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

Ralph Steen and the Campus Boom Town

Interview with early regents

Perkins and Wright discuss the Steen years

In 1969, Governor Preston Smith signed a bill giving SFA, Sam Houston, Southwest Texas, Sul Ross, and Angelo State university status. Later the same year, the legislature approved a separate Board of Regents for SFA. The nine member original panel appointed by Governor Smith were: Harold Bates, Douglas Bergman, Joe Bob Golden, Roy Maness, R.E. McGee, James I. Perkins, Sam Tanner, Lera Thomas, and Walter Todd.

James Perkins, an attorney and President of Citizen’s First Bank of East Texas, was the youngest member of that first SFA board of regents. In an interview recently, Mr. Perkins said: “At our first organizational meeting in December of 1969, we elected R.E. McGee as chairman and Joe Bob Golden as vice-chairman.” Mr. McGee, a 1940 graduate of SFA, was president of Tennaco Oil. “R. E.was from nearby Timpson, Texas. He was a dynamic leader, head of a New York Stock Exchange company at that time, with world wide contacts. When you talked to the man, he was working on amazing, interesting projects, and yet, his roots were in East Texas and at SFA.” Perkins continued: “McGee was used to handling more millions in minutes than SFA spent in a whole year.” A generous host, McGee knew how to run an efficient board and gave the whole operation “class.” McGee died during his term as chairman. Perkins reflected: “Thinking big thoughts, bond issues, construction, hiring the right people, paying the right salaries, thinking scale, doctorate programs, all those things came easy for him. He set the level for us. Most fortunate.” Perkins thought they were equally fortunate in their second chairman, Walter Todd of Dallas. “Walter was an excellent choice, a great alumni.” (Perkins had known Todd as the president of the Alumni Association.) When asked to list other ourstanding and important early boards he mentioned Peggy Wright and Homer Bryce. Most board members were “very giving of their time and money” in his opinion.

Former regent Peggy Wright, who needs no introduction to those interested in SFA, came on the board in 1972. In a recent interview, Mrs. Wright reflected: “East Texas was the geographic home for most of the regents. Ft. Worth and Austin to the west, Houston and Beaumont to the south, and Longview and Carthage to the north, formed the boundaries.” While she pointed out that some members did not serve a full term, others, like Wayne Salvant, who came on the board as relative strangers to SFA, “soon became one of its most ardent boosters.” Mrs. Wright said, “Homer Bryce served the longest tenure, about nineteen years.” Both Perkins and Wright were diplomatic when asked whether all of their colleagues took their positions seriously,but as they pointed out, things like service depended on the character of the individual. Members varied in talent and interest. Not all people do their homework on boards or in classes.

In the early years of a separate board when Ralph Steen was President, the meetings were usually held off-campus. Houston, Dallas, Columbia Lakes, Austin, and Toledo Bend Lake were popular choices. Board members frequently served as hosts. The April meeting is by law held on campus. “During President William R. Johnson’s tenure,” Mrs. Wright observed, “campus meetings became the rule rather than the exception.” Mr. Perkins especially remembered one of the early meetings when the board visited Walter Todd’s home on White Rock Lake in Dallas. Todd lived next door to H. L. Hunt. “Most of the members could not believe this unassuming man was so wealthy and important. Walter was a very interesting person to talk to. He was interested in people and gave his sole attention to whomever he was visiting.” Both former regents thought it was highly desirable to have such people as McGee and Todd interested in SFA. Many board members have become substantial backers of the university.

Mrs. Wright said. “We held most meeting in the conference room on the third floor of the Austin building. The meetings usually lasted two days. The first day was devoted to committee meetings, in Dr. Steen’s time, with all board members participating. Seldom were guests present. The discussions were completely candid.” During the early eighties, she continued, “the Board began to encourage representatives from the students and faculty to attend the meetings and to make reports.” Because of media and legal concerns, the nature of the board meetings began to change. “Executive sessions, held in accordance with the Open Meetings Act and closely monitored as such, were the only way we could discuss things in private.” In order to follow the letter of the law, it became apparent that the Board needed its own legal counsel. Robert Provan came to SFA from the Attorney General’s office in 1977 and served to 1990. “His advice was invaluable. In retrospect, it is inconceivable that the Board functioned for so many years without an in-house attorney. Today Yvette Clark serves this role. We live in such a litigious society.”

Both former regents said the appointment process was very political. Governor Preston Smith, in whose campaign Perkins had worked, appointed Perkins, and Governor Dolph Briscoe, who the Wrights supported, appointed Mrs. Wright. “Sometimes it can be a good process and sometimes not. It just depends on the man in the governor’s office,” Mrs. Wright added. They both, however, denied that political pressure was applied to them after they were on the board. Of course, there was plenty of pressure, but usually it came from the press, the public, and, in particular, parents.

Steen talked to Perkins immediately after the “streaking incident” took place in 1975; they had received many calls from parents. The president recounted how he had tried to get a retraction from the press about their titling of their story. “Perkins, I talked to the president of the Texas Press Association, and his advice was this in regards to a retraction. ... ‘You are not going to get a retraction. But, even if you did get it, 45% of the people never paid any attention to the story at all, they are going to know about that, and you are just going to make it a bigger thing.’ ” While the incident did get SFA national news headlines–what Perkin’s called “unsolicited attention,”–it was handled by the board and Dr. Steen very well. “Steen had a great sense of humor, and that helped.”

During the civil rights movement in the 1970s which saw demonstrations downtown, Perkins remembered: “There was presssure on Dr. Steen, as I recall, to limit the students’ ability to demonstrate, to not be so proactive or understanding on the civil rights issues, as the university had done. I though Dr. Steen took an appropriate and enlightened approach to civil rights. He was pro-education.”

Concerning the board’s role, he said: “By not taking punitive actions, when things happened, that was our dynamic course. There was never really a vote on whether we were going to integrate this dorm or hire this individual because he or she was white or black. ... The average age of the board in 1969 would have been 60 years old. We had experienced, professional people with wide backgrounds who had SFA’s best interests as their goal.” Then, too, Dr. Steen “wasn’t going to be dictated to by anyone. He did not like people coming in to tell him who to hire or fire,” whether it be a football coach or faculty memers. “He didn’t like segragationists telling him what he ought to do with the university.” Perkins conceeded that Steen frequently got “a littled ill-tempered” in the most hotly charged situations, but “he was an intelligent man who responded in a considered fashion. If he believed in something, he was not a wishy-washy guy who was going to tell you what you wanted to hear. You want a leader, and Steen was a leader.”

In the 1970s, Mrs. Wright remembered, “SFA had high entrance standards, second only to Baylor University and that did not hurt enrollment. It exploded. It was a point of pride then. How they eroded, I do not know. Dr. Steen considered academic standards a very important part of his program. It meant a lot to the university.” When asked why Dr. William R. Johnson failed to raise standards, Mrs. Wright answered: “We did not lower our standards, I don’t believe, the other universities just raised theirs.” Why didn’t we follow suit? “Of course, any change like that requires Board approval. That was the reason. Some board members felt that this college was built for this region, and it should be assessable to all students in this region. And, if one raised the entrance requirements too much, it would not be.” Another factor which she mentioned was the opening of Angelina College. “It came in while I was on the board. It took students away from SFA.”

When asked how he looked on his role while he was chairman (during the Johnson years), Perkins observed: “I really believed that in order to be effective, I had to spend enough time that I knew basically everything that the president knew. Otherwise you were just a rubber stamp. If you could not talk to Charlie Haas, the fiscal vice president about the budget or the bank accounts or bond service requiremnts for building dorms, what good are you as a board member? That is the way I viewed this.”

Both James Perkins and Peggy Wright have given generously to the university of their time and their money. Both are members of the board of Citizen’s 1st Bank of East Texas and were part of that institution’s initiative to establishment of a new, endowed professorship in bank managements at SFA; this is the first endowed chair in the College of Business. Dr. Janelle Ashley, another member of the Citizen’s Bank board, was also very interested in the creation of the chair. Perkins observed: “Over one-half of the employees of our bank are SFA graduates; we depend on our SFA exes and wanted to do something tangible to show our appreciation to further the education of fine East Texas students.” The traditions of community involvment which began under President Birdwell have continued through the Steen years to the present.