SFA Story: The History of Stephen F. Austin State University

Ralph Steen and the Campus Boom Town

Biographer addresses context for Steen’s actions

The enrollment figures tell much of the story of the last decade of the Steen presidency. Here are the statistics, using the fall figures: in 1958, the enrollment was 2,017; in 1965, the figure jumped to 5,784; by 1970, the student population reached 9,614; in 1975, the last fall of Steen’s tenure, the total was 11,293. The building use fees, passed in 1966 and which made possible a visible manifestation of the enrollment through the construction program, seemed an inexhaustible source of funds. Steen’s partnerships with East Texas business and political leaders also reaped benefit such as the extension of University Drive. By the mid-1970s, however, the predictions for enrollment seemed fairly stable, but certainly not as rosy. The golden years of expansion–the years of SFASU as a campus boom town–were over.

In 1965, to prepare SFA for a move to university status, Steen reorganized the college into schools. He grouped the departments into schools: liberal arts (which included business and areas like journalism at the time), science and math, fine arts, education, and forestry. To these, a school of business and a graduate school were added later. The whole reorganized structure came under a new vice president for academic affairs, John T. Lewis, a young psychology professor.

The creation of the Coordinating Board in the same year gave Steen’s political urges a new forum. With his close friend Jack K. Williams as Commissioner, and later as President of Texas A&M, Steen worked increased SFA’s prestige in the state. William F. Harlow, Jr., Steen’s biographer, has written: “Steen staked out and successfully defended an extensive perimeter, not only in geographic area but also in goals, mission, and programs.” While Steen liked the Coordinating Board’s mission to improve the utilization and rationalization of resources, he did not mean for this to hold SFA back. As president of the college president’s association in 1969, Steen saw his opportunity to promote both higher education and SFA in Austin. He helped to secure generous appropriations for everyone, but for SFA, he secured both university status and a separate board of regents.

Dr. Steen’s reasons for seeking university status for SFA were varied. In part, it was to keep up with other regional colleges; East Texas State and West Texas State had just been named universities shortly before. He knew the improved status and prestige would help in the recruiting of faculty, too. The expansion and the accreditation of the academic programs, however, were the main reasons for his move. His difficulties in achieving formal recognition of the forestry programs was probably the key reason. Steen said he could have secured more points on the application forms if SFA had been a university. He knew he would also need the change to compete with A&M for research funds in forestry. SFA might have the trees, but A&M had the status as a ‘university.’

When asked why the legislature created an independent board, Mr. James Perkins, one of the original members, said recently: “The primary reason for setting up a separate board was that it was for the best interest of SFA. By selecting qualified individuals who had the time and recourses to help promote Stephen F. Austin, it was considered by the governor and the legislature to be to SFA’s best advantage.” In trying to answer where the initiative came from, Perkins added: “Steen also thought his job of remaking SFA would be easier if he had his own independent board of regents. I think it was a joint movement. In talking with Preston Smith, who was the governor at that time, he indicated to me that, in the capital, it was considered a good idea, and the local supporters at that time thought so, too. Charles Wilson, the state representative at the time, thought it was a great idea, as did the alumnae.” Wilson introduced the legislation.

Perkins did not see any downside to having the local board. Under the old common board, in his opinion, the areas SFA excelled in, such as forestry, were not being supported, . “The west and south Texas colleges were just too different from SFA for us to receive fair treatment. ... Dr. Angel has done well in these areas. I never heard anyone say it was a mistake to have the independent board.” Perkins admitted, however, that SFA’s success depended on good support in the legislature, like the kind they had when Charles Wilson, Roy Blake, and Martin Dies were in Austin. He then remarked: “Even if SFA were under a university system, we would be dependent upon the good will of others with possibly even more vested interests and politics.”

Several aspects of Steen’s policies and reactions to important subjects like integration are covered in other articles in the Heritage Series this week. See Hall’s memoirs and the interviews with former regents James Perkins and Peggy Wright. A fine contemporary account of Steen’s administration is also presented in a reproduction of parts of Edwin Gaston’s salutes to Steen in 1976 and 1980.

Why was Steen successful in areas like civil rights when others failed? Robert Maxwell told Bobby Johnson in an interview in 1983 that Steen had a “keen” sense of what might happen. He read constantly, but more importantly, he was a friend to the students and kept their interests in mind. Harlow writes in his biography: “Steen's ability to anticipate problems was no mystery to anyone acquainted with his compulsive reading of the daily news. Whatever occurred on campuses in New York or California would likely be reflected in East Texas in time. Moreover, as a student of twentieth-century Texas social and political history, Steen knew the SFA students of the 1960's as well as he had known their parents' generation at A&M. Unlike their counterparts at large state universities and prominent private institutions, SFA students, Steen sensed, were uninterested in elitist theories or ideologies and were concerned primarily with obtaining an education.”

Steen supported the faculty–for instance he instituted the tenure system at SFA. He also defended professors who made statements which parents regarded as controversial. When a parent complained about one professor’s defense of free speech, Steen replied, "Colleges should listen to serious students who present their ideas in a proper fashion.” On the other hand, he did not hesitate to terminate faculty who did not complete their doctorates or who did not uphold their contractual agreements. He did not encourage a role in governance for faculty, but he did permit it. Steen did bend with the times on many issues. Never what you would call an environmentalists, he did become sensitive to the cutting of trees after the Griffith Park entanglements. Steen did not oppose the Vietnam War, but he allowed students and faculty to voice their opposition. He avoided inflammatory words and interpretations. In Maxwell’s words, “he was able to face and ride them out with a minimum of disruption. That he remained popular throughout the stormy period was a testimony to his political ability. Never rigid, Steen avoided absolute positions from which there was no room to maneuver.”

President Steen actively supported a role for SFA in graduate studies. Of course, the university had had graduate degrees since the late 1930s, but Steen wanted these to expand. He was particularly concerned about the role of SFA in light of the growing movement for junior colleges and wanted to institute an advanced teaching degree, a doctor of arts degree, which would give SFA a unique position in the state in the production of teaching doctorates. Dean of the Graduate School, Joe Gerber, explored the possibilities of such a degree and even got a from the Carnagie Foundation to develop it. Nothing came of the initiative; other schools made similar demands and the Coordinating Board turned them all down. No doubt the senior universities also had a hand in this decision.

The mutual dislike of Steen and Earl Rudder at Texas A&M presented a problem for SFA as long as Rudder was at the helm in College Station. Steen had forced himself to ask for help in the accreditation of the school of forestry, but in other matters, the relationship with Texas A&M did not improve until his old friend Jack K. Williams came in as president. A cooperative program with Texas A&M in forestry at the doctoral level was the result.

Dr. Steen retired in 1976. At the dedication of the Steen Library at that time, Edwin Gaston, Graduate Dean at the time, paid tribute to Steen’s accomplishments. Selections for Gaston’s speech are printed in a separate article this week. Gaston called Steen the man who had transformed SFA by creating “a climate in which change for the better could occur.” At the tribute dinner, President Jack K. Williams of Texas A&M said essentially the same thing: Steen “establish an atmosphere of acceptability for change.” “His agility in administration ... his refusal to panic or pout ... his optimism and goodwill” were all noted by Williams. “He has lit candles in our business and let others curse the darkness."

Steen must have felt vindicated by others' perception of his talent. Four years later, after a brief but seemingly happy retirement, Dr. Ralph Steen collapsed on the front steps of the Rusk Building with a heart attack. He died in the hospital on January 30, 1980.

Biographer addresses context for Steen’s actions

William F. Harlow, Jr., in his biography of Ralph Steen, places the third presidents term in historical perspective. The section is worth quoting in some detail.

“Through his life, Steen seemed to represent a type of progressivism that prevailed in Texas during his early adult years of the 1920's. Historian George B. Tindall has described the period of Steen's maturation as a time when ‘the term progress appeared in a different context [from the pre-World War I period], more closely associated with the urban middle class, with chambers of commerce and civic clubs. It carried the meaning of efficiency and development rather than reform.’ A practicalist who was apparently suspicious of ideology, Steen did not define his progressivism in philosophical terms. Yet he favored the type of progress that was associated with the business community.

“This business (or businessmen's) progressivism sought efficient government, improved schools, and industrial and business development. Agencies of government, including schools, should join with business to encourage the building of an infrastructure an which economic growth could occur. Social reform would then result, not as a primary aim, but as a natural consequence of development.

Reared in a business environment, Steen recognized the close association of progress and the business community, as represented by the Kiwanis and Rotarians. Although his training was academic, Steen's career suggested that he viewed the world through the eyes of a growth-oriented developer rather than those of an academician. The ivory tower dweller would not be expected to care very much about road construction and economic growth. Steen, however, cared very much about both. Like other Progressives of his type, Steen apparently viewed education, transportation, and industry as the bases for progress. ...

“If Steen's goals suggested business progressivism, so also did his method. ... With a business curriculum unavailable, Steen learned that history and government could also be practical subjects. They offered more than a frame of reference; they also provided subject matter of common interest for the skillful speaker and writer to employ.

“Likewise, most of Steen's writing was practical. Rather than produce thick volumes based on original research, Steen wrote textbooks that served students at all levels for over thirty years. ... The countless speeches, so much a part of Steen's life, also served a practical end.

“As president of SFA, Steen further reflected his background in business progressivism. The university and the East Texas business establishment became partners in regional development. To an extent, Steen was probably typical of other presidents of regional universities whose background and outlook were similar. That Steen emphasized measurable growth--bricks and mortar, more enrollment, more programs--is apparent. Yet he also assessed qualitative improvements in quantitative terms--more doctorates on the faculty, more research, more publications. For Steen, growth was essential to progress. Just as government and business could create structures for economic growth in the region, so could physical growth of the campus provide the resources for qualitative improvement in the university.

“January 30, 1980, marked the passing of an advocate of a particular type of progressivism whose roots extended over six decades. Now the business of Texas education would have to proceed to new agenda without him."