By Roger Croteau
When Jerome Supple arrived in 1989 as the new president of Southwest Texas State University, he found a school that was nationally regarded for its social life and lightly regarded for scholarship.
Southwest Texas had low admission standards and warranted minimal academic notice. There were no doctoral programs, and little funding for research.
Indeed, the university was best known as the state’s premiere “party school,” a Mecca for students more inclined to serious loafing and drinking than serious studying. Barely half returned for their sophomore year.
Supple soon set in motion an ambitious plan that has SWT on the verge of breaking into the top tier of the state’s public universities, according to many close to the school.
Supple, 66, will retire in August — an experience he likens to “swinging the best dance partner ever into the arms of another” — after overseeing phenomenal growth and enhanced academic performance at the school.
The university community is assessing Supple’s accomplishments and asking how the school can follow through on his vision.
The regents will interview three candidates for president Tuesday, and could name Supple’s successor the same day.
Vying for the spot are: Barbara Haskew, former provost and vice president for academic affairs at Middle Tennessee State University; Terry Hickey, senior vice president and provost at the University of Akron (Ohio); and Denise Trauth, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
During Supple’s tenure, SWT raised admissions standards several times, transforming it from one of the easier schools to get into in Texas, into one of the most selective public universities.
“We made our biggest jump in admission standards in 1992,” he said. “That was scary for the regents because we had a few years of negative cash flow before our enrollment recovered. But in the long term, it was good for the university.”
Mark Hendricks, a university spokesman, said raising admission standards was done for two reasons.
“First, we are getting students who are more prepared to succeed in college,” he said. “It raised the level of classroom discourse. It creates students who, when they graduate, are prepared to succeed in the workplace. Second, it was done to control growth.”
Despite the tougher admission standards, enrollment rose quickly.
Now the sixth-largest public university in Texas with 23,500 students, SWT may pass No. 5 Texas Tech’s enrollment within a year.
In numerous other areas, Supple placed his stamp on the school.
Student retention, the number of freshmen who return for their sophomore year, improved from 57 percent to 75 percent.
SWT added its first four doctoral programs, offering two advanced degrees in education as well as environmental geography and geographic education.
The school’s first major capital campaign, headed by Supple, raised $74 million, $14 million more than the goal. The campaign funded several building projects, endowed chairs and scholarships for top students.
Research funding to the school increased from $5 million a year to $42 million.
Private gifts to the university jumped from $500,000 a year to $8 million, increasing the university’s endowment from $15 million to $53 million.
SWT Alumni Association President Andrea Allely credits Supple’s outreach to alumni for his fund-raising success. He has traveled extensively to meet with alumni groups.
“I think he has done a good job about soliciting and then giving ownership to alumni in matters of growth,” Allely said. “He has given alumni a lot of pride in the school, and when they feel that kind of ownership and pride, they are more likely to support the school.”
And Supple has persistently fought the “party school” image that administrators believe still hurts SWT in everything from state funding to recognition by publications that regularly rank the nation’s top universities.
Raising admissions standards attracted more serious students. When fraternities repeatedly violated alcohol rules, the university suspended them, and readmitted them on campus only after they promised to take several steps, including adopting an alcohol-free housing policy.
The university also cooperates with a Hays County task force formed last year to enforce laws on underage drinking, and has a zero-tolerance policy for students caught with drugs.
The crackdown angered fraternity members who thought it was unfair that their chapters were suspended.
They felt Supple was blaming the school’s party image on them, without giving them credit for the community service projects they perform.
But Supple stuck to his guns.
“People who were here in the ’70s tell me that (the party school label) was true, that the party scene was different, better than other places — or worse, depending on your point of view,” Supple said. “I don’t think that is true any more.”
Supple also sought to elevate the school’s reputation by targeting its very name — Southwest Texas State University. That double-directional moniker suggests a small, regional school and makes it difficult to attract top faculty and students, he said.
Supple led an effort to change the name to Texas State University at San Marcos, a move that would have to be approved by the board of regents and the Legislature.
The regents voted in February to table the issue until a new president is named, deciding it would be unfair to have the issue pending in the Legislature when the new person takes over.
And Supple sees moving the school’s football program from NCAA Division I-AA to Division I-A as key in reaching the goal of being considered among the elite Texas universities.
He tried to attain Division I-A status last year, but the effort was suspended when the NCAA changed the rules for admission.
“Dr. Supple’s legacy is that he is leaving the school in great shape,” said Don Flores, chairman of the Texas State University System Board of Regents and a Southwest Texas graduate. “The new president coming in will have a lot of opportunities to bring a sharper focus to the university and improve its standing.”
Nancy Neal, another regent, agreed.
“The thing I’ve admired most about Dr. Supple is that he was never satisfied with where the university was,” she said. “Jerry had a vision for SWT, a vision that seemed extremely ambitious to many people 13 years ago. But a special person can take a great vision and make it a reality.”
The faculty, by and large, has bought into Supple’s vision.
“The school is substantially more respected now than when I came here in 1994,” said Lawrence Estaville, chairman of the school’s Geography Department. “Dr. Supple took it from a regional teaching institution to the cusp of a national research institution. To do that in just 13 years is totally amazing.”
“Not only in my mind but in many other faculty members’ minds, Jerry Supple has been the best president in the history of the university.”
A fall 2001 survey of faculty — the first performance evaluation of top administrators at the university — drew positive responses in the areas of Supple’s vision and goals (60 percent positive), his emphasis on quality teaching and research (62 percent positive) and efforts at faculty development (65 percent positive).
But some found cracks in his armor. About 64 percent said Supple fell short in coming up with resources to accomplish his goals for the university. And he drew mediocre ratings in his effort to select “qualified, effective and ethical administrators.”
Supple espoused a goal of placing Southwest Texas among the top four public universities in the state, alongside the University of Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
“In terms of where students want to go to school, we are No. 3 now, after UT and A&M, according to a state survey,” Supple said. “That’s pretty good. And we have just started down the road of expanding our doctoral programs and research programs. Our reputation will grow along with those.”
Flores said there is no doubt SWT is headed in the right direction, but it has a way to go before it joins the elite public universities.
“Oh, I don’t think it gets that kind of respect,” he said. “But look at the quality of the students and work done there. It’s heading there. (University of) Houston, (University of) North Texas, UT-San Antonio and UT-Arlington all want to get to that level, too. It’s very competitive. Getting a top-four or top-five status for SWT will depend largely on the Legislature giving us the resources we need.”
Supple sees two more issues the new president will have to deal with. One is the school’s relationship with San Marcos, which he admits often has been strained.
Some San Marcos leaders and residents were angered when the school purchased the Aquarena Springs theme park, taking it off the tax rolls, and then closed the park, hurting the local economy. But now the school is leading the effort to build the new Texas Rivers Center at the old park, which state officials predict will draw more visitors than the theme park.
“We’re big,” Supple said. “We are sort of the elephant in town. We can’t help but have an impact on things. There have been issues: student behavior, traffic and parking, silt running from our construction. ... I think the new person needs to have good lines of communication. I think we tried to do it, but it didn’t always seem to be effective.”
Supple also said increasing the enrollment would be a challenge because there is little physical room to expand. He said his target for enrollment is 26,000, which could be reached in two years at the current growth rate.
“If you get much bigger than that, you stop being a university and you become a federation of colleges,” he said. “I can’t prove that, but that is my feeling.”
The solution, Supple said, is a new campus in Round Rock, north of Austin, with an eventual enrollment of 5,000 to 7,000 students, to take the pressure off the San Marcos campus.
The name change, adding more doctoral programs, shedding the party school image, attracting more research money, improving relations with the community and increasing enrollment with a landlocked campus — it�s quite a list of issues waiting for the new president, and all were addressed or instigated by Supple.
But Neal said she�s confident the regents can�t go wrong, no matter which of the three finalists they choose.
“All three of these are coming from campuses with more doctorate programs and more research, and they know where we want to go,” she said.