By Jeremy Schwartz
SAN MARCOS,TEXAS— He has become a walking legend. Even before he packed up his office, the wine-colored and gold-embossed pamphlets began circulating around campus, titled simply “Legacy 1989-2002.”
The pages chronicle the career of the man universally hailed as the one who transformed Southwest Texas State University from a provincial, hard-partying school to a nationally respected institution.
On Wednesday, for the first time since 1989, Jerome Supple will not be the president of SWT.
Denise Trauth, former provost of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, will assume the presidency, becoming the school’s ninth leader.
In 13 years -- an eternity in the notoriously short-lived careers of college presidents -- Supple has expanded research efforts by more than 10 times, drastically increased admission standards and boosted enrollment and graduation rates.
Since 1997, he has done this while fighting prostate cancer -- he was initially given two years to live -- and taking chemotherapy treatments in his office.
“He showed us a lot of courage and energy and heart going through that,” said John Garrison, SWT vice president of student affairs. "He never let the university miss a beat."
For Supple, one of the world’s few claw hammer banjo-playing university presidents, there was no alternative.
“When you do this job, that’s what you think about when you get up in the morning and when you go to bed at night and when you’re on vacation,” Supple said recently, taking a break from packing one of his last mementos -- a carved bobcat. “It’s kind of a total immersion experience. It’s been a wonderful blessing to have a job like this, something important, where you know if you work hard you can contribute.”
Supple’s contributions have gotten SWT noticed. No longer a sleepy teachers college, SWT has earned respect in the world of academia, said Michael Baer, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, the nation’s coordinating body for colleges and universities.
“It’s a school recognized certainly within the state of Texas and beyond its borders,” Baer said. “It’s seen as a strong institution that’s gained in strength. Both its name and president are visible in the academic community.”
When Supple arrived, SWT was deeply shrouded in the shadows of its massive neighbor 30 miles to the north, the University of Texas.
He is fond of recalling his first impression of SWT when he arrived on campus in 1989, fresh from 30 years of working at East Coast universities: “To me it looked like a big gangly teenager," he said. "Full of energy and lots of potential. It wasn’t fully formed as to where it could be as an institution.”
One of Supple’s first moves, and one that initially earned him the wrath of critics, was to sharply raise the bar for incoming freshmen in 1992. That decision cut the bottom 23 percent of the freshman class. And, for a few years, the school watched its enrollment numbers drop, especially among Hispanic students. Supple’s reasoning was that higher standards would attract higher quality students who would be more likely to graduate.
“I said my goal was not to admit more Hispanic students but to graduate more,” he said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
From 1989 to 2001, the school’s graduation rate increased from 33 percent to 40 percent overall, and from 28 percent to 33 percent for Hispanic students.
Next, Supple tackled the school’s abysmal research record. When he arrived, SWT earned a mere $3.9 million for grant-funded research.
“All major universities do a lot of research,” he said. “We weren’t doing it at the level we were capable of.”
Supple urged faculty members to pursue grants and research projects aggressively, offering the university’s support in the form of matching funds. Grant money for research reached $41.8 million last year. Projects have included a record $6.3 million National Cancer Institute grant for cancer research.
Serious academic institutions have doctoral programs, so under Supple’s watch, the school initiated its first five doctoral degrees -- in geography and education -- and plans are in the works for more.
“I think frankly that during Jerry’s tenure, SWT has become a statewide school where before it was essentially a Central Texas school,” said UT President Larry Faulkner. “The faculty have become significant players on the national scene in their fields.”
Many of Supple’s colleagues point more to his human touch than to his academic achievements.
Garrison remembers that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Supple gathered students and faculty around him.
“It was a very poignant and meaningful moment,” Garrison said. “He realized the campus was looking for something from him, and he pulled everyone together in a quiet moment in the middle of campus in the middle of the day.”
San Marcos Mayor Robert Habingreither, who chairs the school’s technology department, remembers challenging Supple to accede to some demands in the construction of a $42 million building -- set to open next year -- to house technology, physics and art departments. When Supple saw that he truly believed in his cause, he gave Habingreither what he wanted.
“He’s an honest man,” Habingreither said. “If he believes you are on the level, he will work with you until the nth degree. If he has any doubts, you won’t get far.”
Billy Moore, director of regional and economic development for SWT, remembers Supple for his open-door policy with students and his ability to charm legislators. He also remembers him as a fierce banjo player (Supple recorded a compact disc with his wife and some friends in a band called the Newton Street Irregulars). “They’re tremendously good,” Moore said.
Supple’s tenure has not been without obstacles and disappointments. His low point came with the university’s 1993 purchase of Aquarena Springs, which took the valuable property off San Marcos tax rolls and resulted in the closing of the popular theme park.
The university promised to keep Aquarena Springs on the tax rolls as an amusement park. But two years later, after losing money on the operation, the Board of Regents voted to convert it to an educational center. The state auditor ruled it was no longer subject to taxation. The university paid the city, Hays County and the San Marcos school district $200,000 in a settlement, but the episode left a bitter taste in many residents’ mouths.
“The whole business of Aquarena Springs could have been handled a little better,” Supple said, maintaining that the idea remains a good one.
The center is being transformed into the Texas Rivers Center to educate the public about rivers and aquifers.
Supple and the university also failed in their bid to move the football program into Division I-A because of an uncertainty about NCAA rules, lack of conference affiliation and soft attendance.
And earlier this year, the university was rebuffed in its attempt to change its name to Texas State University after other schools in the Texas State University System complained that they would be relegated to second-class status. Supple says the name change is necessary to give the school a name that fits its newfound status as an academic heavyweight, but regents won’t take it up again until after his retirement.
Supple’s cancer also led him to some dark days. By the time it was diagnosed, it had metastasized, riddling his bones with cancer, and doctors told him he likely had 18 months to two years to live. Supple determined to outlive those odds and would dutifully take his chemotherapy in San Marcos or bring a 24-hour drip to the office. He never got sick from the chemo, but he said he became so fatigued that he felt he was walking through a wall.
“It turns out -- I’m convinced -- that the job is part of the therapy,” he said. “It was very important to me to stay energized.”
The cancer has since gone into remission, and Supple plans to spend his retirement in Seguin, traveling and returning occasionally to campus, where he will have an office as president emeritus.
His legacy, while captured so elegantly in the booklet chronicling his time as president, will take years to develop, said Don Flores, chairman of the Texas State University System Board of regents and a SWT alumnus.
“Only time and history will be able to put in proper perspective and context the many things he did,” he said.
Highlights of Jerome Supple’s tenure at SWT
During Jerome Supple’s presidency at Southwest Texas State University from 1989 to 2002: