Judith Parsons, a 50-year Sul Ross faculty member, awarded honorary doctorate by President Bill Kibler.
Ordinary people, banding together, can make an extraordinary difference, Judy Parsons reminded Sul Ross State University graduates.
Parsons, Professor Emeritus of History who taught 50 years at Sul Ross (1965-2015), delivered the address during spring commencement exercises Friday evening (May 12) in the Pete P. Gallego Center. She also received an honorary doctorate for her numerous contributions to the university. Over 160 students were candidates for degrees.
Parsons’ address discussed the potential closing of Sul Ross in 1986 and how the united efforts of the Sul Ross and greater Alpine community and the Big Bend region were primary factors in keeping the university open.
“I would like to tell you about an incident in the history of Sul Ross State University that shows just how powerful ordinary people can be when they decide to take a stand,” she said.
In June 1986, President Jack Humphries received a notice that on July 10, the Governor’s Select Committee on Higher Education would hold a hearing regarding Sul Ross’ future. Due to a crash in oil prices, the State of Texas faced major financial deficits, and Sul Ross’ future was in jeopardy.
“For months, rumors had been flying that major changes might be coming to Texas higher education – closures, mergers, reduction of senior colleges to junior colleges or who knew what else,” Parsons said.
Parsons related how friends of Sul Ross, in less than three weeks, mounted a campaign “to show as much public support as possible through letters, petitions and resolutions, and through the presence of as many Sul Ross supporters as possible at the hearing in Austin.”
The ground swell resulted in 17,000 letters written and mailed through City Hall in the first week to legislators, Select Committee members, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House. “People wrote or telephoned friends and former classmates in other areas telling them to write their legislators,” Parsons said. “The campaign had only about 18 days between the (community) meetings on June 19 and the hearing on July 10, since it took three-four days for a letter to travel from Alpine to Austin.”
The letter writing campaign spread to friends and alumni throughout the state. “Ultimately somewhere between 67,000 and 70,000 letters were sent on behalf of Sul Ross,” said Parsons.
“Alpine had 5,500 people…do the math,” she added.
Fund-raising campaigns were held to solicit donations for lobbying, petition campaigns collected 16,000 signatures, newspaper editorials endorsed the efforts, and “SOS – Save Old Sully” buttons were sold to help pay for student travel to the Austin hearing.
Businesses chartered buses for Sul Ross students, employees and community residents for the Austin journey. Many traveled at their own expense. “It is estimated that about 1,000 people appeared in Austin in support of Sul Ross on July 10, 1986,” Parsons said.
Several people spoke in support of Sul Ross, then the Select Committee voted unanimously that the university not be recommended for closure.
“It was a focused effort, a pulling-together, the likes of which I have never seen in any other situation at Sul Ross,” said Parsons. “If each of those people had said, ‘I’m just one person, I can’t change anything, why bother?’ the outcome might have been very different.”
“We live in a world where we need everyone to stand up for what they believe, just as so many people did for Sul Ross in the summer of 1986. I challenge us all to stand up for those things which are important to us.”
Parsons concluded with Humphries’ closing statement at the hearing. “I quote Daniel Webster, who in a closing argument before the Supreme Bench in 1819, said of his alma mater Dartmouth: ‘It is a small school, but there are those who love it.’ The same is true of Sul Ross State University.”
In addition to Parsons’ honorary doctorate, Dr. Louis Harveson, professor of Natural Resource Management and the Dan Allen Hughes, Jr. Endowed Director of the Borderlands Research Institute received the first Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award.
Dr. Bill Kibler, Sul Ross’ 12th President, also received an audience-wide serenade on his birthday.