Thursday, August 11, 2022 Aug 11, 2022
80° F Dallas, TX


By D Magazine |

THREE FORCES VIE FOR LEADERSHIP IN A UNIVER-sity: the president, the board, and the faculty. SMU president Donald Shields, a big bear of a man distinguished by his hail-fellow-well-met-slap-on-the-back personality, is presently playing to mixed reviews; the board is strong-willed, powerful, mostly white, mostly male, and mostly business-oriented; and the school’s diverse faculty by all accounts has a few shining stars (see Four Great Professors, page 112) and a few real dogs, with the great majority somewhere in between.

It is fair to give Shields the credit for priming SMU for its leap toward greatness. It is he who has said repeatedly that the school belongs in the Top Fifteen. It is he who urged the board to reduce the number of entering freshmen in order to shove SMU’s average SAT score up a notch. It is he who has tightened the standards for faculty tenure and brought more diverse community input by establishing advisory boards for each school.

Shields is hard-working, likable, and intelligent. But almost every person questioned for this article expressed reservations as to his ability to move SMU where it wants to go and sustain its position once it gets there. There is a feeling that, strong as he is, Shields is not of the caliber of, say, a Derek Bok at Harvard or a Dr. Hanna Gray at the University of Chicago. “These people are leaders, and when they say something, they are setting the agenda,” says Ted Marchese, vice president of the American Association for Higher Education. “They are widely regarded as effective leaders within their own institutions.” It is clear that Shields does not enjoy that across-the-board support.

A brief account of the history of SMU presidents offers a fascinating glimpse into the process by which SMU has moved, haltingly at times, from a small Methodist school in an isolated frontier outpost to an ivy-covered campus in a city preoccupied with its growth and self-esteem.

Four presidents-Robert S. Hyer, Hiram A. Boaz, Charles C. Selecman, and Umphrey Lee, presided over SMU in its early days. Selecman was known as a hard-nosed bottom-liner who put the school on solid financial footing. Umphrey Lee had visions of academic grandeur; it was he who established the school’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter.

But Willis Tate. SMU”s president from 1954 to 1972 and chancellor until 1976, is credited with bringing SMU into the modern post-war era. An affable former SMU football player, with two degrees from the school and a handful of honorary degrees from ’, mostly small Methodist colleges. Tate was no scholar. But he had a vision of what he wanted and he didn’t lose sight of it.

Tate worked hard to project the school’s affluent image, adding impressive monuments like the Owen Arts Center. He was part of the local establishment, a member of the elite Dallas Citizens Council, and he actively glad-handed potential donors, including, inexplicably, comedian Bob Hope. Tate did give the school prestige and status. The question is, what kind? Then and now, he is sometimes criticized for committing the school’s resources to lavish offices and manicured lawns at the expense of academic excellence and financial stability. And there’s no question that it was Tate who cost SMU the most important deal in its history-a deal that certainly would have increased SMU’s value in Dallas and might have enhanced its stature nationally as well.

During the early Sixties, Texas Instruments founder and former mayor Erik Jonsson was concerned about the “brain drain” of prospective engineers from the Dallas area. Jonsson and the other TI founders, Cecil Green and the late Eugene McDermott. thought that SMU might offer the incentive to keep Dallas’s brightest students at home. They formed the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies and located it on the SMU campus. The idea for the center was to provide graduate education that would train students in the esoteric sciences practiced at TI, Collins Radio. Vought, and General Dynamics, all of which were losing talent to the Northeast and West. Eventually, the plan was to build a full-fledged engineering school on the campus.

But after a year, the center’s director, Lloyd Berkner, went to Jonsson and told him that he was wasting his time and his money: Tate and the majority of the SMU board members weren’t interested in an engineering school. Jonsson went to the board to argue his case, but to no avail.

The upshot was that Jonsson, Green, and McDermott yanked the center, moved it to Richardson, and made it the nucleus for the University of Texas at Dallas. The center was funded with a $15 million grant from the three founders, and they have since endowed UTD with millions more.

So SMU lumbered along, oblivious to changing times until Dallas’s full-speed entry into the booming Seventies finally woke the board up. In 1972, Willis Tate retired. The Board of Trustees, led by Edwin Cox, chose a man named Paul Hardin as the new president.

Hardin came to SMU from Wofford College, a small Methodist-related school in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He was young, handsome, and aggressive. By most accounts, he was more inclined toward academics than either the previous administration or the board members, who by this time were jolted into a more active governance than under Tate. According to some who remember the brief Hardin reign-he left after two years on the job-Hardin had trouble with the administrative size of SMU and with the division of power among himself, Chancellor Tate, and the board. In the words of one administrator, “He thought he was going to run this university and they fired him. They gave him twenty-four hours to clear out. It’s like he was a non-person.”

Hardin himself views his “abrupt” ouster as a result of his attempts to restructure the Board of Trustees, which he saw as clusters of “enthusiasts for individual schools,” rather than a board devoted to “building a great university.” Says Hardin, “Cox and Clements are not educators. The university ought to be run by educators-with the full support of the board.”

One of Hardin’s goals, according to one insider was to de-emphasize athletics. And he began a program to do so by attempting to report the university for a rules infraction, an act that did not sit well with either the trustees or the alums. Another source says that Hardin ruffled more feathers when he had the nerve to try to apportion space in the new law school building, a pet project of several influential alums, for his administration’s offices.

By 1975, the board had riveted its attention on the school’s weaknesses. It was clear that SMU hadn’t made the kind of academic strides that would allow it to compete with other top-billed private schools, The school was losing on the football field. The university was $5 million in debt.

In 1971 the average SMU freshman’s SAT scores were a paltry 1089. far below Rice’s 1320 and Stanford’s 1310. Only thirty National Merit Scholars were enrolled in 1974, compared to Rice’s 311 and Duke’s 160.

Cox and Clements, who had emerged as clear leaders on the board, turned to an accomplished scholar, James Zumberge, to step in and lift the university out of its quagmire. Zumberge, who came from the University of Nebraska, went into action almost immediately. He enforced the “publish or perish” edict, requiring professors to publish scholarly research or lose their jobs. He tightened tenure standards, and many professors didn’t make it past the six-year cutoff. Alan Coleman, a Stanford graduate and former professor at Harvard’s business school, was brought in to run the business school, where heads began to roll at an alarming rate. Other professors who didn’t meet Zumberge’s standards-tenured or not-were simply bought out and replaced. But Zumberge didn’t stay to finish the job. After five active years, he was lured away to the University of Southern California. It fell to Donald Shields to pick up where Zumberge left off.

BY THIS TIME, YOU’RE PROBABLY WONDER-ing why you have never spent even one moment fretting over the future of SMU. You’re in good company. Neither have most of the people in Dallas, and that’s partly because the SMU ruling class has been in place for so long that it has isolated itself from the rest of the community.

Says one analyst, a former university professor, “Most of us don’t sit around wondering how SMU can be used to build Dallas’s future. I think maybe Cox is thinking that way and Clements, but I don’t think anybody else is. Maybe that’s because they believe it’s Ed and Bill’s deal and they don’t want to touch it. But they don’t look at SMU as a community resource.”

Of the eighteen other members of the Board of Governors (an executive committee of the Board of Trustees and the real power enclave), seventeen live in Dallas. They’re people like Frank M. Crossen, chairman of Centex Corp., William L. Hutchison, chairman of Texas Oil & Gas Corp., Cary M. Maguire, president of Ma-guire Oil Co., Leo F. Corrigan Jr., president of Corrigan Properties Inc., and Ruth Collins Sharp, local philanthropist.*

The question of whether SMU ought to diversify its board is an oft-debated one on the Hilltop. Shields has said that he thinks some new blood would be healthy, but he must be ever mindful of his political position. Fellow administrators and faculty members echo the refrain, lamenting that they are powerless to do anything about the problem. “If you’re going to be a truly national university, you have to have national people on the board,” says one. “There is a reluctance there to bring outside people into a power position. You can’t have a board made up of people who office exclusively in the InterFirst tower.”

Stanford University provides an example to support the “strength in diversity” theory. In the late Sixties, Stanford board member John W. Gardner, chairman of Common Cause, led a drive to air out the stuffy Stanford board, moving toward greater variety in age, race, occupation, and place of residence. Today, the thirty-two-member Stanford Board has eleven members who live outside California, four graduates under thirty-five, blacks, women, and one professor from another university. One, Irving Deal, even lives in Dallas. Eight members of the board are elected by alumni, and students and faculty serve on committees that report to the board. (A few similar committees exist at SMU.)

But uniformity isn’t the only problem with the current SMU board. There is widespread concern that board members exert inappropriate influence over the day-to-day operations of the school. A recent tiff occurred over the board’s decision to hold tuition costs at their current level. Administrators, including Shields, felt that they ought to be raised. One expresses the belief that: “SMU is underpricing its product. And that means there is not enough revenue to make academic improvements.”

Then there’s the issue of tolerance. Even within the avowedly conservative confines of SMU, the board has drawn fire from those who believe that a degree of student self-expression, even rebelliousness, is intrinsic to campus life. In an infamous episode three years ago. the board supported Shields in his contention that a student gay rights group should not be granted university recognition or support through university funds, A flurry over a student artist and her painting of copulating pigs is another case in point. The painting, which would scarcely have raised eyebrows at a more liberal school, was removed from an exhibition.

The final side of the leadership triangle is the faculty, and good ones have both depth and breadth. In other words, there is strength at the top of each department (the spire) that serves as a magnet for the less experienced faculty below; a strength that multiplies as it extends throughout the school.

It is difficult to make hard judgments ! about the overall quality in SMU’s current faculty. The school has some extremely impressive, even inspirational teachers. And there is a buoyant confidence that the Shields administration has made some moves to build on that strength. SMU pays its pro-fessors competitively: $51,900 for a full pro-fessors (compared with Harvard’s $66,000); | $36,100 for an associate professor (compared with Stanford’s $43,200); and $29,800 (compared with Stanford’s $34,700) for an assistant professor. Its pay scale puts SMU in the top twenty universities in terms of salary.

Non-tenured faculty are judged, it is said, more rigorously under Shields, and also more often-every three years. Those who do not measure up, say administrators, can be terminated then.

Tenure is granted after a minimum of six

years by a host of evaluators from peers to provosts, based on a record of competent teaching, scholarly or creative activity, and peer review. All of the professors we talked to say that, despite the school’s conservative reputation, academic freedom reigns.

Observing a competitive university recruit top-flight faculty is like watching a rich man grow richer. Success breeds success. SMU has plucked some plums off the branches of other universities in the past few years, notably William May and the new chairman of the biology department, Dennis Smith. He has brought in coveted research money and three outstanding additions to the faculty whom “SMU could not have attracted had it not been for Smith,” according to Kathy Costello. Where money and energy have been focused, there has been progress, she says: biology, philosophy, engineering, computer science, information systems. The task ahead is to scatter emphasis until it touches every major discipline.


IF SMU OR ANY UNIVERSITY IS SATISFIED with second-rate, provincial status, well and good. Those students who want more of an intellectual challenge-and a degree that proves they met that challenge-will shop elsewhere in the academic marketplace. The “university” will continue to fill its classes with bodies and meet its payroll. But when SMU announces plans for a quantum jump into the upper strata of American universities, it seems fair to measure the school by the yardstick of its own aspirations.

The chorus singing SMU’s praises must not forget that a great university is more than a collection of buildings, a brag sheet of endowed chairs, and a roster of well-heeled backers. A school may have all these and more, yet fall dramatically short of excellence. The great university is the visible expression of an indwelling spirit. Money is only one means, and perhaps the least reliable, of invoking that spirit.

Efforts to evaluate a university lead inevitably to a definition of the university’s mission: what sort of people should it produce? On the one hand, it is easy to set up a lofty, platonic ideal of a university that no school could possibly live up to. The 19th-century notion of a liberal arts education made sense when very few men and no women went to college. That education was part of the outfitting of a gentleman-by definition, a man who would not have to worry about working for a living. Such an education, laudable as it seems in broad outline, may not be an effective model for students today, most of whom will work for a living and who look to college to prepare them for the workplace.

But a great university must draw a distinction between education and mere job training. Too many colleges today seem all too willing to become glorified vocational schools, ready to teach courses in air-conditioning repair, real estate, or whatever will fill classrooms with tuition-payers. Such were the findings recently of the Carnegie Foundation, which accused colleges of fostering “careerisnV rather than providing quality education. The universities of the past century may have occasionally stifled individual initiative with their rigid curricula, but schools today often veer to the other extreme, saying, in effect, “You tell us what you think you might like and we’ll offer a class in it.”

For decades, scholars, bureaucrats, and students have wrangled over the definition of an educated person, but general agreement remains elusive. Often the argument degenerates into special pleading: scientists urge more students to take physics and microbiology, while literary humanists are appalled at graduates who haven’t read Titus Andronicus.

Another skirmish in the battle over standards (which is really an argument over what sort of person a university should produce) came recently, when Secretary of Education William Bennett scolded Harvard University, at its own 350th birthday party, for failing to provide what he called “a real education.” That education, Bennett said, would embrace “the classical and Jewish-Christian heritage, the facts of American and European history, the political organization of Western societies, the great works of Western art and literature, the major achievements of the scientific disciplines.” Harvard

is proud of its core curriculum, but Bennett dismissed the offerings as “Cores Light.”

If even Harvard is not good enough, should we just throw up our hands and declare education an impossible task? No. Wayne C. Booth, a dean of the University of Chicago and noted scholar (The Rhetoric of Fiction), asked the relevant question in a famous essay, “Is There Any Knowledge a Man Must Have?” Sidestepping quarrels over the precise number of Great Books, major authors, and courses in French, botany, accounting, and Fortran a student must experience, Booth instead concentrated on results. What kind of mind is formed by a good college education? Agreeing with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” he identified three characteristics of the educated person:

He will know “something about his ownnature and his place in Nature.” This knowledge of how we work and how our universeworks can be gleaned from the sciences, philosophy, theology, psychology, anthropology, even from imaginative literature; Boothis not specific. The important thing is that “acollege education should throw every student into a regular torrent of speculation.” Itis not our answers to questions so much asour ability to ask them-and know whatmight constitute an answer-that is important here. “Do you know your own reasonsfor your beliefs, or do you absorb your beliefsfrom whatever happens to be in your environment, like plankton taking in nourishment?” For Booth, the graduate incapable ofspeculation (or uninterested in anything butmoney and his next meal) is poorly educated, however many degrees adom his wall.

Second, Booth says, the truly educatedperson must know artistic beauty. “A man isless than a man if he cannot respond to theart made by his fellow man.” The personwhose soul does not resonate to some artisticproduction-whether a well-made sculpture,a satisfying blend of harmonic voices, or acogent paragraph-has also been robbed ofhis educational birthright.

Lastly, the educated person will knowhow to think about values. “How should aman live? How should a society be run?” Ifwe cannot ask such ethical questions andwork toward their answers, we may be welltrained for a job, but we are hardly educated.

Booth closes by repeating a key point: truth, beauty, and goodness are not the exclusive property of any single department in the university; nor does any particular degree plan ensure that students will make their acquaintance. “It is not the business of a college to determine or limit what a man will know,” Booth says. “But I think it is the business of a college to help teach a man how to use his mind for himself, in at least the three directions I have suggested.”

SMU, and any other school, could do farworse than to adopt this “simple” three-partplan, asking of each professor, administrator, and expenditure: “What do these do tomake students know and seek truth, beauty.and goodness?”