line for me is that if the relationships I had at Tech could be reflected throughout society, we would have no problems.”

Monts went on to earn a Master of Music degree from the University of Nebraska and a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Minnesota.

He served on the music faculties at Edinboro University, the University of Minnesota, Case Western Reserve University and the University of California at Santa Barbara before embarking upon a career in higher education administration.

Today, Monts is senior vice provost for academic affairs and professor of music at the University of Michigan. He and his wife, Jeanne, have three grown sons.

Monts played a key role in preparing the University of Michigan’s successful 2003 affirmative action case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He collected data that helped prove that the university did not discriminate based on factors of race and ethnicity during its admission process, and he spoke to more than 20 alumni groups around the country about the issues related to the case.

Monts’ background in ethnomusicology led to an opportunity for him to assist in the making of the 1997 film “Amistad.”

He ensured that the film, which told the story of slaves brought from West Africa to America in 1839, included authentic and appropriate music.

“One of the most common characteristics of human beings is that no matter where they are in the world, they have some form of music,” said Monts. “It is as pervasive as language. My thought is to be musical is to be human. Once you create a mode of communication, in this case music, you are able to communicate with people anywhere. Throughout my travels in places such as China, South Africa, Qatar and all over Europe, the one connection I always had with people was music.

“It is regrettable that this economic downturn is taking its toll on music programs in our schools,” continued Monts. “If we’re not careful, we are going to lose a generation of music lovers and music makers. If that happens, we as a culture will be in trouble.”