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By D Magazine |

KEN FERRIS, THE BRIGHT, BEARDED, THIRTY-EIGHT-year-old associate dean of the Cox School of Business at SMU. still remembers the frustration he felt while on a recruiting trip one blustery fall weekend last year. Ferris and Phil Miller, director of the business school’s MBA program, were manning a booth at Chicago’s Palmer House. They were asking prospective graduate students for their impressions of the school.

One prospect from Wisconsin, a guy who had never set foot in Texas, walked up to the table. Ferris began with the usual banter, following with the usual question, “What do you know about SMU?” And the student replied, ’’SMU just played TCU. That’s the cheater’s bowl, isn’t it?”

’”I just thought to myself, two steps forward, and one step back,” Ferris laments. “Everybody talks about the goal being national recognition, and here we are being nationally recognized, but for all the wrong reasons. By implication, the student was questioning the integrity of everyone associated with the university.”

The bullish boosterism of Donald Shields, Bill Clements, and Ed Cox notwithstanding. SMU has a , tough row to hoe before it can compete with schools like Stanford, Harvard, or Duke. According to , university rankings published by the Gourman Report, the Fiske Report, and Barron’s, SMU ranks no higher than ninety-second.

Some of SMU’s more tangible goals-tightened admissions standards, plum research grants, a fatter endowment-seem within easy striking distance compared to the leap the school must make in solving its image problems. Some accuse the school of having an identity crisis thirty years old. With the football recruitment scandal of 1985. SMU’s image was very nearly dealt a fatal blow.

Shields can crow about academic improvements to his heart’s content, but the popular perception of SMU lags well behind. According to Kathy Costello, former vice president for university relations, who left in October for a post at the University of Texas Health Science Center. SMU suffers from an image that has yet to catch up to reality. “We learned in a marketing study in 1984 that SMU was living with some very old stereotypes-that we were a heavily sectarian institution, that we were a ’rich kids’ school,” she says.

But despite improvements, many people both within the university and without believe that SMU has been mired in mediocrity since its inception. And a lot of the blame for that, say some SMU backers, has to be laid on Dallas.

Like almost everything else in the city’s history, Dallas’s business acumen brought SMU here. The school was won in a 1911 competition with Fort Worth. The city fathers who secured the deal from the Methodist Church, followed by their many business-minded descendants, have been active in running the university ever since.

Dallas’s business community takes justified pride in applying its conservative principles to city government and the other nonprofit institutions it runs. But those conservative principles don’t always make for a climate in which arts and artists, ideas and intellectuals flower. If the more conservative, business-minded elements of the community have taken the most active role in shaping SMU, they have done so to a mostly apathetic city-at-large. “Dallas was slower to realize than other cities that it needed a good university,” says trustee Edwin Cox. “Dallas started to move just recently. It didn’t know it had to make an effort twenty or thirty years ago. Dallas wasn’t interested, excited, or enthusiastic about academia. I think the whole Southwest is maturing. Maybe that’s the key thing.”

At some point in its history, a university must choose between its aspirations to rank with the top-tier schools and its desires to serve its local community well. Perhaps because of the far-reaching involvement of local leaders. SMU has followed the latter course. A case in point is the business school, which was recently evaluated by a three-man team of deans from Stanford, Duke, and the University of Virginia. The visiting deans found the Cox school to be one of the region’s best and pointed to its particular success in servicing the needs of the Dallas business community. But top university administrators and certain board members say they want more. They want the business school to rank near the top in the nation. The report says SMU must face the task of concentrating its resources and its energies in either one direction or the other.

Perhaps this division over direction is SMU’s greatest liability. “It’s folly to say SMU wants to be ranked in the top fifteen universities,” says Eugene Bonelli. dean of the Meadows School of the Arts. “We are still more the sum of our parts than any complete entity. Until a strategic plan is defined, we don’t know whether SMU will have a focused image.”

Dallas has to care, too. and it ought to care much more now that higher education is seen as the new hope for an economy that can no longer depend on oil and real estate to buoy it up. There is evidence, according to Costello, who has tended SMU’s relationship with the community since 1982, that appreciation is growing on a number of levels. She cites Shields’s involvement in civic affairs, business school Dean Roy Herberger’s role in the local chamber of commerce, and SMU’s community relations program, including the Distinguished Lecture Series and the Management Briefing Series, events that attract 60.000 people a year.

Obviously, both a finer definition of goals and a perceived value in the community hinge on the strength of SMU’s leadership. In studies of great educational institutions, experts cite again and again the crucial importance of a strong president.

It is the president who sets the priorities. Donald Shields has come forth with a plan, titled “The Decade Ahead.” to catapult SMU forward. But critics charge that Shields has oversimplified the issues, and that he has no real grasp of strategic planning. Dean Herberger has twice brought in consultants to assist in planning. The ideal strategy, says Herberger and his associates, is patterned after the “spires of excellence” theory that was used brilliantly to build Stanford. Basically, if you have $90,000 to hire four professors, you don’t pay them $22,500 each. You find one crackerjack and pay him $38,500. then add three young hotshots at $17,167 each. The master feeds his disciples the gilded crumbs of ex-cellence, thereby significantly strengthening the ; department as a whole.

The running of a university, as with any enterprise, is a matter of setting priorities, and there are other critical areas of the school that warrant reexamina-tion. Many believe that Shields and the SMU board should reevaluate the relationship between athletics and academics.

“I think big-time athletics is one of the problems at SMU.” says Jeswald Salacuse, the recently departed dean of the SMU School of Law who was with the school for five years. “It saps the strength from the school. If big-time athletics would disappear from this school tomorrow, this school would be a very good school indeed.

“Forget the corruption part of it,” Salacuse continues. “How does athletics facilitate teaching and research? It doesn’t. If anything, it’s an obstacle.”

A recent George Mason University study cited Notre Dame. Stanford, Duke, the University of Michigan, Penn State, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as examples of schools that blend athletics and academics exceptionally well. How? According to the author of the report, Dr. Wade Gilley. two things are needed: “extremely strong presidential leadership” and “strong insti-tutional tradition.” Says Gilley, “With Father |Theodore| Hesburgh at Notre Dame and Father i Joyce, his right-hand man, there is no question but that they are in control. It’s clear what their expectations are, their concepts, their ideas and values. They permeate the whole athletic program. They also look at how the players are doing, the conduct of the coaches, everything,

“And at schools that had difficulty with athletics, we found that the president was third in the power structure in athletics. First was the athletic director and second was a vice president or sometimes the football coach. At universities with major problems, they don’t act until there’s a major expose in the press.”

At SMU. despite harsh sanctions recently inflicted upon the athletic department for alumni violations of NCAA recruitment rules, pressure for a winning football team continues unabated, according to athletic director Bob Hitch. Hitch describes the sentiment this way: “Here we are sitting in the middle of the Southwest Conference, and downtown the business people who went to all these schools are in competition with each other. All of a sudden their school isn’t doing well and it embarrasses them at a cocktail party, and it’s hard for them to understand all the recruiting rules. The harder you try to control it, the more it gets out of hand.”

Shields, known as a football fanatic, needs to clarify his position regarding the SMU athletic program. Athletics may help draw a student body together; athletics can certainly bring buckets of cash to a school. But how large a role should the athletic programs play in the big picture? One administration official, who requested anonymity, said, “Shields is preoccupied with athletics. If you’ve got a president who’s preoccupied with athletics and not academics, it’s going to be pretty difficult to reach your aspirations.”

WHICH COMES FIRST? A GREAT UNIVERSITY THAT draws a tremendous pool of applicants from which to pick its students-or a tremendous pool of applicants from which to pick the students who make a university great?

The question illustrates how tricky it is for a school to attempt to upgrade its admissions standards, a step toward excellence that SMU has already taken by changing its admissions strategy. Fewer freshmen were admitted last fall, and the school has aggressively sought to “buy” better students with full scholarships. Mediocre students are put on a waiting list until the recruitment of the upper echelon is complete. As a result of the new strategy, last year SMU shoved its average SAT scores up a notch from 1050 to 1104. But if SMU is to compete in the Top Fifteen, that average must continue to climb into the 1200s, joining Stanford, Duke, and Northwestern.

The mix of qualities that draws a lively intellectually oriented student body includes reputation, campus environment, climate and community, curriculum, faculty, and enough financial aid to provide a net for students who can’t afford to pay. Ironically, even a strong athletics program, if it is not seen as the raison d’etre for the school, can be a major drawing card. Duke University, for example, has seen its applicant pool build from about 10,000 in 1980 to 13,000 in 1986. The average SAT scores of its freshmen have increased from 1253 to 1295 in the same period. Why? Admissions officers at Duke give as much credit to the school’s having made it to basketball’s coveted Final Four playoff tournament in Dallas last year as any other single factor. Says Duke’s administrator in charge of admissions, Paula Burger: “You have to have a good product to sell.”

SMU’s curriculum is generally judged to be a solid one. A new component of the curriculum established three years ago, and democratically christened the “Common Educational Experience,” calls for all undergraduates to complete thirty-nine hours of courses that range across the arts and sciences, touching on writing, math, art history, literature, religion, politics, philosophy, applied science and technology, and ethics. Certain of SMU’s schools or departments-law and theology, theater, geology, anthropology-rank high in the region, if not the nation.

But SMU is consistently criticized for failing to fund ambitious graduate programs across a wide spectrum of disciplines. George Reddien, SMU’s new associate provost, says that graduate programs are essential to establishing the atmosphere most conducive to learning at a university. “When you have them you have a better intellectual atmosphere, with more speakers and seminars. There’s no reason you can’t have that without graduate programs, but graduate programs certainly help.”

Stanford University, on the other hand, which ranks consistently in the top five universities in the nation, has graduate programs in all of the thirty areas of sciences, engineering, and humanities that were recently evaluated by the Conference of the Associated Research Council, funded by the Mellon. Ford, and Sloan Foundations, among others. Stanford scored in the top ten in twenty-five of the fields, the top five in eleven of the fields, and ranked first in four of the fields: biochemistry, computer science, psychology, and statistics-biostatistics.

If SMU is to beef up its graduate programs, that will take money-and lots of it. And herein lies another central theme in SMU’s fight to the top: it will have to generate more resources than it has now.

How much? When Donald Shields began preparing his “The Decade Ahead” plan, each of the deans was allowed to develop a “needs list” with corresponding price tags. According to Associate Vice President for Development Bill Lively, the lists totaled “in excess of $400 million.” For the current fundraising campaign, that sum was pared to a number that was deemed a more realistic goal: $182 million.

Good programming requires money, and lots of it. Today it costs an additional $2,500 per student over and above what each student pays in tuition costs, according to Lively. And without making some gargantuan increase in endowment, it is doubtful that SMU can even approach the top-tier schools. Harvard is the most liberally endowed of American universities. with a $3.5 billion nest egg to provide some 500 endowed chairs, financial aid for anyone who needs it, and a vast physical plant including research laboratories recently described by Secretary of Education William Bennett as “the envy of the world.” The University of Texas System is even richer, with a $3.6 billion endowment, but it must be shared by UT and Texas A&M. By comparison, SMU raised $29.9 million last year (that’s actual cash collected-$92 million was pledged this year for use over the next decade) to augment operating expenses, to pay for bricks and mortar, and to add to the endowment account. In total, SMU has holdings of about $282 million, thanks in no small measure to the generosity of Cox, Clements, and other Dallas powerhouses such as Trammell Crow and Robert Dedman.

Clearly. SMU falls short of greatness in part because it doesn’t have the money. The school hasn’t the financial backing or the will for large outlays on master’s and doctoral programs, key building blocks to achieving first-rank status. The university awards -doctorates in just seventeen areas and master’s degrees in twenty-five. SMU does not award Ph.D.s in English or history, for example, or in political science, sociology, art history, or a foreign language.

Even without graduate programs, money could help administrators solve certain problems. Tenured professors who are no longer productive could be eased out, suggests one administrator, if money were available to make early retirement offers.

More money would also make it easier for SMU to up the quality of the student body. SMU was able to report last year that its average college board scores had climbed fifty-four points because it admitted fewer students-1,200 instead of 1,300-into its freshman class. The decision to raise the admissions standards cost SMU money that it needs desperately if the other elements of its upwardly mobile strategy are to work. One would hope that the loss is temporary: other schools have shown that demanding a higher caliber of student, though it may cost money in the short run, pays off handsomely down the road with even larger applicant pools of even higher quality students.

Though no school can live without it, money is a double-edged sword, as SMU has learned the hard way. If a university’s values are muddy, its goals uncertain, money can do immeasurable harm, At SMU, rich contributors haven’t confined their meddling to the athletic side, either. There is evidence that undue influence has been brought to bear in the business school, where the recent deans’ evaluation found reason to be “concerned” about “major donor involvement in selection of key chair candidates. More specifically, the “vetoing’ of potential chair candidates from outside constituents.” An SMU administrator confirms that one professor, a candidate for an endowed chair, was grilled by former U.S. Rep. and donor Jim Collins about certain of his personal habits. The professor took the job anyway.

In business, money drives a deal, but in an academic institution, that tenet can be troublesome. Those who believe that Cox and Clements, to name just two big patrons, should have less say in how SMU is run, are wary of speaking for the record. After all. such men have paid the bills for yea these many years. SMU does need their money. But should these sugar daddies be allowed to control “the product”? There are those, both in the school and outside, who believe that academic donations should not come with strings attached. Leroy Howe, religion professor and head of the faculty senate, says that giving to SMU ought to be like giving to your church. “The pastor has the responsibility to help people understand the allocation of resources in light of the mission. If you’re not straight with people about what the ministry and mission is, then I don’t think you have the right to take their money.”