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Three one-act dramas at Texas Wesleyan
By Wayne Lee Gay |

THREE TIMES, TEXAS Wesleyan College has stared destiny in the face.

The first was in 1893, when the infant school was still in makeshift structures and the international fiscal crisis remembered as the “Panic of ’93” nearly closed the college.

The second occurred in 1931, when, as the Great Depression deepened, the board of trustees actually voted to close the school, but rescinded the decision in an emotional commencement-day meeting.

The third meeting with fate was staged last April, when, reacting to a revelation that the college had been placed on probation by the United Methodist University Senate, an angry and disheartened student body and faculty confronted TWC President Jon Fleming in the campus’ main auditorium. There was talk of walkouts, of a closed school and worthless diplomas, of money misspent and trust betrayed.

Wesleyan survived the third crisis; the students and teachers went back to class, and the diplomas, as valuable and as recognized as ever, were duly delivered to graduates in May. But something else had been lost, something that could only be rebuilt over a period of years, if ever. It was the dream of Wesleyan moving into the forefront of liberal arts colleges. One man, Jon Fleming, had built that dream, and when the dream fell, he fell with it.

Every college has a history of ups and downs. Wesleyan has had its share of the downs, and the school was in the midst of slow decline when Fleming arrived in 1979 to take over as president. His appearance coincided with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first Texas Wesleyan College, a school started by “Northern” Methodists (in those days, there were two kinds) that eventually moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma, before closing its doors in the early 1900s. The present Texas Wesleyan College traces its history to the school founded by “Southern” Methodists in 1891 under the name Polytechnic College. Although the Greek-derived name implies training in all branches of knowledge, Polytechnic quickly evolved into a liberal arts college with a dominant music department. After surviving the economic conditions of the mid-1890s, Polytechnic College flourished into the early years of this century, reaching an enrollment of more than 800 during the 1906-07 term.

And as Polytechnic College flourished, the once-open country around it (where, during the 1890s, one could still hear the howling of coyotes) filled up with houses and stores, giving rise to the neighborhood that still is called the name “Polytechnic” or “Poly.” The Polytechnic Station Post Office still serves the community, as do Polytechnic High School and a host of “Polytechnic” churches.

Although the name lingers in the neighborhood, Polytechnic College ceased to exist in 1913 when it became Texas Woman’s College. Within the United Methodist Church, supporters of the older Southwestern University at Georgetown found the second coeducational college a sore point-and had since the time of Polytechnic’s founding. When Southern Methodist University was founded as a new point of Methodist higher education in Texas, the Fort Worth facility was converted into an all-female college.

The high peint of Texas Woman’s College came in the early Twenties when the school’s enrollment climbed above 500. Although the college survived the tough spring of 1931. low enrollment remained a problem until 1934 when it once again opened its doors to men. Picking up the name of its long-gone Northern Methodist predecessor, and retaining the initials “TWC” from its days as an all-female institution, Texas Wesleyan prospered through the Forties and Fifties, reaching an enrollment of more than 1.800 in the post-war education boom. The school built a statewide reputation in teacher training, as well as becoming a strong presence in Fort Worth’s cultural life.

It was during the late Forties that Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter held out a tempting offer to the school: Move the campus to a new location (offering a site close to present-day Ridgmar Mall), and he would build the administration building with his own money and give the school a $5 million endowment. Of course, he added, you’ll want to change your name to Carter College when you accept my offer.

The name change was hard to stomach, and the proposed move drew considerable opposition from the board of trustees, many of whom were Poly merchants. So Texas Wesleyan remained where it was in a decision that has haunted the school ever since.

Although the immediate college neighborhood remains viable (if down-at-heels), the nearby commercial areas display some of the Dallas/Fort Worth area’s worst urban blight. Just a few blocks from Wesleyan’s quiet dormitories, auditoriums and libraries is a depressing collection of strip joints and pawn shops. Poly has become a hard-scrabbling, big-city neighborhood, while the school that gave it its name remains what it has always been: a quiet denominational college, dedicated to giving its predominantiy white student body a liberal arts education.

AND THEN CAME Jon Fleming.

One of more than 100 candidates for the position of college president, Fleming brought an impeccable academic background to the post, as well as close ties to the United Methodist Church, including a two-year stint as pastor of St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Dallas during the late Sixties, and a father, Durwood Fleming, who had been a prominent Methodist minister in Houston and president of Southwestern University. After leaving the ministry, the younger Fleming had worked in the University of Texas at Houston’s system, starting as executive assistant to the dean at the University of Texas Medical School, director of development at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and finally as executive director of Health Science Center relations. In 1976, he had become executive vice president of Texas Woman’s University in Denton, a pest he held until he became president of TWC.

But it was more than just an academic record that brought Fleming. It was a style that appealed to members of the Fort Worth business community, many of them TWC graduates anxious to see the school move out of its “caretaker” phase.

Combining the attributes of an old-time Methodist preacher and a flamboyant used-car salesman, Fleming evangelized for TWC and made the school once again a presence in a city that had assumed it would quietly fade away. Fleming made certain that whatever TWC did, it would not do it quietly. An aggressive merit-based scholarship program and recruitment campaign began to attract more academically promising students than ever before. Average ACT and SAT scores began inching up from the embarrassingly average level of 15 and 800, respectively, as TWC became, in just a few semesters, a place where bright students could consider going-especially with attractive financial packages dangled in front of them.

TWC also entered the age of modern pub-lic relations under Fleming. The school adopted a new, flashy logo with a three-pronged flame sprouting from the college’s new nickname, “Wesleyan,” which replaced the old initials. Billboards sprouted, and commercials hailed the glories of Wesleyan on TV and radio stations with large teen-age audiences. When North Texas State University dropped its affiliation with the Miss Texas Pageant, Wesleyan grabbed the opportunity to form an association with the pageant guaranteeing that Miss Texas, wherever she went to school before winning the crown, would enroll at Wesleyan.

On a personal level, Fleming injected the sleepy school with his own energy. He made jokes about “Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows College” and told people that TWC used to stand for “Teeny-Weeny College.” Comparison and competition cropped up in his public statements: He said early in his administration that “we are not trying to be the Amherst of the Southwest.” By 1979, he said that “we are going to compete with TCU,” and by 1982, he declared that “our mission and goal in life is to become to the humanities and social sciences. . . what Rice is to the physical sciences.”

Wesleyan returned, at the same time, to both the athletic and artistic scenes. Both music students and budding athletes from public schools began showing up on weekends for festivals and sports events sponsored by the college. The baseball team was back on the sports pages, eventually beating powerhouses such as the University of Texas and Oklahoma State. Adult music lovers rediscovered the acoustic pleasures of the Fine Arts Auditorium-the only decent small recital hall in the city-through a concert series co-sponsored by Wesleyan and the Van Cliburn Foundation. The school made its presence known with ads in the program books of virtually every cultural event in the city and with an annual downtown Christmas concert that featured the Wesleyan Choir with the Fort Worth Symphony. By 1983, the school that had been all but invisible before Fleming’s arrival rivaled TCU as a presence in the lively arts of Fort Worth.

Fleming had, it seemed, overcome many of the problems chronically facing the small liberal arts college through sheer force of his own energy. Enrollment was up, ACT and SAT scores were up, and the school’s name recognition was up. But two problems remained, and they were problems that may have seemed, to the typical observer, to have no solution: One was Wesleyan’s physical plant, which was, in spite of renovation and the addition of a shiny new student center, cramped and dowdy, with an especially depressing library situation featuring a minimal collection and no room for expansion; the other was its location in a neighborhood that the upper-middle-class students-who are the core constituency of a private liberal arts college-were likely to avoid. Slick brochures and an attractive financial package might lure the student with an ACT score of 32 to visit Wesleyan, but a look into the inadequate library or a glimpse of the dives down the street was likely to send him scurrying to Baylor or Texas.

But to Fleming, there had to be a solution. In the fall of 1979, he announced a 10-year plan to expand the campus all the way out to Lancaster Drive, giving the school a window onto the city and, hopefully, changing the ambiance of the blighted neighborhood. The next year, Fleming had a $12-million gift in hand for the building of a new library.

But the expansion collapsed when land speculation drove real estate steeply up. By 1981, expansion in the Poly neighborhood was out of the question, and rumors of a new plan, Fleming’s most daring yet, surfaced.

The 1982-83 school year will be remembered as a high point in Wesleyan’s history. The size of the freshman class was up 49 percent from 1981, and administrators and trustees were in the enviable position of discussing an enrollment limit. The athletic program had been strengthened and Fleming could talk enthusiastically of moving the school into NCAA Division I. Early in 1983, Fleming unveiled his breathtaking solution to the problems of inadequate facilities and location. The entire campus would be relocated to Southwest Fort Worth, where a new $130-million facility would house 2,000 students in a state-of-the-art campus designed by the firm of Buckminster Fuller. Fleming’s dream of making TWC the leading liberal arts college in the Southwest suddenly seemed on the verge of reality.

WHILE 1982-83 was a high point, 1983-84 at Wesleyan will probably go down as one of the most painful years experienced by any American college. At first, it seemed that opposition to the move by Poly political representatives were the school’s worst problem, with state Rep. Reby Cary and Fort Worth City Council members Bert Williams and Jim Bagsby objecting on the grounds that Wesleyan’s relocation would hurt the Poly community. While political opponents of the plan maneuvered to block the Fort Worth City Council from annexing the new site and providing utility service, trouble of a more serious nature emerged. On November 6, TWC announced that 22 employees had been fired and that top administrators had taken salary cuts in order to shore up the college’s financial woes. Suddenly, Wesleyan’s forward-moving image was tainted.

But worse news was still to come. On November 23, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a story detailing disputes and complaints among the trustees and describing financial mismanagement on the part of Fleming, including the borrowing of $5 million from the new library fund, expenditures such as political contributions from the discretionary fund as well as an annual travel budget topping $25,000, a budget of $14,000 for dues and memberships for Fleming and the spending of $42,000 for meals and entertainment.

More negative publicity followed in April when six sports were dropped. The Star-Telegram also reported that Wesleyan’s debt would rise to $14.5 million by June 1985. But the final blow to the Fleming administration and to Wesleyan’s carefully cultivated and glowing image as a school on the way up came when the Star-Telegram released, on April 24, the University Senate’s report. The report, according to sources on the board of trustees, was supposed to be confidential to members of the board. But sometime late in the day on April 23, two copies were left in the newsroom of the Star-Telegram by a person who remains unidentified. Within a matter of days, Fleming resigned, and the dream was completely shattered.

WHERE DOES WESLEYAN stand during the year after the disaster?

Jerry Bawcom, a vice president under Fleming, has taken over as interim president while a new president is culled from the already fat stack of applications. Bawcom faces a situation in which two of the red flags of college failure have gone up: a 20 percent decline in enrollment as of fall 1984 and the use of funds that had been regarded as part of the endowment.

“The permanent endowment of $8 million is intact and has not been touched,” Bawcom says. “We have used unrestricted gifts- whose use was not specified-to pay debts, funds that might be considered ’quasi-endowment,’ but that were not part of that permanent endowment.”

As for the enrollment drop, Bawcom considers it a temporary result of last spring’s bad publicity. “I’d be less than honest if I said I wasn’t concerned about it. I think we’re already seeing a turnaround in the prospects for fall of 1985.”

Bawcom, a Baptist deacon who is not in the running for the permanent presidency, intends to retain, during his administration, all the positive elements from the Fleming years. These include the active recruitment of gifted students and, as much as the budget will allow, the high visibility of Wesleyan on the local scene. Most surprising of all, Bawcom reports that the board of trustees remains committed to the idea of moving the college, although the actual decision remains 18 to 24 months in the future.

More problems loom in the college’s horizon. Fleming views his removal as the result not of financial indiscretion but of animosity from members of the Methodist clerical hierarchy. A significant number of Wesleyan’s supporters in the Fort Worth business community share his views on the matter in whole or in part, and at least one president at another Methodist college has informed members of the United Methodist University Senate that the senate’s charges against Fleming constitute grounds for a libel suit. Although Fleming has suffered both personally and professionally from the charges, and is no longer involved with Wesleyan’s affairs in any way, many of the college’s strongest supporters from recent years are angry about what they regard as the mistreatment of Fleming at the hands of the denominational officials and feel shut out of Wesleyan’s future. Although a college such as Wesleyan can survive indefinitely in a healthy economy, these supporters must either be brought back into the fold or replaced if the college is to have security during periods of economic downturn.

The only way to attract that kind of support is to accomplish what Fleming attempted:, build a liberal arts college with a first-rate reputation and a first-rate facility.

Despite its own special set of problems the dilemma of Wesleyan parallels much of what faces all small colleges. With the college-age population projected to decline through the early Nineties, survivability is an issue with all but the most securely financed institutions of this size. Carol McDonald Maok, president of Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas (an Austin-based organization that promotes and represents private colleges and universities), makes a convincing case both for the survivability of small colleges and their function in the communities they serve.

“The ability to be in the small classes that a small college offers contributes a good deal to that student’s education,” she says. “Small liberal arts colleges have a mission to make their students aware of their cultural heritage while they put together the skills to survive in the modern world.”

Maok points out that in Texas, unlike most states, the college-age population is actually rising, and most of the state’s private colleges can expect to do well in the years ahead.

For now, Texas Wesleyan is at a crossroads. The roller-coaster ride of the Fleming years, with its gradual ascent and sudden plunge, is over. Greatly divided among themselves and resentful of what they regard as unfair publicity in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Wesleyan’s supporters must now put together a unified front within Fort Worth and rehabilitate the school’s damaged reputation. And, during the months and years ahead, they must decide whether survival alone is good enough or whether, once again, to reach for the dream.