SMU and Dallas: An Evolving Relationship

Following are the welcoming remarks to SMU's Centennial Academic Symposium on November 11, 2011, by James K. Hopkins, the Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Clements Department of History in SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.


My name is Jim Hopkins. I am a member of SMU’s Clements Department of History and chair of the Centennial Academic Symposium: The University and the City: Higher Education and the Common Good.  My remarks this morning focus on the evolving relationship between SMU and Dallas but it could also be called “Dallas Rediscovered : a case study of an urban university and the city and world which it serves.”

I would like to begin my remarks by telling you a very short story. Some years ago while I was serving as an Associate Dean of Dedman College, I learned of a student, Chris Lake, who was renting a house in an East Dallas neighborhood beset by a staggering variety of social problems—drug use, prostitution, and crime. He, like many undergraduates, wanted to make a difference but, in his case, he actually did.  Among other projects, he devoted himself to tutoring a nine year old child who was remarkably incapable of staying awake during their time together. The child refused to offer an explanation, and so Chris remained puzzled until one evening he couldn’t sleep and went for a walk in his neighborhood. He passed a Laundromat about 2 or 3 in the morning and saw the same boy washing windows while his mother cleaned the facility.  He could not have known the issues that his student faced if he had not lived in the neighborhood.

This was an epiphany.  From that moment he determined that SMU must have a presence in this East Dallas community, and it couldn’t be just the isolated visit of a well-meaning student. As a result, Chris played a key role in bringing together a group that included the Chaplain, administrators, and several faculty, resulting in the development of an informal urban studies curriculum taught to SMU students in a once prominent church in East Dallas fallen on hard times. The project did not have the heavy weight of institutional authority (that would come later) but was almost wholly improvised as it developed. The students also would commit to tutoring and mentoring area children, and several would live full-time to become neighbors and not just volunteers. Within a few years a group of supporters erected a Habitat for Humanity house that became the home for a live-in group of students. SMU now had a regular presence in the neighborhood, and what is now called the Academic Community Engagement or the ACE program began.

And yet, this kind of virtuoso project, as successful as it became, existed on the university’s periphery, for years without any really coherent integration into its curricular or institutional life. However, this began my interest in service learning or the pedagogy of civic engagement, a tribute to Chris’s passion and commitment to make Dallas a better place neighborhood by neighborhood. 

The project also offered new opportunities for me. I had joined the university faculty in 1974. However, Dallas was not an unknown place, nor was SMU. As a child I would accompany my family from our home in East Texas to the city. In the course of what seemed an endless drive on a two lane blacktop road, I would wait anxiously and expectantly for the first glimpse of the Magnolia Building, today lost in a grove of skyscrapers, with an emblematic Pegasus rising up from the flat lands of north Texas. For me, Dallas was the Emerald City, glistening with promises, true then and true now.

Thus, when I arrived, I had been exposed to a little of the history of SMU and Dallas--that the university and the city had a close relationship stretching back to the early years of the Twentieth Century. The leaders of the Methodist Church had been told that “Dallas …is the best unoccupied territory in the South [for an institution of higher learning]…[and] Someday someone will build a university in Dallas, and you Methodists are the people who could do it.” In the wake of some complicated maneuverings and competion among the city fathers of Fort Worth and Dallas and the Methodist Church in 1911, a new university rose on what only a flatlander could call the Hilltop.  The first building on campus was named Dallas Hall in gratitude for a pledge of $300,000 by Dallas leaders and citizens. The colors chosen for the university were Harvard Crimson and Yale Blue, thus tying together the very old, at least by American standards, and the very new. 

Like its earliest forbears, Yale and Harvard,  SMU was a church related institution that emphasized both education and service. Training in the professions, educating citizens for civic responsibilities and supporting the acquisition of knowledge that led to societal improvement were core purposes. These were meant to indicate implicitly, and frequently explicitly, what has been true throughout the almost 400 year old history of education in America, and the one hundred years of SMU’s history, that the public good must be at the center of the concerns of higher education.

However, what the public wants and expects changes over time.  In the course of the twentieth century universities began to separate its functions. Secondary schools were deputized to educate students in the civic virtues, and the universities concerned themselves with the discovery of and advancement of new knowledge. Thus, research became increasingly preeminent and teaching focused on the belief that knowledge should be pursued as an end unto itself, often without any real reference to its practical application.

By the late twentieth century the social compact between the university and society had shifted from developing and sustaining its broader social role to one that increasingly focused on the individual and economic benefits of education.  While majors in Economics and Business soared, those in the liberal arts plummeted, suggesting what many parents and students saw as their perceived irrelevance to undergraduate education.

There are many explanations for this. One of them certainly is the inability of universities to explain in a compelling manner to both students and parents that an education as a citizen in a democratic society requires broader social goals that complement and enlighten the pursuit of employment, that, in short, a student is being educated for a life as well as a career.

The history of SMU is instructive on this point. In 1998 the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility asked me to give the inaugural lecture in a series of “public presentations on topics of ethical import.” I said somewhat sententiously that those who have dedicated themselves to the life of the mind must also “see those in the communities from which they take their lives as fellow travelers and as partners in the search for the common good, in the search for the good society.” 

I gave this lecture three years after our new president, Gerald Turner, called in his inaugural address for the university’s renewed partnership with Dallas.  He said, the university’s “mission was to educate leaders for the educational, spiritual, cultural, and commercial development of Dallas and beyond: leadership based on partnership.”

I was initially skeptical and asked in my Maguire lecture, “Does Dallas even remember us?” except, perhaps, from the post- war years when those iconic figures, Doak Walker and his teammates, achieved success on the football fields in our city and across the country.

There was nothing inevitable about this estrangement.  The 1963 University Master Plan stated that “The aim of this University… is to educate its students as worthy human beings and as citizens, first, and as teachers, lawyers, minister, research scientists, business people, engineers and so on, second.” The indisputable fact, however, was that our university had systematically cut many of its ties with the city—Dallas college, which educated part-time students in the city, had been closed, as had the evening law school. The Department of Education and the Center for Urban Studies had been shuttered. The once robust Sociology department had fallen from 11 to 2 faculty members and became an annex of the Anthropology Department.

The revitalization of the relationship between SMU and Dallas, as was the case with other urban universities, began some twenty years ago, but so abruptly that it was called “the civic turn.”  In 1985 the presidents of Georgetown, Brown, and Stanford University founded Campus Compact, which has now brought together leaders of over 1200 universities, including President Turner and SMU, to promote education for public service. Like many other institutions across the country, particularly in urban areas, SMU rediscovered the city which had attended its birth, and began again to promote and redevelop a strong, active sense of engagement in the life of Dallas and beyond. 

The evidence mounted that this was so. The Evening Law School reemerged into a vital new life; the new Simmons School of Education and Human Development is making a difference on many fronts, including teacher training and working with educators in West Dallas to improve its public schools. The Sociology department has returned with 75 majors and 50 minors. A number of centers across the campus apply the wisdom and research of the academy to very specific economic, ethical, educational, and technological issues.  One of the most popular new courses in recent years focuses on the city of Dallas and is team taught by a historian and an anthropologist.

Upon his arrival at SMU four years ago, Provost Paul Ludden founded the Big iDeas program, which funds student projects that study and address local issues. One student group started Health Literacy Dallas, helping patients to understand and correctly use medical information. Other projects have focused on children’s eating habits, sports camps for the underprivileged, facilitating microloans for small Dallas businesses, and a children’s literary magazine and website called “Tale of One City.” The student research teams bring together majors in areas such as finance, foreign languages and communications, achieving a secondary purpose of uniting disciplines for tangible results. Each of our schools developed innovative new programs linking them with to projects within the city. One of  my favorites is the WISE program, begun by several President’s Scholars, which sends female engineering students into middle school classrooms to talk to girls about careers in engineering and science.

Our 21st century students, the so-called millennials, are both reflecting and leading a resurgence of volunteerism that reflects the desire to make a difference and that has played a key role in the “civic turn.” These are students nurtured by their high schools and eager to prepare both for careers and the impact they will make on the world.  My students continue to take advantage of older opportunities like Americorps and the Peace Corps but they are also increasingly attracted to Teach for America and many other less well- known service opportunities.  More than 2500 SMU students volunteer each year with 70 Dallas nonprofit agencies, take service-learning courses, reside in the university’s Service House or travel on Alternative Spring Break to work in soup kitchens in San Francisco, on Native American reservations, or clearing hiking trails in national forests (among many other projects.) 

The university’s understanding of what it means to educate our students as global citizens has resulted in affiliations with over 100 study abroad programs around the world in the last five years. The Embrey Center for Human Rights, newly founded, has attracted over 200 human rights minors, the largest number of any university in the country. Recently, we have added a Human Rights major, one of the few universities in the country to offer such an opportunity to students.

In company with other campus organizations, including our office of Leadership and Community Involvement, the ACE program, and the Embrey Human Rights Center, SMU provides service and leadership opportunities of a wide variety that take our students to troubled parts of Dallas, the Southwest, the east and west coasts as well as the larger world from Uganda and Rwanda, to Mexico, Latin America, and Asia.

Of great importance, our new curriculum that will soon take effect makes “engaged” learning an important feature of the education of all our students and helps further move it from the periphery to a central location in student life and learning. 

But all these new initiatives could disguise the fact that the social compact is continually being negotiated, and what has been gained can also be lost, particularly living as we do in these difficult economic times. A few months ago a senior member of our university condensed the history of SMU’s relationship with Dallas for me very simply. SMU, he said, was a collection of buildings on the outskirts of the city and the university’s function was to produce professional workers to promote Dallas’s prosperity. His is not a lonely voice.

This view could take on sharp focus not only here but across the country, suggesting how precarious can be the “civic turn.”  I offer a small but not insignificant example. Many institutions today call their students “customers,” as happened for a few weeks at SMU.  Not too long ago it was possible to walk into a major administrative building at our university and find signs inviting student “customers” to queue up for services, thus baldly laying bare the cash nexus between universities and those they are educating. However, after a few days, a senior SMU administrator wisely saw that the signs were taken down and the word “student” restored to its rightful place.  Nevertheless, this raised an important question. Will a student who is called a “customer” by a university receive or want the kind of education that translates into the sound judgments and tough questions necessary for responsible participation in a democratic society, or will he or she be taught and want to gain-- better services?  

The Daily Campus recently offered an answer to this question. A staff member, it was reported, created a commentary site for Generation Y [the millennial generation] in order to seek out opinion on what her peers “REALLY think on tough issues that are currently facing the nation and the world. We could care less about dorm rooms.”  The editor of the opinion column expressed his approval of the new project:   “Like it or not, Generation Y is going to end up managing the world some day …and people are going to listen to what we have to say at some point, so why not make them start now.”

We must help students explore what they want to “be” as well as what they want to “do”? In the face of a storm of criticism of higher education--of costs, faculty tenure, time in getting a degree, and the trajectory of research programs-- the time has come for higher education to articulate clearly and convincingly its responsibility to create new knowledge, nurture leaders, and promote the cultural and political developments that lead to a literate, informed, and socially responsible citizenry.

This is not some kind of face- off between individualism and communitarianism, but rather an affirmation that the interests of the one, the job seeker, serves the interests of the other, the responsible and engaged citizen. In this conjunction lies the prospect of a genuinely transformative education that will prepare our students for their place (and leadership) in a skilled work force, as well as a commitment to making a difference in their cities and the world.  In this lies a life of both value and significance. 

After the dedication of Dallas Hall, SMU’s first president, Robert Hyer, a research physicist but also an inventor, was asked when the university would be completed. His answer was, “After the city of Dallas is completed.”  Both city and university are works in progress. In his inaugural address of 16 years ago President Turner said, “It’s time to strengthen our partnership with Dallas, the Metroplex, and beyond.”   Our symposium today intends to take another step in honoring this commitment.

It will be a full day and I hope you will share as much of it with us as your time and busy schedules will permit.

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