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SMU’s Big Man on Campus

Twenty years ago this month, Gerald Turner stepped in to lead the university. Since then, he’s gotten donors to pony up $1.5 billion. Is he the best college president in the country?
By Joseph Guinto |
Photography by Elizabeth Lavin

In the spring of 1997, Gerald Turner met with SMU’s head of development, Bill Lively, to discuss the biggest fundraising campaign in the school’s history, a five-year effort they hoped would net $300 million. “Either you are going to succeed at this,” Turner told Lively, “or both you and I are going to croak at the finish line.”

They both survived. SMU blew through its $300 million goal, raising $542 million, the largest fundraising campaign in the school’s history until The Second Century campaign was launched in 2008. It was enough money to buy acres of land and launch a building boom. 

Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
But that wasn’t enough. And Turner knew it. In fact, he’d known from the moment he took over as SMU’s president, 20 years ago this month, on June 5, 1995, that $300 million wouldn’t get SMU where he wanted it. Nor would $542 million. Not even $1 billion would do it.

In early 1996, the man with a pronounced twang from New Boston, Texas, told SMU’s board of trustees that he believed it would take two major fundraising campaigns to build up the university and bolster its endowment. The next year, I interviewed Turner for the first time. The president of my alma mater had a folksy way of framing his ambitions. “I know,” he said, “that when I talk about needing this campaign and then that campaign, I’m a bit like a rabbit hunter when you ask him, ‘Well, how many rabbits you got?’ and he says, ‘When I get this one over here and that one over there, then I’ll have two.’ ”

Turner thought both campaigns would be needed just to start SMU on a path toward earning a top-50 spot in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. “That was the elevator speech then,” Turner says today. “We said we wanted to be among the top 50 universities, and since U.S. News was around, that’s the list we used. That captured a lot of things. To be among the top institutions, you’ve got to have better students. You’ve got to have better faculty. You’ve got to have facilities that attract better people. Your endowment has to be bigger.”

On and on and on. For 20 years on. In almost any other organization, that kind of time frame for improvement would be laughably too long. “But you can’t change universities quickly,” Turner says. “It’s evolution. It’s not revolution.”

But now that two decades have passed, it does seem like something revolutionary has happened at SMU. The small university once seemed limited by its geography, surrounded by Dallas’ wealthiest neighborhoods and a highway that bisects the city. Now it’s in a constant state of growth. The engineering school has been remade, literally from the ground up, and now occupies its own quad. So, too, an education school has been created. And so much money has been poured into new sports arenas and training facilities that hardly anyone remembers the time when SMU was seriously discussing abandoning Division I athletics. Freshman applications have tripled under Turner’s watch. SAT scores have shot up. And last fall, SMU added five new residence halls, allowing it to house all of its freshmen and sophomores, spurring a radical change to campus life.

To all this, the 69-year-old Turner takes an “aw, shucks, wasn’t me” attitude. In fact, he initially declined to participate in this story, because he didn’t want any undue acclaim. It took a lot of people, he said, to accomplish what SMU has done in 20 years. He credits the board for coming up with the top-50 goal that drove SMU’s fundraising push, land grabs, and endless construction.

Ask board members, though, and they’ll tell you it’s the other way around. “It was Gerald who caused SMU to raise its sights and try to become a leading, national university,” says Mike Boone, co-founder of the law firm Haynes and Boone. He has been a member of SMU’s board since 1996 and is the chairman. “What has happened at SMU was Gerald’s vision, his commitment. From the beginning, Gerald has been the catalyst.”

Boone figures that Turner’s accomplishments make him the best university president in the country. He’s biased, to be sure, but looking at five important areas, one can make a case. 

1. Fundraising

SMU has raised $1.5 billion during Turner’s tenure ($542 million in the 1997-2002 A Time to Lead campaign and likely $1 billion in The Second Century campaign, set to conclude this fall).

SMU has tripled its endowment from $483 million in 1995 to $1.4 billion.

Photo courtesy of SMU

SMU, as of last year, was eight spots away from that top-50 U.S. News ranking that Turner has been after since he left his chancellorship at the University of Mississippi to take over at SMU from the late A. Kenneth Pye. The university also occupies approximately the same spot in a ranking of another kind. The Chronicle of Higher Education says SMU’s $1.4 billion endowment is the 65th largest of any U.S. university. TCU, Syracuse University, and Baylor, which SMU considers peers, are slightly behind SMU in total endowment. The University of Rochester, Carnegie Mellon, and Tufts University, which SMU considers “aspirational” schools to model after for teacher recruitment and pay, have slightly larger endowments.

The current capital campaign, however, likely won’t catapult SMU beyond its closest rivals. When combined with the earlier campaign, it will pay for 723 new scholarships and 120 new academic program endowments. Turner hopes that will help improve SMU’s academic ranking. But consider: Syracuse successfully completed a $1 billion campaign in 2012. And Boston University, a peer school, in 2012 launched the first capital campaign in its 176-year history. Its goal: $1 billion. Meanwhile, Tulane, which SMU also considers one of its “aspirational” universities, is underway with its own $1 billion fundraiser. All of which means Turner is going to have to keep on selling.

Lively, who left SMU in 2000, says Turner is adept at doing just that. “Gerald is likable,” he says. “He’s very dynamic. He resonates well with many people. But SMU also thinks bigger than it used to. It’s moreaggressive at pursuing funding than it was. And it involves donors more than it did in the past. People respond to all those things.” 

2. Building

Prior to 1997, SMU had 60 buildings on 160 acres. Today it has 101 buildings occupying 234 acres.

SMU also has a campus at Legacy Park, in Plano, which occupies 25 acres, and a campus in Taos, New Mexico, that has 33 buildings occupying 423 acres.

Photo courtesy of SMU
Turner, has spent his entire career in academia. So he’s a bit bemused to find that today he runs a restaurant. Or, at least, he runs a university that owns a building that houses a restaurant. “We own Cafe Brazil now,” Turner says, laughing. 

He’s sitting at the conference table in his office, sketching out a map on the table, using his finger. The “map” shows that SMU has jumped Central Expressway. “We bought up all those little rabbit warrens over there except two,” Turner says of the small office buildings occupying a wedge of land across the highway, along with Cafe Brazil. The university also bought Expressway Tower, the 15-story building east of Central that was once home to a Playboy Club and to the Dallas Cowboys’ front office and now sports an oversize Mustang on one side. Eventually, all floors in the building will house classes and offices for SMU, and the old “rabbit warrens” will be replaced with new university buildings. 

That’s all part of an incremental land grab that’s been taking place at SMU ever since Turner arrived. At that time, SMU looked trapped. It could grow up, but not out. And growing up risked ruining the red-brick Georgian architecture that is a big part of the school’s brand. 

But that’s where academia’s lavishly long time frames for change come in handy. SMU bought three dozen homes on the north side of the campus over a 13-year period, at market rates, instead of snapping them up in one big purchase. That made room for the $15 million forthcoming Gerald J. Ford Research Center and an entirely new department, the School of Education and Human Development. 

On the southern end of the campus, SMU spent years negotiating the purchase of apartment complexes that have now given way to a residential commons—five new dorms and a new dining hall that looks like a food court in a modern Las Vegas hotel. 

Below the new residential commons, SMU now owns a shopping center at Central and Mockingbird. And when the Mrs. Baird’s bakery on the other side of Mockingbird shut down, SMU bought that land and then spent years deciding what to do with the property. It’s now a tennis facility. 

All of that has added 74 acres to the campus. “It’s kind of like looking at a chessboard,” Turner says. “We spend a lot of time asking, ‘Where can we move this if we build that?’ ”

While the chess pieces may move, the basic chessboard hasn’t changed since Turner and SMU’s board settled on a master plan, in 1996, that targeted areas of potential expansion. Neither has Turner’s desire to keep SMU looking the way SMU has always looked. “I’m not sure there’s another university in the country that has built as many significant projects and changed the face of the campus as much as SMU has,” says Larry Good, a founder and the chairman of the Dallas architecture firm Good Fulton & Farrell, which has overseen SMU’s master plan since its inception. “But Gerald has always had a strong desire to stick to SMU’s collegiate Georgian style. He was very insistent about that. So, that’s why, even though a lot of different architectural firms have been involved in the new buildings, they all reflect elements of that style.”

3. Athletics

In 2000, SMU opened the $42 million, 32,000-seat Gerald J. Ford Stadium. In 2009, the football team played in its first bowl game since 1984, and it has made three more appearances since then. 

In 2008, SMU opened the $13 million, 43,000-square-foot Crum Basketball Center.

In 2013, SMU completed a $47 million renovation of Moody Coliseum. This year, the men’s basketball team won its second conference title and made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1993. 

It would have been hard to appreciate
the importance of Gerald J. Ford Stadium on any given Saturday of SMU’s last football season. June Jones quit two games into the season, and the team went 1-11, losing every home game. The stands were almost entirely empty, the stadium mostly silent.

But when SMU committed to build the facility in 1997, loud cheers went up from longtime supporters of SMU athletics. The new stadium marked the end of years of debate about whether SMU, still scarred by the Death Penalty, even belonged in Division I athletics. It might also have played a role in the unprecedented era that followed of giving to the university.

“Until the football stadium and football were brought back here as part of the overall community, a lot of people felt something was missing from SMU,” Turner says. “A lot of people weren’t going to support the school the way we hoped with that piece missing.”

Big investments in the tennis program and swimming and diving (a new natatorium is in the planning stages) followed, as did the renovation of Moody Coliseum.

Ford Stadium remains the largest and most expensive single building constructed during Gerald Turner’s tenure. But ask Ford what he thinks of the stadium that bears his name (Turner talked Ford into upping his initial contribution from $5 million to $20 million), and he’ll tell you something surprising. “Athletics really wasn’t where I’d planned to make that kind of a contribution,” Ford says. “But I believe college football is very important to the college experience. So what we’ve done with the stadium and the creation of the Boulevard is a net positive.”

Photo courtesy of SMU

4. Campus Life/Faculty Relations

Five new residence halls, plus a new dining hall, opened in fall 2014. 

SMU now requires all freshmen and sophomores to live on campus, and 3,200 undergraduate and graduate students currently do so.

In 1997, 67 percent of all students came from Texas. Today, just 50 percent do.

Minority enrollment was 15.7 percent of the student body in 1993. Last year, it was 25 percent.

SMU accepted 80 percent of applicants 20 years ago but just 50 percent today.

SAT scores are up more than 100 points since 2004, to an average of 1308.

SMU’s professors, with an average salary of $146,034, earn the third-highest salaries in the state, behind Rice and the University of Texas at Dallas.

It’s harder to get in to SMU than it was two decades ago. And it looks like it may get even harder. SMU has tripled the number of applications it receives for freshman admission in the past 20 years. “The undergraduate student body at SMU is substantially better than it was 20 years ago when Gerald arrived,” says longtime political science professor Cal Jillson. “You feel that in the classroom every day. It’s a big deal.”

Then again, of the two dozen schools SMU believes it is either on par with or aspires to be like, only three—Denver University, Baylor, and Marquette—accept a higher percentage of applicants than does SMU, according to U.S. News. Still, SMU hopes its expanded campus will help draw more applicants. Some 1,200 more students will have spent the 2014-2015 year living there than did the year before. “It used to get pretty quiet here at night,” Turner says. “With more kids here, it’s a lot more lively now.”

So, too, has it been more lively since Turner borrowed a tailgating concept from his old employer, Ole Miss. That school’s tailgating tradition, The Grove, which dates to the 1950s, was reborn at SMU with the opening of Ford Stadium, and is known at SMU as The Boulevard. “Of course,” Turner says, “the kids think The Boulevard has been here forever. But now we use those home-game weekends to do a lot of recruiting. Our campus is a great asset. About 75 percent of the kids who visit apply for admission here. We’ve got great curb appeal.”

And since the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, in 2013, 750,000 visitors to SMU have seen that curb appeal. The library, Turner says, is his proudest single achievement and the only building for which he will openly take some personal credit. “It was so gratifying when that library opened,” Turner says. “The library wasn’t a part of the vision for the university, but I believed it would be a great addition. And, boy, has it ever been great. Good grief.”

It’s also a credit to Turner that the early controversy over the library didn’t damage the university’s reputation. In 2007, Benjamin Johnson was a history professor who started a blog where opponents of the library could post their objections. He says, “During that time, Turner didn’t condemn anyone—including, or maybe especially, me—for criticizing the project.” Turner, who has a doctorate in psychology, says he didn’t try to stifle objections because he believed the faculty would eventually agree that the library and its associated institute would be good for the university. “It took time to work through,” he says. “But I think 99 percent of them are now pleased with how it has come out.”

Even last year’s major cost-cutting initiative, which will eliminate 100 administrative jobs and save $35 million annually, has yet to spark a revolt against Turner’s administration. “We may not agree with everything that goes on,” says Santanu Roy, a professor of economics and last year’s president of SMU’s Faculty Senate. “But on the whole, Gerald Turner has our trust.”

5. Academics

Changes in total number of degree offerings from 1997 to present: bachelor’s went from 82 to 104, master’s from 60 to 113, and doctoral-research/scholarship degrees went from 19 to 27.

Changes in faculty positions from 1995 to today: full time grew from 485 to 736, and the student-faculty ratio fell from 13:1 to 11:1.

Changes in enrollment from 1997 to present: undergraduates went from 5,297 to 6,391, graduates and professional students went from 3,875 to 4,881.

Although the school has made prog
ress, some believe Turner is focused too much on money, land, and buildings and not enough on instruction and research. “When I was at SMU, I didn’t think, and I didn’t know anyone who thought, that Turner was a sort of Moses who was going to take us to the academic promised land,” says Johnson, the former SMU history professor who is now at Loyola. Johnson is a Houston native who has studied and written about the history of higher education. He thinks SMU has missed opportunities to challenge Rice for academic superiority in Texas. “I know that SMU wanted to be a more highly regarded place for academics,” he says. “But there was never any indication of how we were going to do that or what that meant. And I think that was Turner’s weakness. Despite his congeniality and the respect that he demonstrated for faculty members, if you asked me what his educational vision was, I’d have absolutely no idea how to answer.”

When measured by U.S. News’ rankings against the two dozen schools that Turner’s administration sees as “cohorts” or “aspirational,” SMU has a lot of ground to make up. In overall rankings among that group, SMU is tied, at No. 58, with Fordham and Syracuse. It ranks ahead of American University, Baylor, Marquette, TCU, the University of Denver, and the University of Tulsa. But it trails all 16 of the others. What’s worse is SMU’s “peer assessment” score. That’s a measure of how other school administrators view an institution’s academic quality. Of the two dozen comparative schools SMU measures itself against, only TCU, Denver, and Tulsa fall lower in U.S. News’ ranking.

Turner admits that SMU still hasn’t made the major academic leap forward that he wants. But, then, he didn’t expect that to happen until the school completed both of its fundraising campaigns. “We’re well positioned now,” he says.

By “we,” he’s including himself. Turner has no plans to leave SMU anytime soon. He wants to be there to see that the university climbs into the top tier. “Twenty years ago, we started with a commitment to improve the academic quality of the institution and its national visibility,” Turner says. “That’s still the No. 1 goal.”

If Turner focuses hard on that No. 1 goal now, even his critics wouldn’t bet against him. “Turner threw himself into the Bush Library with such energy, and was so good at juggling all the things that he needed to make that happen, that I really wanted to see him do that with the academics,” Johnson says. “Because, boy, when he wants to get something done, it gets done.”

Write to [email protected].


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