Students begin a new school year with hopes and dreams of better lives. Teachers and administrators similarly have high hopes for their students, trying to create classrooms and schools of the highest quality where these dreams can be nurtured and minds developed, as difficult as this sometimes is given the limits of budgets. Southern Methodist University in Dallas was created with such hopes but also with many obstacles. In the end, SMU was the result of a fight to relocate another college and the fate of a Dallas medical school that culminated in a world-class university.
Southwestern University in Georgetown, just north of Austin, had been founded by the Methodist Church in 1840. As Texas grew, Methodist leaders at the turn of the century questioned if Georgetown was the best location. To many in North Texas, it only seemed reasonable that the college be relocated to Dallas or Fort Worth, given their large population of Methodists and growing business communities.
While some communities were hesitant to embrace colleges and universities in their communities, worried about rowdy students or radical ideas, Dallas leaders saw an opportunity. They quickly realized that a top-rate university would become an important economic engine for the city, attracting students from far and wide and producing the skilled thinkers that businesses increasingly needed to operate.
A panoramic picture of the SMU Dedman quad. (Spencerjc1 / courtesy photo via Wikimedia)
Southwestern University ultimately stayed in Georgetown, but Dallas was able to secure the new university, in part from the help of Southwestern. In 1903, Southwestern had opened a medical school and school of pharmacy in downtown Dallas. The school was small and a drain on resources. Through the efforts of the school's dean, Dr. John McReynolds, Southwestern handed ownership over to the new university to be established in Dallas.
SMU's charter was signed in April 1911. Dr. Robert S. Hyer was hired by trustees to serve as the first president. The medical and pharmacy schools were the only programs offered. Students paid tuition of $100 per year while SMU trustees poured in $25,000 trying to update the school's facilities. While it was a modest success, the costs made it difficult to expand into a full university.
Hiram Boaz was hired as vice-president and fundraiser in 1913. Boaz, a Methodist minister and later a bishop in the church, had many connections needed to be able to secure the donations the university needed. Hyer meanwhile hired 37 professors and started an aggressive recruitment campaign. Dozens of acres were secured in North Dallas and tens of thousands of dollars were spent on the ornate Dallas Hall, the first permanent building on the new site.
In the summer of 1915, SMU was faced with a difficult choice. The university had the money to either operate the medical school or the new university. Trustees made the decision to suspend the medical school in favor of the new campus. By the fall of 1915, SMU opened in North Dallas. Some 456 students enrolled in the college's first classes. Women were also admitted as students in a time when many colleges still refused to admit women. A basic program of the liberal arts and sciences were offered, as well as graduate programs and a school of divinity. Two buildings were included on the campus, which included a fully-functioning library, with Hyer and trustees planning even more construction as time progressed.
A campus community quickly coalesced at the new location. The Daily Campus, the student newspaper, began publication that fall. At the university's first graduation ceremony in June 1916, 24 bachelor's degrees and seven master's degrees were granted. The first years were clearly a success. Anxious to expand the offerings of the university and acquire the talent needed to help manage the rapidly growing businesses in Dallas, the local business community pushed SMU to open a business school, which opened in 1920.
Hyer retired in 1920 but stayed with the university as a physics professor until his death in 1929. Boaz stepped into the position of president, for two years. Dr. Charles Selecman then became the university's third president in 1923. The Methodist minister oversaw a massive building project and expansion of the university as it steadily matured.
Under Selecman's tenure, SMU added nine more building to its campus. The SMU School of Law was opened in 1925. The university expanded even further with the opening of the engineering school that year. In 1927, the ornate Highland Park Methodist Church was completed on campus. While the university and the nation struggled through the Great Depression in the 1930s, Selecman was able to keep enrollment and funding strong.
The college continued to grow, weathering war, controversy and celebrating successes along the way. It grew over the intervening years to become one of the most respected universities in Texas. SMU today boasts more than 11,000 students pursuing dozens of majors.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.