Sam Houston's Retreat?

SHSU stirred the higher-ed circles. Now the excitement has turned to exodus.

A few years ago higher education up the I-45 corridor from Houston began shaking off its tired teachers college image. Sam Houston State University in Huntsville was coming alive.

The school landed a major federal grant for an environmental studies institute. It reached out with a model program to prepare Native American youths for college. The school's faculty even added Betty Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Northern Ireland, as director of a promising new institute called the Global Children's Studies Center.

Under the reign of dynamic president Martin J. Anisman, SHSU drew outside attention, and impressive academicians, to this previous sleepy Piney Woods outpost. There were serious discussions of affiliating with one of the state's major collegiate powers -- the University of Texas, or perhaps Texas A&M -- or of simply building acclaim as an aggressive independent.

Sam Houston State may be looking ahead, but some faculty and administrators are looking elsewhere.
Scott Gilbert
Sam Houston State may be looking ahead, but some faculty and administrators are looking elsewhere.

These days there's an entirely different kind of talk around campus. The nicest words some of the professors can muster for Bobby K. Marks, Anisman's successor for the past five years, is that he's a nice man but he's a "very limited provincial." Translated, that means he's got a trade school mentality.

Marks, 67, made it to high office the hard way. He signed with the school early on and waited -- 40 years -- for his turn at the helm. Academics, of course, have a tradition of criticizing administrators, particularly in the aftermath of a popular president's departure. However, SHSU's problems have gone beyond anonymous backbiting.

A disproportionate number of talented department heads, administrators and faculty members are bailing out for other institutions. One professor says it reflects the wide division between old-timers content with small-time college ways and the talented team assembled in the Anisman era, who are leading the exodus.

"For years they hired people who couldn't go anywhere," says the professor, who asked to remain anonymous. "But these new faculty members were recruited from top-level schools."

Since Anisman's time, the prof joked bitterly, "We have had two institutions occupying one set of buildings: the 'Walker County Junior College' and 'UT-Huntsville.' "

Sam Houston State was founded in 1879 and has languished in the commodious middle echelon of Texas's higher education for much of the time since then. Elliott T. Bowers became president in 1970 and shepherded the school through an ambitious expansion of the campus in the following two decades. It now has an enrollment of about 12,000, with around 21,000 alumni in the Houston area.

The school, affectionately known as Sam, was languishing in a comfortable existence when Bowers retired in 1989. Many faculty members and administrators perceived Anisman's selection as the start of a major transition toward academic quality at SHSU.

The Brooklyn-born and -bred English professor was an authority on Victorian literature. He arrived from Springfield College in Massachusetts with a persona vastly different from his predecessors', who had presented an almost courtly visage. Students saw that difference in their first encounter with Anisman, during a 1989 midnight breakfast during final exams. Instead of sitting and dining with the students, the new president served them.

He also dished up some comparatively dynamic offerings for the university. East Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson helped SHSU gain $20 million in federal funding for the Texas Regional Institute for Environmental Studies. Anisman entered into a partnership with a Houston foundation to help the Alabama-Coushatta Indians to set up a model program for college-bound youngsters.

"They were from a different culture, and they needed special help," Anisman said.

Nobel laureate Williams came on board. Anisman brought back a famous alum, CBS News anchor Dan Rather, to lend his name and presence to the school. In fact, today the communications building is named after him.

However, professors say the biggest contribution by the former president is the caliber of faculty members who followed him to Huntsville. That six-year push ended somewhat abruptly. In 1994 Anisman was a finalist for the top job at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. The next year he was forced out by trustees for unspecified reasons. Sam Houston bought out his contract for $158,000. He is now president of the 2,000-student Daemen College at Amherst in New York.

Anisman acknowledges that "I was trying to move it to the next level," but "all presidents say that."

Sam Houston officials boldly announced a national search to find a suitable replacement. In the end, they elevated their own Bobby Marks, the 11-year provost. He had arrived at SHSU as an instructor of management, and also had 15 years as the school's business dean.

Colleagues commend Marks for his quick wit and sharp mind, although it is cloaked behind the courtly grace of earlier presidents of the school, the kind of manner that could easily substitute for any Protestant country pastor in the South shaking hands at the front door of the church after Sunday services. Critics charge that Marks's vision for the university is limited, provincial and prosaic. They fear that SHSU will lapse back into a glorified trade school that after four years would mill out professionals in two necessary but not very sexy fields: education and criminal justice.

While some see Marks as legitimately returning SHSU to its roots, critics point to a costly exodus of top educators in recent years.

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