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

Ralph Steen and the Campus Boom Town

Tributes to Ralph Steen

In two speeches, first at the dedication of the Steen Library in 1976 and later at the funeral of Dr. Ralph Steen in 1980, Dr. Edwin W. Gaston reflected on the Steen years at SFA. Gaston was Head of the English Department and Dean of the Graduate School under Dr. Steen. The selections below give the main parts of these documents which are still the best summaries of the president’s contributions to SFA and Nacogdoches.

Steen Library Dedication, 23 April 1976

... I can agree with Carlyle that "history is the essence of innumerable biographies." SFA is what it is today because of countless faculty members, administrators, and students that have been here and that are here. Yet, as I say that, I recognize that the many are led by the few so that the history of SFA finally becomes the biographies of its three presidents: A. W. Birdwell, 1923-42, the founder of the institution; Paul L. Boynton, 1942-58, the consolidator; and Ralph W. Steen, since 1958, the builder who has transformed a college into a university.

What is the nature of the transformation during the Steen years? The statistics almost defy the imagination. The annual operating budget has increased twelve-fold. The value of the physical plant has increased ten-fold; ninety per cent (90%) of the buildings now in use, in fact, have been erected in the past eleven years alone, and most of the others have been renovated. Library holdings, as witnessed by the sharp contrast between this structure and its predecessor, have increased eight-fold. The academic structure has been expanded from a unitary college of twenty-one departments to a multi-purpose university of seven schools, one division, and twenty-nine departments.

The expanded budget, physical plant, library, and academic organization, of course, have been necessitated by the dramatic increase in enrollment and faculty members. Enrollment since 1958 has quintupled. So, too, has the number of faculty members. And as the enrollment has increased, the number of students graduating has accelerated. Between 1923-60, SFA graduated 10,000 students. Since 1960, it has graduated 20,000. Two-thirds of the graduates thus carry President Steen’s signature on their diplomas.

But these signs of transformation are quantitative and alone would not a university make. More significant are the qualitative indices. As to enrollment, one indication of the quality of students attracted to SFA under President Steen is that, despite rapid growth, the university has maintained the second-highest admission requirements among the 110 colleges and universities in Texas. Whereas the mean ACT score of entering freshmen is nineteen (19) nationally and seventeen (17) in Texas, it is twenty (20) here. Moreover, eighty per cent (80%) of the entering freshmen here have graduated in the upper half of their high school classes, maintaining B Averages. Those factors probably account for SFA’s graduating twice as many of its entering freshmen--sixty per cent (60%)--as the state average.

... Our students have become markedly more cosmopolitan than in earlier times. ... More than sixty per cent (60%) of the faculty members hold terminal degrees. Research and publication by the faculty have been greatly intensified so that now a new book generates only about as much notice as an article once did. ... Crucial to the faculty and a clear indication of the quality of a university is the voice afforded faculty members in the determination of university policy. During the Steen administration, the first faculty senate on campus has emerged. Faculty participation in the selection of follow faculty members and administrators has been realized.

A final sign of quality out of many indicators that I might mention is the enrichment of the cultural life of the campus. The fine arts--art, music, and theater--have reached new levels of achievement. Lectures by noted off-campus speakers have proliferated. The student publications have become properly vigorous, and student radio and television productions have been introduced.

... For nearly two decades now the lengthened shadow has emanated from Ralph Steen. Although he may not always have had a direct hand in the transformation of SFA, then, he has created a climate in which change for the better could occur, in sum, he has allowed the faculty and the students and the staff to perform as best they could under conditions as favorable as external and internal limitations would admit.

... Neither President Steen nor those of us here when he arrived in 1958 could have foreseen how far he would lead us from that tooth-marked basketball and the lonely Austin building secluded among the pines when the institution first opened its doors more than half a century ago. But we could foresee how far he wanted to take us. In an interview with The Houston Post shortly after his arrival on campus, the president declared that providing "second-rate education is no way to become a first-class state."

In grateful recognition ... we come now to dedicate this library to him. We thus add his name to the list of the honored. That it be the library which we dedicate to him is more than fortuitous. Ralph Steen was first a scholar and then an administrator. ...

IN MEMORIAM [Funeral, 1 February 1980]

... Today, we assemble here to memoralize a kinsman and friend. ... Neither President Steen nor those of us of the academy and the community when he arrived could have foreseen what the future held for us. But we could discern his strong dedication to institution and place. ... As he expressed his objectives, "At Stephen F. Austin College it shall be my purpose to do everything possible to operate a college which recognizes the fact that we live in an age which moves with great rapidity--an age in which it is not possible for a college to be as colleges have sometimes been in the, past--no more than an ivory tower. We want the ivory tower, of course; we want people to think and to dream; we want also to feel that our first responsibility is that of giving to young people of this region the knowledge they will need to live, and to work, and to prosper in the modern world."

... His academic credentials were, as indeed the man himself was, highly respected. ... Equally important, President Steen possessed personal qualities equal to the tasks ahead: good will for students and faculty alike, a deep humanity, and a keen sense of humor. And he also possessed that essential ingredient of determination. As his mentor, the eminent historian Walter Prescott Webb, once said, "Ralph Steen will do whatever is necessary with the task before him. He does not shirk his responsibilities and he does not shrink from hard work."

... Concurrent with and no doubt in part because of the growth of SFA, the transformation of Nacogdoches from a town into a small city has occurred since 1958. The population has more than doubled, and commerce and industry have expanded proportionately. Medical facilities have expanded dramatically and civic and cultural opportunities have grown apace. ...

... We of the academy continually deal with beginnings and endings. Each year, hundreds of young men and women arrive even as hundreds more are leaving. We, therefore, measure out our days in salutations and valedictions. Sometimes a valediction is tinged with deep sorrow. Today is one of those times. But for each valediction there is a new salutation, as we continue the work that is never finished. And the work will go on. As it does, it will be accomplished in a setting permanently marked by the hand of Ralph Steen. As with Sir Christopher Wren, "If you would see his monument look around."