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Learning, listening, leading


Austin American Statesman (12/07/2003)
By Ricardo Gándarar

In her second year at San Marcos' Texas State University, Denise Trauth wins praise for keeping door open to students

Denise Trauth was but 9 years old when her sister Eileen, then 5, knew there was something special about her older sibling, who was teaching her the alphabet using a big black telephone. The girls played school often and Denise was forever the teacher.

“I have this vivid image of her using that phone to teach us the letters. I remember thinking in grade school that she'd probably grow up to be the first woman president of the United States.”

Denise Trauth, the avid reader who at a young age developed the knack to “just do it“ and not wait on others, is a president -- the first woman -- at burgeoning Texas State University-San Marcos.

“Well, I knew she'd be in some important leadership position,” says Eileen Trauth.

Trauth, hailed by students as an open-door administrator, is in her second year at the helm of the 26,375-student campus that was named Southwest Texas State University when she was hired. By January, she and her staff will complete a five-year strategic plan outlining where she wants to take Texas State.

Among her goals is creating new academic and Ph.D. programs. Equally important, the plan will take a hard look at eliminating undergraduate programs with low enrollments. One of her challenges, she says, is to recruit more faculty members and retain current ones. She believes they are underpaid.

Texas State, with a budget of $281 million and a work force of 2,730, will also open the $27-million Round Rock Higher Education Center in 2005, a collaborative effort with Austin Community College and Temple College in Taylor.

Whatever decisions are made on her goals, it's a sure bet that the 56-year-old Trauth (it rhymes with “mouth”) won't be rushing into anything. Her style is one of careful deliberation -- and inclusion.

Students have been pleasantly surprised to see her walk around campus to talk with people. Once a month, she invites students to her office for one-to-one meetings to discuss anything they'd like.

She is intrigued by what they think and how they acquire an education.”I've learned that if you make the classroom a place for intellectual curiosity, you create an active learning process,” she says.

Sisters on campuses

Growing up in Cincinnati, there was no mistake that all the Trauth children -- seven daughters -- would succeed. Albert and Martha Trauth raised them in a loving home and instilled values: Honesty. Respect for others. Leadership. Study hard. Expect to be successful.

It worked. Eileen Trauth is a professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State University. Suzanne Trauth is a professor of theater and dance at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Jeanette Trauth is an associate professor in the graduate school of public health at the University of Pittsburgh. Patricia Trauth is a landscape architect in San Diego. And Kathleen Trauth is an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Missouri. The seventh daughter, Charlene Trauth, died of breast cancer five years ago.

Albert, a certified public accountant, ran his business out of the family's home. Martha kept his books and did a lot of the work. He loved to cook and even shop for the groceries.”My parents worked together and shared the housework,” says Suzanne Trauth.”It was normal to see Dad do the domestic things. It gave us the thought that gender roles were not as rigid as in other families. Maybe that explains why we all kept our maiden names.”

He was also the stickler about academics. He flat out expected his girls to attend college.”He had this attitude about education and a feeling that women should be educated and be on their own if they had to. He believed they should be articulate and outspoken about issues and to be independent thinkers,” says mom Martha Trauth.

Albert, who died in 1979, used a teaching approach to raising a large family.”He made it clear that he'd help the older girls do things but then he expected us to help our younger sisters,” recalls Eileen.

Discipline was paramount.”Discipline is just something that is part of a large family,” says Martha.”They had to share. It was the right way to grow up.”

Trauth says her mother passed on a passion for reading to her children.”If there was ever a lull of five minutes, she put a book in our hands.”

And Trauth was a doer, even at a young age.”When all the girls got home from school and wanted a snack, Denise was the one who took control,” her mother says.”If there wasn't anything prepared, she'd make something. If there wasn't a dessert on the menu that night at dinner, she'd whip up a cake.”

The girls were raised in a middle-class neighborhood with aunts, uncles and cousins living on the same street. Everyone watched out for each other.”In a close-knit family, you have a secure, loving environment. These are people you know will be there for you,” says Trauth.

The girls got a primary education from the Dominican sisters at St. Antoninus Catholic School and attended Seton High School, an all-girls school. The influence of teachers, most of whom were women, helped shaped their lives.”We had strong female role models,” Trauth says.”And a parochial education reinforced the values taught at home -- honesty, integrity, honor and your word being worth something.”

She recalls vividly the impact teachers made on her young life. Especially Kay Hoelscher in the second grade.”She took a special interest in me,” Trauth says.”I blossomed. I went from getting C's to getting A's. By the time I was in the third grade I knew I wanted to be a teacher.” Trauth attended the College of Mount St. Joseph, a Catholic school in Cincinnati, where she majored in English and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude in 1971. She would go on to earn a master's degree in journalism from Ohio State and a doctorate in mass communication from the University of Iowa. In between, she taught English and journalism in high school for two years.

From 1977 to 1988, Trauth was an assistant professor and professor in the speech communication and telecommunications department at Bowling Green University. She rose to associate dean at Bowling Green, a position she held until 1993 when she became dean of the graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In 1997, she became provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at UNC. It was her last job before becoming the ninth president of Texas State in June 2002.

Trauth married John Huffman 30 years ago. They were on the staff together at Bowling Green and UNC. He's retired now and runs the household. They have four grandchildren from Huffman's two daughters by a previous marriage.

Down to earth

The early reviews from students and staff at Texas State? They like Trauth's leadership style.

Some criticized her for not moving fast enough to add sexual orientation to the university's nondiscrimination policy. She initially believed it was the board of regents' job to do that but later said her legal advisers told her she had the authority. The Faculty Senate had been asking for the policy addition since before she became president.

Jason Stewart, president of Lambda, a student gay rights group, says,” She handled it the best way possible. There were a lot of extremely nasty letters going out about the issue but she ignored those and pushed forward with the wording because she knew it was an important issue.”

Genevieve Bell, editor of the Daily University Star student newspaper, says she found it “interesting” the president didn't know she had the authority to make the change.” Other sources told us she wanted to be careful and to take her time and talk with everyone. The Faculty Senate was really pushing it but she wanted student input. That was good. I think she's the kind of person who takes a breath before making a decision,” says Bell.

Ernie Dominguez, president of Associated Student Government, says Trauth is extremely accessible to students.” And you see her at many of the functions -- sporting events, lectures, meetings and memorial services. She's very visible, down to earth and easy to talk to. She's interested in what students have to say about improving campus life and academics,” he says.

When Trauth was meeting with Mikaila Bell, president of the Geography Honor Society, about a landscaping project, the president asked about Bell's plans after graduation.”We talked about my goals and the schools I was considering for graduate school. She took a personal interest. I could tell it was sincere. She's a great role model for me,” Bell says.

A Texas State regent who was chair of the search committee that recommended Trauth is not surprised at her performance in the job that has a total compensation package of $273,870.”I liked her from the start,” says Nancy Neal,” and knew that she would be able to walk right in and take over for Dr. Supple (the popular Jerome Supple was president from 1989 to 2002). Dr. Trauth is a strong, capable woman. I think she's done splendidly.

“She works well with students. She moves carefully but effectively. She's not afraid to do the right thing.”

Trauth was instrumental in easing into the school's name transition this fall. Now she may be turning to matters of football, even though the 4-8 season is over for the Bobcats' first-year coach Manny Matsakis. Last week the university announced it had began an internal inquiry into possible NCAA violations in its football program. Results of the probe, which came after an anonymous complaint that coach-supervis-ed activities had exceeded the 20-hours-a-week limit, will be turned over to the NCAA and the Southland Conference, the 11-school league in which Texas State competes.

Whatever Trauth accomplishes or doesn't at Texas State, she will always fall back on her family. Reunions. Celebrating holidays together. Nieces and nephews graduating from high school and college.

“Family, it's always been my solid,” she says.

Trauth knows challenges lie ahead in leading a school that has grown rapidly, by nearly 6,000 students students just since 1997.”There's a difference between getting a job and doing a job. What's left is doing the job,” she says.”My goal is not to be a president but a successful one.”