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.
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.
Tim Flanagan was the first to depart. The dean of criminal justice joined State University of New York. Bill Covington, vice president for research and development, resigned two years ago and is now at Southwest Texas State University. Governor George W. Bush tapped Ken Craycraft, dean of the school of education and applied science, for a position in his administration, and academic affairs associate vice president Donald Coers became a full vice president at Angelo State.
Arguably the biggest shift involves no departure from the university. Christopher Baldwin, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, reportedly had been in line to replace Marks when he retires. Instead, Baldwin was bumped down from dean to professor.
Seeking insight into that change may explain why other professors are hesitant to comment for the record. "I was required to sign a gag order," Baldwin says. "I'm stepping down, not entirely joyously. If I speak out, I would lose my job and my sabbatical."
David Payne, vice president for academic affairs, momentarily lapses into silence when asked about the gag order. "Chris was asked to be a contributing member of the creative team," Payne says. "That is not a gag order."
But Marks confirms that Baldwin has been muzzled. "I don't know why that was done, I do not know, but it was probably on the orders of our general counsel in Austin."
Faculty concerns about the future of Sam Houston State do not appear to extend to the school's overseers. It is part of the eight-school Texas State University System, whose regents seem content with the turmoil in Huntsville.
Longtime regent Pollyanna Stephens says Sam Houston is "well run," and she applauds the move of former administrator Coers to her hometown college, Angelo State.
"I understand that the faculty might be upset that they are losing good people," she says. "It is hard for me to be concerned about Huntsville because they are sending us such wonderful people. Our system is eight schools. It's like having a family of eight kids. You don't love one more than the other."
In fact, she lauds Sam Houston for its low profile. "There are a lot of things that you don't see because they are not flashy. To the board, that is wonderful."
But Stephens concedes that the faculty may have cause for annoyance, if not concern.
New trustee Jimmy Hayley, an SHSU alum who heads the Texas City-La Marque Chamber of Commerce, similarly dismisses the complaints. "You look at every university, and you are going to have that kind of turnover," he says.
Marks defends his record. On his watch, the university has gone from one doctoral program, in criminal justice, to three -- adding ones in educational leadership and forensic clinical psychology. He also led the effort to establish SHSU's University Center in The Woodlands.
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"We have evolved into a very fine regional university with some programs that have gone beyond the region and have a national reputation," he says. Marks suspects that part of the criticism he faces is because of the slow pace of the university's surroundings: Huntsville, Texas, population 34,500.
"What we have here is an atmosphere of relaxed effort," he says. "What we don't want is an atmosphere of happy loafers."
Former president Anisman credits Marks with making some of the hires that highlighted Anisman's administration. As for the acrimony, Anisman explains that it is an established part of academia:
"Being a university president is analogous to herding cats."