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The Presidency of Barry B. Thompson

By Frank Chamberlain

Dr. Barry Baird Thompson became the thirteenth president of Tarleton after W.O. Trogden decided to step down in this capacity in 1982. Thompson held the position for the remainder of the decade, and oversaw one of the most expansive eras in Tarleton history (Guthrie 229).

Thompson was a Tarleton alumnus who earned his associate’s degree in 1956. Earlier, Thompson had been among the student contingent who were sent to Austin in order to lobby for passage of the “Tarleton Bill”. Because the school remained a two-year school at the time, he was forced to continue his education at Texas Tech in Lubbock. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and secondary education (Guthrie 230).

Thompson began his post-graduate career with flying colors. In his second year of teaching in the public schools, he received “Texas Junior High Teacher of the Year” in 1960 while teaching at Andrews, TX. The next year he moved on to become high school principal at Dalhardt. Amazingly, Thompson was only twenty-five years of age when he assumed this job. Meanwhile, he earned his master’s degree in administration. During the 1960s, he served as superintendent at Post and deputy superintendent of instruction at Waco. Thompson also found time to serve as Tarleton Alumni Association president in the year 1968-1969 (Guthrie 230).

By 1971, Thompson had moved out of the public school system. He earned his doctorate degree from Texas A&M while serving as head of the Secondary Education Department at Pan American University. His next job was as a professor and head of the Department of Secondary and Higher Education at East Texas State University. Finally, he served as Chief Academic Officer at East Texas while concurrently serving as Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Commerce branch of campus. Thompson came to Tarleton after President W.O. Trogden created the position of executive vice-president. After Trogden left office shortly thereafter, Thompson was appointed to the presidency. Incidentally, the “executive vice-president” position was abandoned after Thompson was inaugurated. This gives the impression that the job was created in order to prepare him for an eventual term as president (Guthrie 229-231).

The new president claimed to have arrived with a handwritten list of 260 goals to be accomplished while in office. Although Thompson left office before all of them could be realized, this list represents the tremendous ambition that he brought to the job (Guthrie 231).

One of Thompson’s main concerns as president was the comparative lack of funding that the legislature and the A&M system allocated to smaller “branch” schools such as Tarleton. He spent a tremendous amount of energy lobbying for a new system of funding that was more equitable to these colleges. Although Thompson was never totally successful in achieving an overhaul of the existing formula, he was usually able to wrangle more money for Tarleton projects than the legislature originally proposed. As a further means of attaining funding, Thompson created the Office of Information that covered a wide range of university activities, including fundraising. This new department helped coordinate the various individual efforts that had characterized earlier attempts at procuring donations. Over four million dollars were raised during the Thompson years as a result (Guthrie 231-233).

The Thompson years were a time of enormous growth in enrollment. In 1987, enrollment reached the 5000 mark for the first time in history. By the end of Thompson’s presidency in 1990, there were over 6000 students attending Tarleton. Interestingly, he had predicted that enrollment would reach 5,500 by the end of the 1980s. At the time of Thompson’s calculation (1982) there were just over 4,000 students attending the school. This influx of students was primarily due to the emphasis that he put on recruitment. Thompson was a well-connected and respected figure in the public school sector. This enabled him to use these contacts to reach previously recruited students. He also personally traveled to many high schools that were outside of the immediate vicinity of Tarleton. Thompson also focused on minority recruitment. He met with African-American church leaders in the metroplex to encourage minority attendance in Tarleton. He also lent university support to preparatory programs for disadvantaged youths and helped establish scholarship programs for minorities. The Office of Minority Affairs (now called Multicultural Services) was established in1988. This department is active in minority recruitment and fosters multicultural understanding on campus (234-237).

Thompson also mad a concerted effort to improve and promote scholarship at Tarleton. The Speakers Symposium Committee was formed in 1985. As a result of their efforts, a number of highly distinguished and often world famous individuals have given lectures at Tarleton over the years. Thompson also established the position of “University Scholar.” This position is bestowed upon selected faculty members and reduces their teaching load in order to provide time for research and writing. The university also began sponsoring the publication of one Southwestern studies book per year as a way to encourage young Texas authors. This concept has since been expanded to include every school within the A&M system. As a result, the A&M University Press uses grants from these schools to publish two books a year from Texas authors (Guthrie 245-246).

There were still other attempts to attract scholars and reward scholastic achievement at Tarleton. Thompson also oversaw the implementation of the Writing Proficiency Exam in 1982. This test required students to write an essay that displays a mastery of basic writing skills. Students must provide a passable sample in order to graduate. The Presidential Honors Program was established in 1983. This new plan provided academic scholarships and various benefits to incoming students who met certain standards of academic excellence. In 1986, The college also began the policy of selecting an outstanding graduate from each academic college who is recognized at the graduation ceremony. One of these graduates is selected to present a speech at these ceremonies (Guthrie 247-250).

Computerized online registration is a modern convenience that was established during the Thompson years. The original system involved the usage of “punch cards” but was rendered ineffective by the escalating enrollment. The second development was the introduction of on-line registration. Despite an ignominious first attempt in 1985, the system was rapidly improved and remains a very handy means of student matriculation (Guthrie 251-253).

Tarleton also received a number of physical enhancements and additions during the 1980s. A new administration building was one of the major buildings to be constructed during these years. The administrative offices had been housed in the current E.J. Howell/Education building for nearly fifty years. Meanwhile, the growth of the university and increase in staff members had rendered this arrangement inadequate. Construction on this copious new building began in 1984 and was completed two years later at a cost of almost four million dollars. This 33,000 square foot structure contains the president’s office and most other clerical departments. It is located on Washington Street across from McDonald’s and Montana restaurants. The Administration building’s large glass windows, rounded roof, and central location within the town make it one of Tarleton’s most symbolic structures (Guthrie 255-256, Traditions 37).

After the administrative offices were relocated to their new location, the old Administration building became the exclusive home of the Education and Psychology Department. Rather than tearing down the old building, college officials decided to hollow out the structure and totally replace the contents. The new facilities included an auditorium, conference room, early childhood center, reading center, science classroom, general-purpose classrooms, and offices. Appropriately enough, this new building was named the Education Building. In 1997, it was renamed the E.J. Howell building in honor of the former president of the college (Guthrie 256, Traditions 41).

The Dick Smith Library received a massive remodeling beginning in 1983. During this period, the building was expanded and the facilities were greatly improved. Many of the library’s state-of-the-art technology were implemented. These improvements included electronic scanners for checking out books, microfilm, and microfiche. The expansion provided space for a large circulation desk, more study and photocopy rooms, and extra room for the acquisitions, cataloging and administration. In this new arrangement, the basement contained the children’s literature, educational materials, and computer lab. The first (& main) floor contains reference materials and periodicals. The second floor is home to the stacks, administrative offices, and group study rooms. In 1985, an on-line search module replaced the antiquated system of using card catalogs. The library attained its current look and much of its technology during this rebuilding process (Guthrie 254-255, Traditions 43).

Thompson also reinstated baseball as a sport at Tarleton and built a new stadium to house the team. Financial considerations had caused officials to drop the sport back in 1969. The Cecil Ballow Baseball Complex was constructed on the south side of Washington Street near the West Side Cemetery. The girls’ softball field is located directly west of the main field. The namesake of this complex was a longtime Tarleton administrator and coach of the baseball teams of the 1950s and 1960s (Guthrie 322, Traditions 38).

The intramural fields were built in 1985 directly north of Memorial Stadium. This complex included four softball fields, four football fields, and jogging track. A small building that included restrooms, an equipment room, and mechanical room stood at the center of this complex. It was named in honor of Tarleton alumnus Dr. Vance Terrell, a local physician who had been a ceaseless supporter of the university for many years (Guthrie 257, Traditions 44).

New classroom buildings were also added during the 1980s. The Business building was erected in 1987 on the north side of Washington Street. It was situated directly west of Dairy Queen and south of the Wisdom Gym. This building contains classrooms, computer labs, and offices for three academic departments. The Computer Information Systems, Management/Accounting/Finance, and Business/Marketing Departments are located within. The Hydrology/Engineering building was completed at the same time. It stands immediately adjacent to the Business building (Guthrie 257, Traditions 39).

The notable improvement to student housing came in the form of a new co-ed dormitory. This building was the first of its kind in Tarleton history. It stands at the corner of Vanderbilt and Lillian Streets, directly east of the Wisdom gym. The other dorms on campus (Ferguson, Bender, and Hunewell) all received thorough renovations during the decade as well (Guthrie 253-254).

Thompson’s time in office represented eight of the most expansive years in Tarleton’s history. However, he unexpectedly resigned in 1990 to assume the presidency of West Texas A&M. This “sister” school was facing a number of serious problems and the A&M Board of Regents asked Thompson to rectify this situation. The mother school was so desperate to attract Thompson to this new job that they appealed to him six times before he finally accepted. Despite his admitted affinity for Tarleton, Thompson accepted this new job and eventually fixed the problems plaguing the school. In 1994, Thompson was asked to assume the biggest job of all. He was hired as Chancellor of the entire A&M system, which was facing a number of problems itself. Thompson held this job until his retirement in 1999. In 2002, college officials paid tribute to him by having the Student Development Center renamed in his honor. Although this building was built after Thompson had left Tarleton, the idea for a new SDC originated during his administration. It is fitting that one of Tarleton’ most important buildings be named after one of its most accomplished administrators (Guthrie 265-266, 280-283).

Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and his Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999.

Tarleton Traditions: Centennial Edition 1 : (1 October, 1999): 1-48.