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Bryce Jordan Transcription

Recorded Nov. 6, 2009
1:00 p.m.

Jordan Residence in Austin, Texas

Host: Meredith Dickenson, Assistant Vice President for Communications

Greetings, and welcome to “A Conversation With...” I’m Brandon Webb. Our conversation today is with the first UT Dallas President Bryce Jordan. Dr. Jordan became president of UT Dallas in July, 1971.  He went on to serve as president for 10 years before being appointed UT System Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.  He later became president of Penn State, serving there from 1983 to 1990. Assistant Vice President for Communications Meredith Dickenson visited with Dr. Jordan at his home, in Austin, Texas.

Question: Go back to your mind’s eye to 1970, and tell us what images come to mind when you think about the University of Texas at Dallas.

Bryce Jordan: Frankly, I was not terribly sensitive to what was going on in Dallas. I knew that it had become a state institution, and I knew that my boss at UT Austin, Norman Hackerman—a very distinguished scientist—was concerned about UT Dallas draining funds from UT Austin. But I was very much occupied with what I was doing at UT Austin and didn’t pay too much attention to that. I came into the presidency of UT Dallas very suddenly and under unusual circumstances.

Question: Tell us that story because you had already been offered and accepted the presidency at the University of North Texas.

Bryce Jordan: That’s correct, then called North Texas State University. I had been made the offer by the Board of Regents of North Texas and had accepted the offer. My, now deceased, wife, Jonelle, and I went to Denton to look over the President’s home to decide on the colors of the rooms and where the new swimming pool was going to be. I was very excited about that. Then, late one night, Jonelle and I were sitting up talking about our move to Denton. She went to bed, and I was still up reading when I got a call from Mickey LeMaistre, who then was chancellor of the UT System, asking me to turn down that offer and go to UT Dallas because they had had some great difficulty selecting a president for UT Dallas. I was very surprised because I was the least likely person around to be president of UT Dallas, being a historical musicologist and having been formerly the head of the music department at UT Austin. The circumstances were these: I had accepted the North Texas State presidency, and then as I said, LeMaistre asked me to turn that down, which I did with some reluctance because I really was interested in the North Texas job.

I thought I fitted it well, it fit me very well; but what had happened was, the Regents had appointed a very distinguished geologist, earth scientist, to be president of UT Dallas, but he asked not to report to duty for some months because he was then chairman called of something called the Committee on Environmental Quality, put together Richard Nixon. He kept putting the Regents off about reporting for duty. He’d come for a quick visit and then leave again. Finally, Frank Erwin, who then was Chairmen of the Board, sent Kenneth Ashworth, who later was Commissioner of Higher Education but was then Chief Academic Officer of the UT System, sent Kenneth to meet with this president, who hadn’t reported yet, and simply to separate the University from the potential president. They were without a president, and they had legislative problems because the thing had not advanced the way they wanted it to. And they decided to put me into the job, I assumed, to be an interim president, although I was call president. A few days later after I had given up the North Texas job, I went up to Dallas to meet with the so called “Selection Committee” of the faculty that was chaired by a cosmologist, a space scientist, named Ivor Robinson.

I met with that committee. I’ve forgotten who else was on it—I think Stan Rupert, who was a molecular biologist, and I think Anton Hales, who was head of geosciences as they called it. I met with them, and we talked for a while. And I was puzzled enough that I said to Ivor Robinson, “Why in the world would you scientists want this musicologist to be president of your university?” And I never will forget Ivor’s response, he said, “Dr. Jordan, you don’t know a thing about what we do, and we like it that way.” And that’s how I became president of UT Dallas.

Question: Well that’s a wonderful story. I am intrigued to find out about this mystery man that was the president that never was. What he actually appointed by the Regents?

Bryce Jordan: Yes, he had been appointed and he had accepted the job. He later went to Dartmouth. I cannot remember his name. For years, I have remembered his name, but I don’t remember it anymore.

Question: So, you said that you really had not given UT Dallas that much thought before?

Bryce Jordan: Not at all, I was busy with other things.

Question: What were your first impressions when you did show up for your day one?

Bryce Jordan: Well, I will tell you another story about that. My mother was living in Weatherford, west of Fort Worth, near where she had grown up. She was then about in her eighties, about what my age is now. I’m 85 and I think she was 84, or something like that. She wanted to know about where I was going to work. So, my wife and I went to Weatherford, picked her up, and brought her out to see “the campus.” There was a single dirt road running up to the Founder’s Building. We drove onto that dirt road, and my mother said, “Bryce, what have they done to you?” That was sort of the impression because there was a sign out on Campbell Road the paint had peeled off of—I don’t know whether it said SCAS or UT Dallas—it may have said one or the other, either Southwest Center for Advanced Studies or UT Dallas. That was the extent of it. So, that was my first impression.

Question: When you were at the University, you were at a pivotal time in the city’s growth as well. You knew a lot of the—you knew the three founders. Tell us a little bit about your memories of the three founders.

Bryce Jordan: Well, I knew them all quite well. I knew Eugene McDermott before he died, and by the way, he will gave a Beechcraft twin engine turbo airplane to UT Dallas. We couldn’t afford to operate it. So, we traded it to the UT System for an endowed professorship. That was the first endowed professorship. I knew Gene McDermott very, very well, and the McDermotts were very nice to us. When we were first up there, we stayed at their house a night or two. I knew Erik Jonsson very well; he was the toughest of the group.

Question: How so?

Bryce Jordan: Politically the wisest of the group.

Question: How was he tough?

Bryce Jordan: Well, he had been manager, not manager but mayor of Dallas in a very critical time. He simply had a political sensibility that the other two didn’t have. Cecil Green was a grand old man, a loveable person, very loveable person. I guess I eventually came to know him best of all. I admired him a great deal, and he was friendly and he was helpful. All three of them remarkable men. All you have to do was look at the history, before, and up to now, even. Three very remarkable men

Question: There were three remarkable people, but they came together with one vision. That’s kind of rare.

Bryce Jordan: Well, I think because they were business partners and were pioneers in their field of endeavor tended to be close friends. I don’t think they were friendly every day of the week. I think that they were business partners and liked each other a great deal. I think they had a great affection for MIT. I think only Cecil went to MIT. Gene McDermott went to New Jersey Institute of Technology. I’m not sure where Erik went. I’m not sure about that. Erik was obviously the businessman of the three, but they were all visionaries in their own way. Bear in my, they began that business in the oil-hunting business. That’s what Texas Instruments was to begin with, and they utilized electronic procedures for seeking oil in the Middle East as well as in the United States, from that grew their interest in electronics. Just three remarkable men, and I was privileged, and am still privileged, to have known all three of them.

Question: We also unearthed a little story that you are responsible for the UT Dallas logo.

Bryce Jordan: That’s true.

Question: What we sometimes refer to as “the bug.”

Bryce Jordan: Yeah.

Question: Aand also that you had a hand in picking the school colors?

Bryce Jordan: Well, both. I thought we need a logo, and we didn’t have one. I sat down with some colored pencils and sketched this out. I wanted it to have the “UT” in it for sure because that’s a prestigious pair of initials for the Dallas/Fort Worth area and wanted to have the “D” there as well. So, I drew the oblong shape and put the dividing line between UT and D. I wanted the colors of UT Austin in it because I knew that everybody would understand and would recognize burnt orange and white, but I wanted another color to identify it with UT Dallas. Thus, the green was added. That’s how it happened.

Question: Was it one afternoon pretty much?

Bryce Jordan: I sat at the desk one day, I guess, and did it. I don’t know.

Question: You also as one of your strengths you are a planner, a strategic thinker, and you drew up a strategic plan for the University. Tell us that story.

Bryce Jordan: I believed in strategic planning, and I decided to be very visionary, impossibly so. I knew that some of the things I suggested would never happen. I envisioned a time when UT Dallas would a group of residential colleges, along the Yale model, which has never happened and probably can never happened at most state universities. Nevertheless, it was included. I envisioned that it would be heavily science-oriented, but I saw the necessity for, frankly, political and for economic reasons, I saw the necessity that it have some strength in the social sciences and humanities. So, I drew up a plan which involved all of those. I decided that the institution should be as interdisciplinary as possible. That was a fairly new concept in those days, and still many great universities don’t pursue that sort of thing. Well, I was partially successful. With the social sciences and the humanities and the behavioral sciences they very quickly fell into the idea of interdisciplinary studies. They still are today.

Question: You said one reason you wanted to bring the humanities and the social sciences was for political and cultural reasons?

Bryce Jordan: No, economic reasons.

Question: Economic and political reasons, and can you expound on that what you meant?

Bryce Jordan: Yes, I was never able to convince the faculty, and I think to some extent I never was able to convince the founders that you could not build the University the way they envisioned it with the Texas formula system. It was absolutely impossible. You could never get enough of critical mass to have something you could even call a university unless you had the “soft side” of the campus there as well. The formula system would not allow otherwise. The formula system paid off very well for doctoral students, and we took advantage of that. In terms of trying to create a workable educational institution, the formula was not helpful to us, and that continued to be a problem. I have no idea what the financing situation is now, and the formula, I have not kept up with that. That was the very real problem at that time.

Question: What was one of your big challenges in the early days. Was it the formula system, and specifically, how was it a big challenge? What it in terms of enrollment?

Bryce Jordan: The formula system was one thing. Well, economic challenges and political challenges. The formula system was one of the big problems of course, in terms of building something that you’d call an educational institution. I never was able to convince Erik Jonsson that that was the problem. Another challenge was trying to get an engineering school. We tried very hard, and we encountered stiff opposition from SMU, from the Governor’s office, indirectly, from UT Arlington and from the College of Engineering at UT Austin. It was not a bitter kind of thing. It was simply a subtle sort of thing. Plus I think some lobbying in the legislature. Another interesting case like that—well the other factor was the coordinating board in a big way. At one point, I tried to introduce into the humanities curriculum an undergraduate and master’s program in Chinese, one of the principle Chinese dialects.

Question: So after you left the UT System...

Bryce Jordan: I should say one other thing: I’m also very proud of the faculty that I inherited. It was a very high-quality faculty in molecular biology, and in earth sciences, and in space physics.

Question: Did that surprise you? Were you expecting that when came?

Bryce Jordan: Yes, I knew that much about the place to know that Lloyd Berkner had recruited that faculty, and I knew it had been done very carefully. It had been done in Europe and in England, as well as the United States. I knew they were top-flight people. I was very glad to inherit that. It made me very proud to be there with that quality of faculty. As the University began to grow, the credit for keeping its quality up, as it grew, ought to be given to one man, Alexander Clark, a dear friend of mine and one of the most brilliant administrators I had ever been around. Alex, when he got there, we had not done the kind of recruiting we should have because the previous person in that job has simply not been willing to get out there and recruit. As soon as Alex got there, coming from UT Austin, he got busy and got on the road and spent a good part of the year traveling all over the country to leading universities and recruiting young people. And to him, my ever-lasting credit is given because of the job he did recruiting past the original group.

Question: So, when you left UT Dallas, you did a few other things before you became the president of Penn State University. Was there anything that you brought from your days as the president of UT Dallas that you used later on as the president of a much older, bigger university?

Bryce Jordan: Well, I think I got to be a better planner. I think I learned better how to involve the faculty in planning than I knew at UT Dallas. Also, I learned to speak the language of the sciences. I learned to use the terms and understand what they meant. I didn’t know anything about science, but when I talked to a molecular biologist, I understood what he was doing and where he was headed and where the applications of the science might be. That just came from being around at UT Dallas. That was very valuable to me at Penn State, very valuable.

Question: It’s interesting. There were so many things against us, and yet we still managed to grow. We kept our standards. We grew by keeping our standards, and I think it’s been said—I heard President Daniel say it the other day—that the greatest quality of our school is the quality of our students.

Bryce Jordan: We were beginning to see that when we got our juniors and seniors.

Question: What were they like? Do you remember what it was like when you were seeing those upper-classmen?

Bryce Jordan: First of all, I think we didn’t do them justice because we had no campus life at all. That worried me a great deal. We finally got a very nice little student union and director of the student union, and we had a vice president for student affairs, or director of student affairs. Things began to get a little better then, but we never were able to give them the kind of campus life that every undergraduate ought to have. And that now is happening.

Question: I guess you’ve followed the emerging research universities...the competition. What do you think will happen in 20 years? Tells us what you hope happens.

Bryce Jordan: I know what I hope happens. I hope UT Dallas turns out to be at the top of the list, and they should be, they should be.

Question: And for what reasons?

Bryce Jordan: Because of their quality: students and faculty and because of their ambitions. I hope that happens, and I think there’s a very good chance that it will.

Question: Can you give us some advice from all your years as president of universities? Some advice for us as we go forward, what we should keep in mind?

Bryce Jordan: I think the University would have to be a particular mix of entrepreneurship, seasoned by a drive for quality. Those two things don’t often go together, and that’s the reason I’m so pleased about David’s being the president because I believe he understands entrepreneurship, and I know he understands the high quality because he came from Illinois and earlier had been at UT Austin where there is high quality. That would be the main advice I would give.

Question: This has been A Conversation With... the first UT Dallas president, Dr. Bryce Jordan, brought to you by The University Of Texas at Dallas and the Office of Communications.

To find out more about the university or any of our special guests, visit us on the web at UT Dallas: Creating the Future since 1969. Until the next Conversation With... I’m Brandon Webb, be well.

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