R. Gerald Turner:
Celebrating 100, SMU grows from the spirit of Dallas

SMU President R. Gerald Turner writes about SMU celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding.

As Southern Methodist University marks the 100th anniversary of its 1911 founding Friday, we celebrate the two defining forces that shaped and sustain SMU: an education-oriented church and an entrepreneurial city.

In the early 1900s, an education official advised leaders of what is now the United Methodist Church: “Dallas is the best unoccupied territory [for a university] in the South. Someday someone will build a university in Dallas, and you Methodists are the people who should do it.”

Fort Worth also competed, but Dallas residents offered more land and funding. To honor the city, SMU named its first building Dallas Hall. With the opening of SMU in 1915, our founders aimed not only to expand the church’s impact on higher education, but also to provide an educated workforce and leaders advancing the development of North Texas.

The church’s interests in human empowerment, truth-seeking and the highest forms of human expression have strongly influenced SMU’s offerings in the arts, theology, ethics and humanities. Methodists wanted a university that would raise the ultimate human questions while embracing academic freedom.

From its enterprising city, SMU inherited a view of education as a means to an end, through business, law, science, engineering and other applied areas of learning. Today, part of SMU’s uniqueness comes from the fusion of our liberal arts bases with pre-professional and professional programs through seven schools. As a private university, SMU is the master of its own future, thanks to the ability to build endowments and constituent support. As a result, we can be nimble and responsive in addressing emerging needs and opportunities.

In response to business, educational and cultural interests in the city, we established a new school of education focusing on applied research in areas of needed reform. We have refocused and renewed our engineering school, reinstated our evening law program and started a graduate interactive technology program that has won national recognition. Now, we’re bringing Dallas the unique historic resource of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which is already attracting officials, dignitaries and scholars for symposia on national and global issues.

Our founders would be proud of SMU’s increasing quality — higher student SAT scores, a rise to No. 56 among national universities in U.S. News & World Report and a new ranking as a university with “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Our student population of nearly 11,000 is increasingly diverse and more outwardly focused on service in Dallas and studies around the world.

Although our founders could not have predicted the immense impact of the nation’s urban universities on their home communities, today we know that any city claiming national and global relevance must have a strong, comprehensive private university to complement its public institutions. What the founders achieved, however, was a model of education that would well serve the city in advancing its potential, as well as extend the national and global impact of the University itself.

With the optimism characteristic of our city, we now set a course for the future, reaffirming SMU’s role in the region’s economic, social, cultural and intellectual growth. This is the time to renew and strengthen our vital partnerships to address the region’s challenges and potential. By remaining true to our mission, we will ensure that SMU lives up not only to the founders’ vision, but also to the aspirations of leaders now and for the future.

An SMU trustee is fond of saying that if Dallas did not have SMU, it would do everything in its power to obtain it — just like 100 years ago.

In 1915, when SMU opened, founding SMU President Robert S. Hyer was asked, “When will the University be completed?” He replied, “After the city of Dallas is completed.”

Together, we go forward.

R. Gerald Turner is the 10th president of Southern Methodist University. His email address is PresidentTurner@smu.edu.