Founding SMU: What Is Our Duty?

To help celebrate the 2011 centennial of SMU’s founding, SMU Magazine introduces a series of articles that chronicle the University’s past. The articles will continue through 2015, when SMU celebrates the centennial of its opening.

Starting in the late 1800s, Methodists began to plan and dream of building a great university west of the Mississippi River, a place to motivate and nurture Methodist ministers and educate Methodist men and women. They envisioned that this university would rival Vanderbilt, which operated under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South from 1873 to 1913.

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Robert Stewart Hyer, SMU’s first president

In 1905, Robert Stewart Hyer was serving as president of Southwestern University, the central university of Texas Methodism, in Georgetown. Hyer, a visionary physicist who was born in Georgia and educated at Emory, started teaching at Southwestern in 1882 and became president in 1898. He wanted the Methodists to build a great university and sought funding for Southwestern from the General Education Board, an educational philanthropy run by John D. Rockefeller in New York. However, board members told Hyer that Southwestern needed to move to a large city before it could help the university. “Dallas is the best unoccupied territory in the South. Someday someone will build a university in Dallas and you Methodists are the ones who should do it.”

Hyer and Hiram Abiff Boaz, president of Polytechnic College in Forth Worth (now Texas Wesleyan University), both shared a vision of relocating Southwestern University to North Texas. By 1910, it became known that they and other leaders in the Methodist community wanted the university to move to Dallas or Fort Worth.

The Methodist Episcopal Church, South Educational Commission met with the Southwestern University Board of Directors, which made it clear that they
wanted Southwestern to stay in Georgetown. The Methodist Educational Commission was adamant that its university needed to be in a city but not within 50 miles of any other university, so growing Southwestern (only 27 miles from the University of Texas in Austin) was out of the question.

The Commission continued to meet, visiting both Fort Worth and Dallas. Some of the questions asked: “What is our duty to the thousands of young men and women who could thus and thus only secure a Christian College education and professional and technical training? What is our duty to the hundreds of young preachers who could thus be better equipped for the work of the ministry? What is our duty to the Churches which we furnish with better qualified pastors? What is our duty to all the coming generations of Texans until the end of time?”

Fort Worth made a substantial pitch. A few weeks later, the people of Dallas made a counteroffer, including a generous gift of land from the Caruth family in what was then considered far north Dallas.

On April 13, 1911, the Methodist Educational Commission chose Dallas as the location for the new university. That day, Robert S. Hyer was unanimously elected as the first president. The next decision was the school name. The first name to be considered was Texas Wesleyan University. After an evening of reflection, the Commission offered a new name – Southern Methodist University. The Commission also hired the University’s first employee, Frank Reedy, Southwestern’s bursar, to serve as Hyer’s assistant.

Methodists and Dallas immediately began fundraising to build a great university that would attract students from Texas, the Southwest and beyond.
– Joan Gosnell, University archivist


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To help celebrate the 2011 centennial of SMU’s founding, SMU Magazine introduces a series of articles that chronicle the University’s past. In the beginning … Robert Stewart Hyer and the founding of SMU.

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