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The Presidency of Dennis P. McCabe

By Frank Chamberlain

Dr. Dennis McCabe became interim-president of Tarleton in January of 1991 after Barry Thompson resigned. In April, he was officially inaugurated as the fourteenth president of the university (Guthrie 265).

McCabe graduated from New Mexico Highlands University in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and minor in chemistry and secondary education. He attended on a baseball scholarship and played all four years of his college career. He moved several times in the next few years, teaching math in California, Texas, and New Mexico. McCabe returned to Highlands and earned his master’s degree in natural science. In 1972, he received his doctorate in educational administration from the University of New Mexico (Guthrie 267-268).

McCabe began his work at the collegiate level in 1972 when he became an assistant professor in the Pan American University education department. He moved to East Texas State in 1976 where he became an associate professor in their department of education. Incidentally, Dr. Barry Thompson was his department head at this job prior to both men’s tenures as Tarleton president. McCabe moved up the ranks at this university as he became the assistant to the Vice President of Academic Affairs and then was promoted to head of the Department of Secondary and Higher Education. From 1984 until 1988, he served as the Dean of the College of Education at Lamar University (Guthrie 268).

In 1988, McCabe was hired at Tarleton as Vice President for University Operations by then-president Thompson. It was speculated that this position was created especially for McCabe as a means to get him to Tarleton and prepare him for a future term as president. Once McCabe assumed the office of president, he eliminated his old position (Guthrie 266).

The McCabe administration had to deal with a serious monetary problem during the 1990s. The entire state struggled during this time, but Tarleton was hit especially hard. On the one hand, federal courts had ordered Texas to apportion more money to areas such as public schools and prisons. This left less money than before to be spent on institutions of higher learning. Secondly, the colleges that offered large graduate or research programs were allocated a larger percentage of the funding. Tarleton was a primarily undergraduate institution that suffered greatly from these circumstances. In order to compensate for the lack of funding, Tarleton officials were forced to raise student tuition and fees. At the beginning of the decade, tuition was $18.00 per hour. By 1999, this amount had increased to $60.00. Although this 233 % increase might seem incredible, it is worth noting that the same trend was experienced nationwide. Therefore, it would be unfair to single out Tarleton for raising student costs. In fact, the cost of attending this university was modest compared to the rates required by most American schools. This situation was remedied in 1997, when the state legislature modified its funding formula to be more equitable to schools such as Tarleton. McCabe seized this opportunity to give the faculty a substantial raise in salary. Prior to this, Tarleton salaries had been among the lowest in the state (273-276).

The concept of “distance learning” was brought to Tarleton in the 1990s. With this type of equipment, students can see and converse with teachers who are located at totally different sites. This technological achievement utilized cameras, microphones, and telephone lines to connect teachers to students from different campuses. Both students and teachers were able to see and hear each other as if they were in the same room. Distance learning has proved invaluable to students to earn credit in classes that were not traditionally taught at Tarleton (Guthrie 279).

McCabe also oversaw the construction of the Student Development Center, one of the centerpieces of the Tarleton campus. This idea had been conceived by former president Thompson back in 1982, but had been postponed by more pressing issues. By 1991, the A&M Board of Regents approved a funding bill for the project. This endowment would not cover the entire $15.7 million dollar cost, so a supplementary source of money had to be created. In order to help finance this massive undertaking, the university began a series of student fee increases. Some students were not thrilled about being asked to pay this extra amount, but the increase ran according to plan. This money was collected into a special account until the actual construction began in 1993. The construction process took a little over a year to complete, and opened on September 13, 1994. The 90,000 square foot Student Center was built north of Vanderbilt Street, directly north of the Clyde H. Wells Fine Arts Center. It contained many features that make it a hub of student activity. It includes a food court, weight room, game room, campus bookstore, student health center, post office, and a teaching and learning center/computer lab. There were several meeting rooms, including a 500 capacity convention room. Numerous administrative offices were located within the center, including the Dean of Students, Career Services, and Student Publications. Many artifacts from Tarleton’s history were displayed throughout the interior, as well as three huge hand-carved murals that illustrate various events and traditions. The Organizational Sidewalk ran along Vanderbilt Street in front of the Student Center. The names and symbols of sixty student fraternities, sororities and campus organizations were carved into the wet concrete in 1994. In 2002, the Student Center was renamed the Barry B. Thompson Student Center in honor of the ex-president who had first envisioned it (Guthrie 280-283, Traditions 43-44).

A second huge addition to the campus landscape was erected during the McCabe administration. The long-needed new Science Building was built late in the decade. The equipment in the old building had been obsolete for many years. In fact, the building could have truthfully been considered physically unsafe for teachers and students. According to a consulting firm in 1990, the building lacked proper ventilation, adequate chemical ventilation hoods, or fire detectors and sprinklers. It was also found to contain asbestos. The university had to “grin and bear” these problems for the rest of the decade due to financial difficulties and more pressing concerns. It costs more to build or fix science facilities than to replace those in an ordinary classroom. McCabe had extensively lobbied the Board of Regents to help finance a new building for years, before finally convincing them in 1997. Still, the A&M Board agreed to pay only half of the expenses. This meant that more student fees had to be levied. Despite a bit of student grumbling, three dollars were added to each semester hour of tuition. The 160,000 square foot facility was built on the west side of Lillian Street, right across from the Student Center at the cost of almost $30 million. It contained ten lecture halls, thirty-four teaching labs, two computer labs, three labs for research, and numerous offices for the various science departments. Perhaps the most distinctive feature was a domed planetarium, a rarity amongst college campuses. This cutting edge facility opened in the spring of 2001, and will undoubtedly serve the needs of science students for years to come (Guthrie 283-285).

Tarleton was also expanded outside of Stephenville for the first time during the 1990s. The Dora Lee Cultural and Education Center in Granbury represented the largest private donation ever given to the university. Ms. Langdon donated an entire city block and five buildings that had originally been used as a cultural center for the performing arts. In 1996, she decided to give this $1.3 million property to Tarleton. Several Granbury businesses graciously donated the necessary funds to operate the facilities. The university has used the Langdon Center for a wide variety of purposes, ranging form fine arts recitals to graduate classes (Guthrie 286-287).

McCabe worked with the A&M system to establish a new branch of Tarleton in Killeen, Texas. The former University of Central Texas now was brought under the control of the larger Stephenville campus. In addition to utilizing the Killeen campus, classes are also held in Ft. Hood, and Temple Junior College. Temple, Copperas Cove, and Killeen public schools also donate classroom space for the college. This branch has been renamed the Tarleton State University System Center-Central Texas. This name was frequently shortened to “Tarleton-CT” (Guthrie 287-288).

Tarleton has been greatly expanded and modernized during the McCabe years. At the time of this writing, the university continues to experience new levels of success under his tutelage.

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.