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Archives: D Magazine! YOU BETCHA! December 1 1986

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Archives: D Magazine! YOU BETCHA! December 1 1986

Postby AfricanMustang » Mon Mar 28, 2022 5:29 pm

SAYING THAT BILL CLEMENTS IS BULLISH ON SMU is like saying that Casanova was somewhat fond of the ladies: a massive understatement. “We are on a plateau just below the final step of achievement at SMU,” Clements says. The chairman of SMU’s powerful Board of Governors is certain of his prediction: “We are now talking in terms of SMU in the future as being at the same level as a Duke or a Stanford. We are just now taking the final step.”

The SMU of the future, if it takes the steps Clements has in mind, will greatly resemble the SMU of (he past in important respects. Clements sees no compelling reason to change the composition of the board, the nature of the typical SMU student, or the relationship between the university and Dallas.

That things are fine between SMU and Dallas is proven, for Clements, by the very Board of Directors that others have criticized as provincial and inbred. Not so, says Clements. “There is no governing body in Dallas or in Texas as impressive as our Board of Governors. 1 would put it up against any other board in the state. It has the highest stature, the most prestige.”

Clements, in the manner of many politicians, loves to make a point with a homespun anecdote. To sup-port his contention that SMU should continue to be run. as it has been, by a homogeneous group of Dallasites (rather than a more diversified board, a la Stanford). Clements tells a story. As a young businessman in the Fifties, he lunched frequently at thePetroleumClub.One day, J.L. “Slats” Latimer, president of Magnolia Petroleum Company, was holding court.

“I was sitting there among my elders, with Slats and R. L. Thornton. Nathan Adams [of First National Bank], and Fred Florence [of RepublicBank],” Clements remembers. “I never said much; I just listened to all the old wise owls.” When the topic turned to what the group considered the single most important asset of Dallas, Latimer was adamant: “There’s no contest. In my judgment, it’s SMU.” Latimer waxed eloquent, Clements recalls, “enumerating how SMU was interrelated with the community.”

The speech made a lasting effect on the man who is now one-third of SMU’s ruling troika, with President Donald Shields and Edwin Cox. “I’m not sure that he’s not correct,” Clements says. “Who is helping SMU today? Who recruits those professors for those chairs? Who supplies SMU with the necessary funds to serve the same number of students, to enhance the programs? It’s not some guy from New York or some well-known personality from Los Angeles. It’s those people sitting around the table.”

With the wise owls guarding the nest, Clements is comfortable with SMU’s relationship to Dallas and its fairly sedate student body. He sees no reason for a great university to be a breeding ground for dissent or rambunctious behavior. Not for him the tumultuous atmosphere of a Columbia or a University of Chicago. Clements sees the university as a willing adjunct and supplier of talent to the business community, not an institution that must sometimes take an adversarial stance toward the establishment that nurtured it. If intellectual ferment must be bought at the expense of tranquility, Clements will gladly let other schools pick up that tab.

“I want to make it very clear that we are not trying to be anything other than a Southwestern culture university.” he says. “Our attraction is our Southwestern culture, the Dallas climate. The environment at SMU is different from UT-Austin or A&M or Rice. SMU is a conservative campus, period. Anyone who thinks differently is dreaming.”

DONALD SHIELDS OCCASIONALLY TEMPERS HIS pride in SMU with more cautious statements, but he still runs a close second to Bill Clements in promoting his school. “I thought that when I came here [in 1981], we had the potential to move ahead of Tulane and Emory and reach the plateau of a Vander-bilt. Tulane would be in the top sixties of private schools and Emory would be higher. There’s no question we’ve moved ahead of Tulane and Emory, and I think in many areas we’re ahead of Vanderbilt.”

Of course, academia has no way of measuring increments of progress in the way that baseball can rank a .330 hitter as worlds beyond a .260 hitter. But like Clements, Shields has a booster mentality that instinctively waves away uncertainty. “I think if you analyze the faculty, the students, the program, objectively, we’re right there with Vanderbilt. It will take another five years to go higher to the next step, and we’ll just have to have the right kind of support to do it.”

For those who think that SMU is “still blowing smoke,” in his phrase. Shields is ready with a grab bag of achievements that he says represent “solid, irrefutable progress. There are a lot of people who are literally uninformed about what’s going on here.” Among Shields’s bragging points:

More endowed chairs. These prestigious and higher-paid positions often lure high-powered scholars to a college. SMU. which had twenty-six endowed chairs in 1981, has fifty today. “1 don’t think you’ll find any institution that has moved as dramatically to increase the number.” Shields says.

Tighter standards for granting tenure. The “less systematic” approach of 1980 is gone, Shields says. In its place is a system that makes it more difficult for a professor to gain a permanent place on the faculty.

More research grants. Last year, SMU professors garnered $3.4 million in grant money. Since June of this year, they’ve received $6 million-much of it in a $2.8 million chunk to the engineering department, led by Dean Bob Fossum, as part of a Department of Defense grant; it’s the largest research grant SMU has ever received.

Higher SAT scores for entering freshmen. SMU’s freshman scores an average of forty-five points higher on SATs than did his counterpart three years ago (in 1984 alone, scores jumped fifty-four points), reflecting the school’s commitment to filling classrooms with able minds, not just warm bodies. Shields cites the Presidential Scholars and University Scholars programs started in 1982 as important magnets for drawing brighter students. SMU’s 104 Presidential Scholars, who must have entering board scores of at least 1300, get full-tuition scholarships, while the 423 University Scholars, with entering scores of at least 1200, get partial assistance.

When President Shields speaks of the SMU faculty, he reveals a philosophy that the modern university should be all things to all people, an academic cafeteria serving something for everyone, with every entree, salad, and dessert made with the finest ingredients. Shields is as proud of his real estate faculty as he is of landing the esteemed philosopher and ethicist William May from Georgetown University in 1985. Shields says that the coming of first-class thinkers like May has a “domino effect” on younger faculty members eager to work with leaders in their fields.

Dallas oilman Edwin Cox has pledged several million dollars to the business school that now bears his name. More than Clements and Shields, he seems to appreciate the heights SMU has set out to scale. “What we’re trying to do is make a quantum leap in this decade. It’s going to take several years. We’re not going to be there tomorrow. We’re not trying to be another Harvard. We can’t be across the board great in everything. It’s a matter of resources.”

But even Cox is confident that the leap to the top can be made, with the help of the community. “Dallas is a big supporter of first-class activity,” he says. “I don’t think the people of Dallas have a tolerance for second best.”

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