Monday, September 26, 2022 Sep 26, 2022
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SMU’s New Dean Has a Godzilla Complex

Bill Tsutsui wanted to be the giant lizard when he was a kid. Instead, he leads the Dedman College.
By Willard Spiegelman |
photography by Joshua Martin

My new Boss keeps Godzilla posters, statues, and other memorabilia in his office. This quaint obsession would not be of general interest were it not for the fact that several of his predecessors as dean of Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, the liberal arts branch of SMU, were somewhat more formal, not to say stuffy, in both their demeanor and their choice of decor.

William Tsutsui (Bill to everyone), like all the other SMU deans, is a suit and wears a suit. But unlike most of his older, more somber colleagues, Tsutsui is a large guy with a room-filling laugh and a booming voice. He grew up near College Station, where his Japanese father and American mother taught at A&M. (When they married in 1956, it was still so odd for an Asian man to marry a white woman that they were written up in the New York Times, not as a society piece but as a human interest story.) But he left Texas pretty fast for the more effete East. On paper, as opposed to in person, he is pure Ivy: the Groton School, then Harvard—summa cum laude, if you please—Oxford as a Marshall Scholar, and Princeton for his doctorate.

His interest in Japanese economic history led Tsutsui along a standard path. He wrote academic books such as Banking Policy in Japan: American Efforts at Reform During the Occupation and Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan, and he taught for 17 years at the University of Kansas. (It also led him, as part of a Japanese American Leadership Delegation, to Tokyo in March, right as the earthquake and tsunami struck. Fox News, CNN, and the New York Times got reports from Tsutsui, and SMU got some unexpected free publicity.)

At KU, Tsutsui had felt the urge to move on. Like many academics, he had a hankering to reach a wider audience. Hence Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, which came out in 2004. You’ve got to love a book that begins, “When I was 9, I wanted to be Godzilla.” It’s not a confession that we expect to hear from a staid suit.

More important, Tsutsui had aspirations that would lead him out of the classroom and up a different ladder. Now he finds himself at a college that’s in dire need of leadership. Which is to say, of course, it needs money.

SMU is now celebrating its centennial and is midway through its latest capital campaign. What the university will look like a half century from now will depend in part on what goals it sets for itself today and whether it realizes them. SMU has raised $489 million in donations and pledges toward a $750 million goal. Of this amount, Dedman College has raised $43 million of its own $85 million goal. In other words, the College accounts for only 11 percent of the campaign’s total package, (though the rubric of “academic and faculty excellence,” $350 million allotted, can be understood in a variety of ways). The largest of SMU’s seven schools, it has become marginalized, the poor Cinderella to whom the richer stepsisters—Business, Engineering, Law—pay homage, or at least lip service. I should know. I have been here for 40 years. Rice, our exact contemporary, seems to have outpaced us in many ways, not least in its attention to the humanities. It has a well-funded interdisciplinary Humanities Center. (SMU now has one of these on its wish list.)

Dedman College had been rudderless for four years before Tsutsui came. I asked him what he regards as his greatest challenges, as well as the strengths he can bring to SMU. His answers reflected not only hope but also a sense of reality.

He thinks SMU can combine the qualities of big research universities and the commitment to a rich and personalized undergraduate education that has long characterized the top liberal arts colleges. “Too many public institutions have lost sight of teaching and mentoring students,” he says. “Indeed, at many big state schools, undergraduates have come to be seen as an annoyance, or at least a distraction from the more ‘important’ work of research. The balance we’ve attained at SMU between high-level research and undergraduate training is something special that not too many universities can boast.”

Among other local pundits, Richard Fisher, head of the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve, has frequently said that Dallas needs a major private university to support not only financial entrepreneurship but also the general cultural life that all big cities aspire to. We need not just business leaders trained at Cox but also creative thinkers and innovators in all fields.

It’s only through the traditional arts and sciences that literacy (my field) can be taught. Law schools everywhere are now bemoaning the inability of their students to write clearly and persuasively. Jane Ginsburg, a copyright law expert, said in a February lecture here that her Columbia students (the best and the brightest) cannot write. Where were these law students trained, or not trained? The teaching of writing is unglamorous, time-consuming, and old-fashioned, like the learning of foreign languages. Only Dedman College and its peers can be equipped to perform this unsexy chore well.

The sense of belonging to an academic community, rather than to a fraternity or sorority, ought to be central to a college education, and it has special relevance for SMU, which has always maintained a peculiar relationship with Dallas. There’s a comfort level in the so-called University Park bubble that speaks to the potential institutional advantage that SMU has over its local competition. It is a private university, not a public one. I asked Tsutsui how he felt here, after 17 years at a state university. He’s thrilled, he said. Although a firm believer in the ideals of public higher education, he acknowledged that the reality of life in the big state university is not very rosy these days. “Public universities are expected to be everything to everybody but generally don’t have the resources to do anything very well—except, of course, big-time athletics,” he says. “The liberal arts seem like an afterthought at giant state schools teaching everything from social work to architecture to public health.”

Part of Tsutsui’s appeal, in addition to his exuberance, is his refusal to mince words. He speaks his mind. He confessed to being tired “of every Kansan feeling like he or she owned the university. In the public’s eyes, faculty members were pampered pinkos sponging off the hard work of taxpayers. And let me tell you, I would much rather work for the SMU board of trustees than for the Kansas legislature. The SMU trustees are accomplished, committed people and, unlike some Kansas state representatives, are all bipedal.”

I wondered what exactly his life in the Park Cities is like, so I visited Tsutsui and his wife, Marjorie Swann (now in SMU’s English Department), one February afternoon. They settled into their newish McMansion several blocks north of campus only at the start of this year, having rented a university property for the prior six months while gaining their bearings. When I walked in, it seemed that they’d been there for a while. Their art collections seemed perfectly at home. Stickley furniture; floor-to-ceiling pictures; vitrines with WPA-vintage pottery and dolls; museum storage for their prints, drawings, lithographs, and etchings (1,785 “as of yesterday,” Tsutsui said); and only a single Godzilla filled the airy open spaces. Swann obviously had put her foot down, exiling her husband’s boy toys to his office.

Godzilla, king of the monsters, was a destroyer of cities. Can his fan, Bill Tsutsui, be the builder of a great college? SMU is not, my boss hopes, what it once was. “It’s not the SMU of the death penalty or of Lucy Ewing the coed,” he says. The broader question is how will SMU not only encourage new modes of learning, for a wider range of students (minority enrollment was 22.6 percent in 2010), but also maintain a commitment to the old-fashioned subjects that Dedman College alone can host.

Caren Prothro, the current head of the SMU trustees and a woman with considerable experience spearheading large campaigns, is a big fan. Of Tsutsui she says, “People like his style, his great energy and enthusiasm for the job.” As an alumna of the excellent, still all-women’s Mills College in California, Prothro has a keen sense of the importance of the arts and sciences. She is also aware of the university’s desire to raise itself into a top 50 slot in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking, whatever those statistics mean.

Stay tuned for the second century.

Write to [email protected].


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