A new team at SMU places classroom above locker room. University digs out from under football scandal

Southern Methodist University cheered last year as Bill Clements, then the chairman of the school's board of governors, rode as grand marshal in a homecoming parade before the traditional football game. No one could have predicted how different homecoming 1987 would be.

Last spring SMU was rocked by revelations that football players had received illegal payments and that Mr. Clements had condoned continuation of the payments after learning about them. Clements resigned from the private university's board after his reelection as governor of Texas last November. At homecoming festivities earlier this month, the governor was not even introduced at a building dedication he attended.

With the school barred by the National Collegiate Athletic Association from playing football this year, the 1987 homecoming parade took a rather unusual direction for this football-crazed state: It led to a soccer game. And at the parade's head was SMU's new president, A. Kenneth Pye, a former Duke University chancellor selected in August to lead SMU out of scandal.

Dr. Pye comes to SMU with a reputation for helping Duke University forge an exemplary blend of academic excellence and clean, competitive athletics.

His appointment last month of Doug Single, the former athletic director at Northwestern University, to head up SMU's athletic department is an important sign to skeptics that the school is indeed serious about placing the classroom above the locker room. Mr. Single, who had recently left academe for private business, was coaxed back by Pye after leaving a near-perfect record at Northwestern for graduating student athletes.

There is a feeling at SMU that the scandal, which revealed a university run by a clique of powerful Dallas businessmen within an acquiescent governing board, led to much-needed changes in governance and emphasis that otherwise would have taken years to accomplish.

``Academic communities usually move at a glacial pace,'' says new board chairman Ray Hunt, who presided over the committee that selected Pye. ``But one thing about a crisis,'' he adds, ``things tend to get done a bit faster. SMU has gone through 10 years of evolution, at least, in about five months' time.''

In the months following the revelations of the football scandal, some observers expressed concern that too abrupt a change in the school's governance could hurt its relationship with the wealthy Dallasites who have generously supported the school. Gifts dropped from just under $30 million in 1985-86 to about $21 million last year.

But school officials insist the drop stems primarily from a souring of the Texas economy. Others say a more responsive and independent university will eventually reap support from a wider swath of the Dallas business community.

``Pye is demonstrably a scholar of the highest order, but he's also tough,'' says Mr. Hunt, chairman of Hunt Oil and the leader of the effort to turn SMU in a new direction. ``This city responds to leadership that is decisive and visionary.''

Pye, who had turned down offers to run other universities, says he accepted the SMU job because of the challenges it presents. First among them is financial: The school ran a deficit last year and is expected to do so again this year.

After that, Pye says, he wants to ``broaden and improve'' SMU's admissions pool. His aim is to correct what he sees as ``an absence of diversity.''

The school has a reputation as a haven for wealthy conservative WASPs. Just 8.5 percent of the students come from minority backgrounds; and whereas the average Jewish population at private colleges across the country is 25 percent, at SMU it is less than 1 percent.

``It's the height of silliness not to do more [to attract a diverse student population] than what we have done,'' says Pye. SMU graduates, he notes, will be ``dealing with a world that is 80 black or brown, and predominantly non-Christian.''

Pye plans to focus on the school's college of liberal arts and other areas of strength, while cutting back on areas that are outperformed by Texas's big-name - and less costly - public universities.

That goal is causing some jitters among certain segments of the faculty. But there is also a recognition on the faculty that SMU can rank among the top private universities in the South only if the school's strengths are further developed.

Few university officials speak immediately of football when asked to list SMU's major challenges. But clearly, athletics remain a concern.

At an alumni luncheon last week featuring Mr. Single, the new athletic director, SMU alumnus Paul Adams said it would be ``interesting to watch this noble experiment where football players are actually students who graduate.''

But Single, who in his last two years at Northwestern graduated 100 percent of his football and basketball players, says it will be no ``experiment'' because it is already being done elsewhere. ``The argument that it can't be done here is contrary to my experience, and goes against everything I believe in,'' Single says. The change will begin with recruiting, he says, and continue throughout the student-athletes' courses of study.

In discussing intercollegiate athletics, Pye says little improvement has occurred in recent years. ``There's a great deal of posturing out there,'' he says, ``but we're still recruiting young people for the purpose of playing and winning, and then dropping them off at the other end with little thought for the effect it has on them. Until we deal with that problem,'' he adds, ``I won't be convinced we've improved much.''

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