(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 287-290, 292-294)
During the spring of 1975, the board initiated the search for a new president. It involved, for the first time in school history, representation of all SSC constituencies. Using guidelines of the American Council on Education and the Association of American Colleges, the board formed a committee of elected representatives of faculty, students, staff, and alumni. Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. L. A. Logan was named chair. The committee advertised nationally, reviewed many applications, interviewed several candidates, and in early 1976 provided the board with the names of six prospective presidents. When trustees subsequently held unannounced discussions, the press charged that SSC’s board violated Arkansas’s freedom of information laws requiring public bodies to hold open, transparent meetings at which recesses into closed, executive sessions to deal with personnel issues were permitted. Apart from this incident, the presidential search process proceeded smoothly.
On April 1, 1976, sixty-seven years from the school’s founding date as an agricultural high school, the board formally elected a new president who would preside over the school’s transformation into a university. He was Dr. Harold T. Brinson, a forty-six-year-old alumnus of A&M. He was a former member of Elmer Smith’s Mulerider team and had married his A&M sweetheart, Gene Lee. He had also played football at Tulane University and earned an undergraduate degree from that institution. He had served in the U.S. Marine Corps, coached and taught school in Texas, and completed master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Texas. At the time of his selection as SSC’s new president, he was superintendent of the Abilene, Texas, Independent School District.
There had been little interest in turning SSC into a university before 1975. Several of its sister colleges in Arkansas had long sought the change, and it had become commonplace in the United States. The states surrounding Arkansas had already renamed most of their collegiate institutions universities. The Arkansas legislature in 1975 authorized Henderson State University (HSU) and the University of Central Arkansas (UCA). Dr. Bruce declined at that time to seek a university name, declaring, “We are very pleased with the name we have.” Supporters of Arkansas Tech College, however, wanted equal treatment with their competing neighbor UCA. Consequently, the legislature in Act 343 gave permission to both Arkansas Tech and SSC to choose a university name, subject to approval of DHE’s State Board of Higher Education (SBHE).
SSC’s board directed that surveys be taken in the 1975 fall semester of faculty, alumni, staff, and students to determine preferences for a new name. The poll provided seven names from which to choose. The results showed no consensus. By wide margins, alumni and staff preferred Southern State University, thus retaining as much of the old name as possible. Faculty liked University of South Arkansas; and students, South Arkansas University. The Faculty Affairs Committee chair, Dr. David Rankin, explained to the board that that faculty favored the University of South Arkansas to identify the school’s location that earlier school names had not. Some faculty, of course, thought school initials with that name would be memorable. Board members decided in February 1976 to submit University of South Arkansas to the SBHE. One SBHE member, however, objected that having the same initials as the United States would be “unpatriotic.” Objections from the University of Arkansas at Monticello that it was also located in South Arkansas apparently also had some weight. Approval of a name change was postponed. SSC’s board then devised a Solomon-like compromise and selected a name not appearing among the choices listed in the preference poll—Southern Arkansas University (SAU). Only a week after assuming the presidency, Dr. Brinson was able to report that SBHE had approved SAU on July 9, 1976, and that his alma mater had acquired yet another “birthday.
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The transition from college to university status in 1976–77 occurred simultaneously with adjustment to a new presidency. Dr. Brinson had to work in the considerable shadow of his predecessor, Dr. Imon E. Bruce, who remained on campus. The new president was subjected to inevitable, often negative, comparisons with the former president. An unfair comparison was made when Dr. Brinson instituted his first new ceremony. This was a presidential inauguration on March 11, 1977. Used for centuries at most colleges and universities, it formally welcomed and transferred institutional symbols to a new leader. TDAS, A&M, and SSC had never had an inaugural. It proved to be not unlike a graduation exercise, with faculty garbed in colorful academic hoods and robes, visiting dignitaries, presentations, and speeches. U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers gave the keynote address. Dr. Brinson received a newly created SAU medallion worn on a chain with his academic robes as a symbol of his authority. For most participants, the event was memorable, but a few individuals carped about ostentation and pointed out that Dr. Bruce had never had an inauguration.
Dr. Bruce had assembled the staff and faculty that largely served throughout Dr. Brinson’s tenure. A substantial reorganization occurred almost immediately but relatively smoothly. The seven college divisions became four university schools headed by deans who still taught half-time. The schools and deans were the following: Business Administration, Dr. David F. Rankin; Education, Dr. Frank L. Irwin; Liberal and Performing Arts, Dr. Daniel G. Ford; and Science and Technology, Dr. B. C. Dodson. Within three years, Dr. Gayle White succeeded Rankin. Dr. Ralph Wilson replaced the retiring Irwin in two years, and then Dr. Dale Robbins succeeded the retiring Wilson. These changes involved no controversy.
Dr. Brinson, far more than Dr. Bruce, left day-to-day administration to his three vice presidents. In academic matters, he relied almost entirely on Dr. Lowell A. Logan. Dr. Donald Haefner handled student affairs with a low-key approach. A significant change in the university’s top leadership occurred in 1978 when Dr. Robert Pearce became vice president for administration and finance. He brought a business-oriented approach to SAU. He had worked in the private sector before earning an Ed.D. from Oklahoma State University and attending the Harvard Graduate School of Education Institute for Educational Management. Of the three vice presidents, Pearce had the most assertive personality, and Dr. Brinson gave him a wide range of responsibilities. “He was somebody that I could trust and didn’t have to worry about,” Brinson later recalled, even if there was sometimes “friction around him.” · · · · · · · ·
Dr. Brinson thought it important to make the campus more attractive to visitors. His first capital expenditures were to improve the appearances of what he called the “front door” and “living room” of SAU— Overstreet Hall and the president’s home. Dr. Brinson and his wife lived in the campus infirmary’s small three- room apartment for eight months while the president’s home was refurbished. The expenditure was an easy target for critics who recalled the parsimonious Bruce. The result was showcased thereafter in the gracious annual Christmas parties and other social events that Mrs. Gene Lee Brinson organized for hundreds of faculty, staff, and supporters of the university.
In 1980–81, Overstreet Hall was completely renovated at a cost of $647,000. The president’s office and other top administrators’ offices were enlarged and moved to the west end of the building where a wood-paneled board of trustees meeting room was added. A major expense was for an elevator to help the disabled to more easily reach the second and third floor biology and chemistry facilities that were also refurbished.
A year later, Overstreet Plaza, a broad expanse of brick and landscaping leading to the main entrance, was added. Its construction required the removal of beautiful oak trees, which provoked another round of criticism. Overstreet Plaza and its centerpiece were dedicated on August 6, 1982. Its historic pink granite cube, weighing five thousand pounds, atop a brick pedestal, had the dates and seals of the four schools inscribed on its sides, including SAU’s newly adopted seal. Eleven generous alumni and friends of the university paid for the cube, the product of Dr. Brinson’s increased emphasis upon private fund-raising.