A Spirited Gathering »

When Barry B. Thompson speaks, people listen. Especially when it’s during the rededication of the Barry B. Thompson Student Center at Tarleton State University, where Thompson, a former chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, also was one of the Stephenville school’s most acclaimed presidents. So when he stood amid a crowd so packed that it overflowed into the stairwells, his words rang especially strong: “We are so blessed to have this state and this university and this system. I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

The feeling of being among the blessed and giants, past and present, permeated the 2010 annual meeting of the Chancellor’s Century Council, hosted at the Tarleton campus Feb. 18-19, and this year celebrating a record membership level of 206. Throughout the event, an array of speakers ranging from Chancellor Mike McKinney to student representatives from campus organizations such as the Tarleton Plowboys and a cadet from the ROTC program stressed the historic role of the university and the system in providing the highest quality of education and service to the state and to generations of Tarleton graduates.

But the focus was more on the future than the past. “I am extremely happy to have all the presidents in place in the system. We have good people in good positions doing a good job,” said McKinney. “But what I tell my CEOS now is that you can’t just do what you already do better. You’ve got to do different things.”

That theme was echoed by featured guest speaker Fred Heldenfels, vice chair of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and CCC member, who called for short-term strategies for closing the gaps for equitable educational opportunities by 2015, and for long-term visions for the direction of higher education in decades to come.

Presidents of system universities continued the call for moving forward with key visions and priorities. Dan Jones, president of Texas A&M University-Commerce, credited the system with bringing “real value” to expanding goals through funding and construction. Maria Hernandez Ferrier, president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, said she felt “privileged” by the “amazing progress” that her campus has experienced since becoming a standalone university in 2009. She said the San Antonio campus, now with about 2,700 students, especially was interested in producing teachers to help reduce San Antonio’s 50 percent high school dropout rate.

Carlisle “Bix” Rathburn, president of Texas A&M University-Texarkana, told the CCC meeting audience of 93 members and 40 guests that major, system-funded construction is transforming his campus, including the hosting of its first freshman class this fall. Pat O’Brien, president of West Texas A&M University, traced the progress of his school from its founding 100 years ago until its extensive outreach today.

For F. Dominic Dottavio, president of Tarleton, recounting the impact of his university was best accomplished by showing the guests around the many new construction sites of a master plan on what has to be one of the most tidy and well-kept campuses in the system.

Also easily observed was the popularity of “Dr. D” among the students. At a presentation in the Recreational Sports Center, the always irreverent “Purple Poo” gathered around him and the other speakers in a show of ease and fondness that can only be earned, not granted. At a lunch program featuring the Tarleton rodeo team at Lone Star Arena, Dr. D quickly joined the students on the rodeo floor for hands-on participation in a demonstration of the Tarleton Equine Assisted Therapy (TREAT) program. “This is his favorite part of being president,” said Dottavio’s wife, Lisette, watching from the arena bleachers.

For its business side, the CCC meeting heard an update on projects from Brett Giroir, vice chancellor for research for the A&M System, and remarks from Hunter Bollman, student regent. Outgoing chairs Patty and Joe Mueller received a standing ovation for the work they had accomplished in the past two years, and incoming chairs Sonja and Neal Adams were similarly welcomed into the challenges and opportunities to be faced in the year to come.

CCC members also had a chance to see some of Tarleton’s best-known programs with visits to the planetarium and to a live theater-style presentation on Texas immigrants from the Thurber Program of the W. K. Gordon Center. The meeting concluded with a reception and dinner at Bella Vita Ranch, and, as though to bookend the event, a keynote address from Thompson, who again proved to be, as Dr. D observed, “a legendary Texan.”