Collection of records related to Southern Methodist University president James Zumberge
A Guide to the Collection
Dr. James H. Zumberge served as the seventh president of Southern Methodist University from 1975 until 1980. Zumberge taught at the University of Michigan, and later at the University of Arizona where he also served as dean. Prior to his tenure as president of SMU, he worked as chancellor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dr. Zumberge left SMU in 1980 to take up the presidency at the University of Southern California.
Zumberge was born in Minneapolis in 1923, and earned a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Minnesota in 1950. He taught at the University of Michigan for several years, becoming a full professor in 1960. His experience in school administration began two years later when he became president of Michigan’s Grand Valley State College; in 1968 Zumberge was appointed director of the earth sciences school at the University of Arizona. When the school was officially designated a college, he became its first dean. Dr. Zumberge served as chancellor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln from 1971 until his arrival at SMU in 1975.
Zumberge came to SMU unexpectedly, owing to the resignation of the university’s president, and the administration’s initial inability to find a replacement. Dr. Paul Hardin III had taken office as the sixth president of SMU on July 1, 1972. Disputes between Hardin and the Board of Trustees (most notably over problems with the football program and the departure of the Southwestern Legal Foundation from campus) led to Hardin’s resignation in 1974—only two years after taking office. Willis M. Tate, who had served as SMU’s fifth president from 1955 until 1972—and who was university chancellor at the time—returned to the presidency until a replacement could be found.
Following Hardin’s resignation, the Board of Trustees established a special committee to select a new president. The selection process was stymied when the only remaining candidates, Dr. Otis Singletary of the University of Kentucky and Frank H. Rhodes of the University of Michigan, both withdrew their names from consideration. SMU was still without a president at the end of the 1974-75 academic year.
The administrative turmoil SMU experienced in the 1970s was accompanied by economic problems. The university suffered from a $2 million deficit by 1975. The weakened national economy—undermined by rising energy prices, unemployment, and inflation—led to decreased student enrollment. Budget cuts affecting academics and rising tuition rates were the unfortunate remedies applied to the university’s financial troubles.
Dr. Zumberge, approached by a member of the search committee about his interest in coming to SMU, was interviewed in Nebraska, made a visit to the university, and later was unanimously recommended for the job by the committee.
Zumberge officially took office on October 1, 1975. The university problems he immediately confronted were a deficit—by this time $6 million—as well as a diminished endowment and enrollment numbers. Budget cuts were implemented, and Zumberge was successful in addressing the deficit; in 1977, university revenue and expenditures broke even for the first time in three years.
Zumberge also showed little hesitation at making changes in the two institutions where President Hardin had encountered trouble: university administration and the football program. As the Dallas Morning News reported a year after Zumberge took office,
Four months after he began studying the workings of the university, Zumberge called in five top administrators and told them they would either resign, retire or seek employment elsewhere at SMU. Nothing like that had ever happened at SMU… by May 31, 1976, the basic changes had been accomplished. Zumberge had styled his own administrative structure and procedures, casting the structure of Willis Tate’s administration aside.
Lingering charges of NCAA rule violations by the SMU football program, combined with reduced game attendance and poor team performance also led to Zumberge’s firing of head coach Dave Smith—only three months into the new president’s tenure.
During the five years he spent at SMU, Zumberge began a seven-year, $153 million capital improvement initiative known as the "Design for the Third Generation" campaign; he also succeeded in increasing the school’s endowment from $50 million to $100 million; and balanced the university’s budget for four straight years. SMU’s School of Humanities and Sciences was combined with the University College, and a curriculum for the new College was introduced. The new academic unit was named Dedman College the year after Zumberge left office. Freshmen enrollment, which had been in decline since 1973, increased 40 percent.
Longtime English professor Marshall Terry recalled the mid- to late-1970s as a period of uncertainty and mixed success in the realm of academic development at SMU. The overall health and future of university graduate programs, the school of engineering, and the general education program—which had all been slated for greater attention and development by the SMU Master plan of the early 1960s—were tenuous. One notable area of continued success, however, was the Meadows School of the Arts.
Dr. Terry described President Zumberge thus, "He was a no-nonsense crisis manager who had respect for the faculty but little rapport with them. A pessimist, he played down SMU’s past accomplishments and was a rather cold figure of a leader."
Like the resignation of President Hardin in 1974, Zumberge’s departure as SMU president caught many in the university community by surprise. He resigned on May 21, 1980 after accepting the presidency at the University of Southern California. Provost James E. Brooks became interim president until a permanent one could be found. L. Donald Shields, who had served as president at California State College, Fullerton, took office as the eighth president of SMU in October 1980.
Zumberge served as president of USC until his retirement in 1990. He died in 1992, survived by his wife Marilyn and their four children.
Bayer, Tom. "Presidential search ends: Zumberge election expected." Daily Campus, August 28, 1975, pg. 2.
Bayer, Tom. "Zumberge on SMU: 'I may have to do some things that have never before been done on this campus.'" Dallas Morning News, October 3, 1976, pg. 4G.
Bourns, Donita. "The making of the presidency 1977." Daily Campus, April 29, 1977, pg. 1.
Hamill, Jan. "SMU picks Zumberge as president." Dallas Times Herald, September 9 (?) 1975, pg. 1.
Hamill, Jan. "Singletary withdraws from SMU presidency race." Dallas Times Herald, May 24, 1975, pg. A-1.
Martinez, Sylvia. "Ex-SMU president, Antarctic explorer James Zumberge dies." Dallas Morning News, April 17, 1992, pg. 29A.
SMU news release, "Zumberge Resigns SMU Presidency; Accepts Top Post at Southern Cal," SMU Office of Public Relations, May 21, 1980.
Terry, Marshall. From High on the Hilltop: Marshall Terry’s History of SMU with Various Essays by His Colleagues. Dallas: DeGolyer Library and Three Forks Press, 2009.
"Zumberge Resigns SMU Presidency." SMU Digest, Spring 1980.
The Southern Methodist University Archives did not receive much material related to the tenure of James Zumberge, and although this collection does contain some administrative papers, the bulk of the material is newspaper clippings and magazine articles. The papers, although sparse, do provide information on faculty hirings and academic changes made during the late 1970s. Some transcripts of question-and-answer sessions with President Zumberge are also useful in understanding his goals for SMU in what was a difficult economic climate in which to work.
The scope of the newspaper clippings is fairly comprehensive; they effectively detail the circumstances in which Zumberge took office, the state of SMU during his tenure, and his abrupt resignation. These clippings were originally grouped together, but have been divided according to which aspect of Zumberge’s association with SMU they cover.
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Collection is open for research use.
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Collection of records related to Southern Methodist University president James Zumberge, Southern Methodist University Archives, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.
Paul H. Santa Cruz, 2009.
Lara Corazalla, 2009.
Detailed Description of the Collection