Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2009-08-31

During the five decades since it became an academic unit in 1968, Samford University’s Howard College of Arts and Sciences has been led by five deans. Recently, four of the five men who have guided the largest of Samford’s eight schools shared memories at a program moderated by provost Dr. Brad Creed.

Participating were Dr. Ruric E. Wheeler (1968-70), Dr. Lee N. Allen (1976-90), Dr. J. Roderick Davis (1990-2001) and current dean Dr. David W. Chapman. Dr. Hugh C. Bailey, who was dean during 1970-75, was unable to attend.

Wheeler recalled Samford’s challenging financial times of the 1950s, when the school moved to Homewood from East Lake.

“But, the most difficult year was the one when I became dean of arts and sciences,” said Wheeler, who had joined the faculty as a math professor in 1953.

Challenges included the competition for students by area junior colleges and University of Alabama at Birmingham, all of which offered lower tuition than Samford. Faculty salaries, he said, “were terrible,” and once, when he was told to reduce faculty, he refused.

"I never reduced the arts and sciences faculty,” he said, admitting that he was a “stubborn dean” who also stood his ground when told to move his office from Brooks Hall to Samford Hall.

“Some of my faculty let it be known that they wanted their dean to remain near them, and so I stayed in Brooks Hall,” said Wheeler, who praised his dedicated faculty.

“Any one of them could have left for a state institution and higher pay, but they were dedicated to Christian higher education,” said Wheeler, adding that they met his challenge to create new academic programs, which resulted in increased enrollment in the school’s various departments.

Wheeler later served as vice president for academic affairs.

Dr. Bailey, who served as dean between Wheeler and Allen, graduated from Samford at age 20 and began teaching at age 21. He served at Samford a total of 22 years as history professor and dean before joining the administration at Francis Marion College in South Carolina. Bailey was president of Valdosta State University in Georgia from 1978 until he retired in 2001.

Allen shared bits of Samford history as well as that  of the Howard College of Arts and Sciences.

In 1965, Howard College had become Samford University, said Allen, noting that President Leslie S. Wright had a hard time convincing the Alabama Baptist State Convention on the idea.

“His argument was that it would cost no more to be a university, but that it would be more prestigious to be a university,” said Allen, who said that Dr. Wright wanted the change to take affect during the school’s 125th anniversary in 1966.

The two local Birmingham newspapers, however, began using the new name in print immediately after the Convention approved the change in November of 1965. “So, he was pressed to adopt the new name,” said Allen.

During Allen’s time as dean, Wright retired and Dr. Thomas E. Corts was named president. “That was a major transition for all of us.”

Allen considers  the faculty he employed as the best thing he did while dean. He also noted the quality of arts and sciences students, who have gone on to success in academics, business and Baptist leadership—a sentiment echoed by the other deans.

“We have a record of which we can be proud.”

Allen, who had joined the faculty as a history professor in 1961, served the university for a total of 40 years before retiring in 2001.

Davis became dean after 19 years on the English faculty at the City University of New York’s John Jay College, where he had become frustrated with on-going hostilities between the administration and riot-prone students.

During a particularly trying time at the New York school, Davis noticed an ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education for the dean’s position. “I was startled because I had never seen an ad in the Chronicle for a Samford position. I thought then that Samford must be making strides,” said Davis, a Samford graduate.

A series of interviews indicated that Davis and Samford were still a good fit, one reason being that Samford was interested in curriculum change, which he had just worked on at John Jay. “I found that I loved the place more than I thought,” Davis said.

He cites receiving several grants and hiring eight new faculty members as being among his early accomplishments after assuming the dean’s role, and said he hopes that his legacy will be the quality of the people he attracted. While he was dean, arts and sciences added about a third of the people that serve on the faculty now.

“And I’m immensely proud of them,” said Davis, who is the only one of the five who came to the dean’s post directly from a position at another school.

Chapman noted that he had never considered that academic administration would be in his future. “When Dean Davis asked me to be associate dean in 1996, I was surprised,” said Chapman, who had joined the Samford faculty in 1990 as associate professor of English and director of the writing across the curriculum program.

The college of arts and sciences now includes 17 departments and more than 30 majors.

The deans also shared thoughts on the school’s response during the civil rights era, how students have changed through the years, and the role of athletics on campus.

A common denominator for four of the five deans is Glenda Martin, who has been secretary for Allen, Davis and Chapman, and was secretary for Wheeler for a time when he was vice president for academic affairs.

Video: Samford Holds ‘5 Deans, 5 Decades’ Event 

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The Wall Street Journal ranks Samford 1st nationally for student engagement and U.S. News & World Report ranks Samford 66th in the nation for best undergraduate teaching and 104th nationally for best value. Samford enrolls 5,683 students from 47 states and 19 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference, and ranks 3rd nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.