When Sam Monroe steps down next month as president of Lamar State College-Port Arthur, a two-year school in Southeast Texas, he will conclude the state’s longest tenure for a president of a higher education institution.
It will also mark the end of an even longer Monroe era. Monroe’s father, who oversaw the voluntary racial integration the school, assumed the presidency in 1958 and served for 16 years before giving way to his son in 1974.
“It was an unusual thing,” Monroe, 71, said of inheriting the presidency. “I haven’t seen it happen a lot in higher education, but it seemed to work here.”
The campus has grown significantly under Monroe’s watch — from a three-acre campus made up of four buildings and about 150 students to a college of more than 2,100 students in 29 buildings spread over 50 acres. And Monroe hopes the community’s sense of identity has grown with it.
“If central casting were designing a university president, this is who they would come up with,” Brian McCall, the chancellor of the Texas State University System — which counts the college as a member — said of Monroe. “When you meet him, you will always remember him. He is just a bigger-than-life character.”
Several prominent officials, including Gov. Rick Perry, have honored Monroe’s lengthy service. In 2012, on the floor of the U.S. House, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, said Monroe “has touched countless lives, and Southeast Texas is a better place for it.”
A childhood friend of Janis Joplin, Monroe has used his connections to the talents that have emanated from the region — like the singer George Jones and the artist Robert Rauschenberg — to help instill a sense of place and pride in Port Arthur.
He has been instrumental in growing and sustaining the Museum of the Gulf Coast — “Where pre-history and pop culture meet” is its tagline — which is housed near campus.
“I’ve seen the college and the museum as a partner in developing an understanding of who we are as a community,” he said. “This is a crossroads where the Southwest meets the old South. Various cultural differences merge here, and there is a blending that takes place.”(For your listening pleasure, here is a playlist provided by Monroe of "songs and people with some type of connection to Port Arthur.")
In addition to an encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s cultural history, Monroe has been a longtime observer of higher education in Texas.
He first went to work at the college as an announcer for the campus radio station in 1965. Eight years later, after working his way up into the management, he was appointed executive vice president of the private college. He became president a year later, and among his first acts was to pursue regional accreditation and transition the institution from a private college to a state-supported one.
The move helped to lower tuition and give students greater access to state and financial aid in an effort to attract more people to the college. But expanding access to higher education, he said, is increasingly difficult.
“It’s been a challenge and a balancing act, because the Legislature, for their own agenda and needs, has restricted the funding to higher education,” he said. “They’ve also granted us the authority to increase tuition and instructed us not to change our mission, role or scope. So it’s a balancing act.”
Monroe said the most significant innovation over the years that has helped improve access to education is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Internet.
“It doesn’t work for everybody,” he acknowledged, “but it works for a significant market out there of people who are self-starters who don’t need the classroom experience per se in order to achieve.”
Some of the most significant challenges his presidency faced came in the last decade. Lamar State College-Port Arthur has had to rebound from significant damage from Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008, after which hundreds of students did not return.
Betty Reynard, most recently the vice president for academic affairs at the Lamar Institute of Technology, will take over as president in September.
McCall acknowledged that she has her work cut out for her. “She will be a phenomenal president in her own way,” he said. “She is up to the task, but it’s a big shadow. No one remembers who followed Sam Houston.”
Disclosure: The Texas State University System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.