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

The Early Steen Administration: An Explosion

The early Steen years: An explosion

News of President Paul Boynton’s death was “just like slapping us in the face with a brick,” said Dr. Robert Maxwell, Regents Professor of History. “We, of course, had not anticipated that there would be any change in administration in the foreseeable future,” Maxwell told Dr. Bobby Johnson in a 1983 interview. “By 1958, the financial situation had eased some, and Dr. Boynton had arranged to build three new buildings: the Birdwell Building, which housed Liberal Arts; the Fine Arts Building, and ... the Library which later would be called Boynton Library.” The spiral downward had stopped.

There was a rumor that one of the Regents, a Mr. Frank White from Cleveland, wanted the job as president and had arranged an inside fix to get it, in Maxwell’s opinion. White, a school superintendent, was on the local committee which oversaw SFA. While that did not happen, the transition period was one of some apprehension, Maxwell remembered. Maxwell, who knew Dr. Ralph Steen professionally, said he was “both hopeful and enthusiastic about the possibility” of the historian’s candidacy. Maxwell had great respect for Steen’s ability and common sense

Steen’s selection as the new President of SFA moved through the channels very quickly. Just over two months after Boynton’s dead, Steen was elected on October 24 and assumed his position on November 1, 1958. He would hold this office until the middle of the summer of 1976. His tenure would become the most explosive period of development in the history of the institution, an exciting period of change occasioned by the arrival of the baby boom from the 1940s and climaxing in the peek year of building activity in 1972. SFA and Nacogdoches, called by one pamphlet, as “A Campus Boom Town” during the Steen years, would never be the same again. While some of the details of his appointment are covered in the interview with Mr. Charles Haas (see Haas), the new president’s state of mind as he came to East Texas has yet to be explored.

In his new biographical dissertation on Steen entitled Ralph W. Steen, 1905-1980, And The Business Of Twentieth-Century Texas Education, William F. Harlow, Jr., argues that Steen came to SFA with an agenda and with certain important background assumptions formed in his years at Texas A&M. For instance, Steen had a keen interest in business: “He believed that business promoted growth, and he equated growth with progress.” He was a founding director of the College State Bank and the Chamber of Commerce there just after the war. Steen even made a bid for the position of Mayor of College Station on a platform of breaking away from the old guard in Bryan. One of his oft used expressions was that “all progress follows the hearse.” His political fights with the city commission there carried over into his attitude at the college.

When Steen was not appointed Dean of Arts and Sciences at A&M–a bitter disappointment to him–he sought the presidency in Nacogdoches. In Harlow’s words, “In seeking the job, perhaps he had a point to prove. If [James Earl] Rudder, as supposed, intended to lead A&M back to the 1930s, then Steen saw the opportunity to steer SFA in an opposite course.” Steen resentment of Rudder–“an athlete and distinguished soldier, but not an educator”–must have rankled in years to come as Rudder, like Steen, rode the baby boom from college into university status. A&M’s rise, with the admission of coeds, was to be even more dramatic than SFA’s.

Most people today do not realize that Ralph Steen taught at SFA on three different occasions, the last in 1952, before becoming president. He called his visits ‘working vacations.’ It is interesting to speculate to what extent his opinions about Nacogdoches and SFA date from these early visits after the war. Steen hated the temporary, post-war huts and buildings, but then so did Dr. Boynton. Quoting Dr. Maxwell again: “Steen told me early in his residence here that he proposed to go first class as an institution. ... Steen’s first move was to build a student union building at the corner opposite the Austin Building. He also felt that we needed first class dormitories, and the Griffith Hall and Kerr Hall for women were promptly built and they would compare favorably with women’s housing facilities in any other state institution.”

Steen equated growth with progress. He thought SFA’s problems would cease if it could expand its enrollment and its facilities. After initiating the University Center project, Steen turned to expanding the size of the campus. In December of 1958, Steen quietly initiated steps to acquire the property south of the college known as Griffith Park. The park, even by its friends assessment, was a brambled mess. The decision to demand the park, made before he had developed a master plan,would plague Steen for years. He took on legal and political problems all in one swoop. His somewhat cavalier early statements were to come back to haunt him in later years; The Houston Post quoted him as saying: “For those who are interested in trees, there are 650,000 acres of federal forest land in East Texas." Steen deeply resented the opposition to his plans for Griffith Park. He placed it in the context of his prior judgment that East Texas was a tradition-bound region with a negative attitude–a region in need of reform which he could provide. The upshot on a practical level was that Steen’s planning process went totally private, with only three people being privy to the aims and means: Steen, Charles Haas, the new Business Manager, and Wilbur Kent, the architect in Lufkin.

In the middle of the Griffith Park dispute, Steen wrote an article for the Philosophical Society of Texas, summarized in a separate article. (See>) The speech, which illustrates his frustration with the conservationists, traditionalists, obstructionists, and the East Texas mentality in general–all of which no doubt confirmed his earlier fears– is still a very strange piece for an East Texas college president to publish. It is difficult to imagine any president before or since writing such a piece, no matter how they might have shared some of the thoughts in private. While his supporters point out that the ring of the cash registers of all those students made everything fine, even at his retirement, Steen was still thinking about the incident–trying to justify and rationalize his actions.

Maxwell said that Steen had a technique which he polished to a fine art. “When there was good news for either faculty or students, he told you about it himself; bad new usually came with the voice of the vice-president.” He also pushed off many of the less pleasant tasks of working with plans and building contractors and the public on his new business manager. Charles Haas wore many hats during the period. It was Haas who had to sort through most of the Griffith property legal and title fallout. Haas also was placed in charge of the newly developing Steen “master plan.” From an interview done recently, Haas has indicated that he was a willing recipient of the responsibilities; in reflection, however, he questioned the extent to which he fussed over the smallest details.

Steen's vision of the college as a vehicle for regional advancement was not new. Birdwell and Boynton both felt this way; Boynton even revised the college’s statement of purpose to reflect this mission. Steen’s innovation was to broaden the concept of the area SFA was to serve. He hired full-time recruiters, eventually spinning the admissions function off into a separate department, and created a full time director of the Ex-Student’s Association. With help from good lieutenants like Clyde Iglinsky, John Lynn Bailey, and Bob Sitton, Steen succeeded in recruiting more students. So did Texas and Texas A&M.

Steen used public speaking well, very much as his predecessors had. “Steen had very poor eyesight; he had to wear quite thick glasses,” Maxwell told Bobby Johnson. The president had trouble focusing during a speech, so he would learn his material extremely well and then just use prompter cards. “Many people who heard him felt that he was speaking directly to them and that he didn’t take his eyes off of his audience. Thus he became a very effective speaker, much more effective than if he had read his papers.”

Maxwell said that Steen had another technique which he polished to a fine art. “When there was good news for either faculty or students, he told you about it himself; bad new usually came with the voice of the vice-president. ... But, Steen had the reputation of being a friend of the student and that his office was open to student visits, and he would listen to their suggestions and complaints.”

Dr. Steen was a pragmatic, flexible leader. According to his biographer, Harlow, “Apparently Steen had no clear vision of the schools prospects for growth, or how such growth would affect faculty and staff, administration, curriculum, and student life.” As things like integration or student protests and antics, Steen evidently took these in stride saving SFA unnecessary problems. He avoided the crises other schools had over integration by ‘plowing around the stump’ as Walter Prescott Webb advised him in his inaugural address. [See separate article>.]

In 1961, the Southern Association visiting committee recommended faculty participation in the governance of the college. While Steen allowed for the creation of a Faculty Senate, he closely “protected his prerogatives” according to his biographer. Steen never allowed the faculty to move from subject to citizen status, a trend that has continued at SFA. Steen did, however, support and insist on high standards from his faculty, albeit at first he had the same problems as did Dr. Boynton in getting people with terminal degrees to come to SFA. Research and travel funds, tenure, recognition of achievements, and the high personal example of his own research made Steen popular with the faculty

On the eve of Dr. Steen’s seventh anniversary at SFA, Gladys Steen died. She had been ill for some time. “Mrs. Steen suffered for a long time with bone cancer,” Charles Haas said. He had worked with her for a long time to try to get the new Griffith Dormitory into presentable shape. Shortly before she died, Mrs. Steen had secured from R. E. McGee a grand piano for the new building. Haas said Mrs. Steen was a close friend to her husband. Former Regent Peggy Wright, in a recent interview, said that Mrs. Gladys Steen was a gracious hostess and continued the SFA traditions of entertaining in the president’s house after the couple arrived in Nacogdoches. Dr. Steen moved his official entertaining to the new University Center in 1965; SFA was getting to large to have the same kind of receptions it did in earlier years. When the next women’s dormitory ( Building 17) came up for naming two years later, the Board of Regents decided to name the building for Gladys Steen.

Ralph Steen’s first seven years at SFA were the subject of a large anniversary dinner in November of 1965. This was a personal tribute, not a commemoration in conjunction with an SFA anniversary. Ralph Steen, in alliance with thousands of post-war babies, had changed things. There was more to come.