Texas town may lose sweetheart Denton would miss likely pick to lead Social Security

July 18, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

DENTON, Texas -- This North-Texas city of 69,000 is having a love affair with Dr. Shirley Sears Chater and, if the truth be told, it will be heartbroken if she runs off to join the Clinton administration.

Dr. Chater, 60, president of the Texas Woman's University (TWU) here since 1986, is the administration's likely nominee to head the vast Social Security Administration in the Baltimore suburb of Woodlawn.

"Denton is not big enough to keep her here," lamented Jeane Morrison, 54, wife and aide to Ed Morrison, 72, the chairman of the family-owned grain mill, Morrison Milling. "It is going to be a tremendous loss, and a tremendous gain for whoever gets her."

Said Denton Councilman Jerry Cott: "Because of what she's done here, we'll go on well. She's left us in wonderful condition. . . . But we'll miss her like hell."

Dr. Chater was out of town last week attending meetings in Washington. Until her nomination is final, she is declining interviews.

A small town at heart, Denton is now being overtaken by the

urban sprawl from the Dallas-Fort Worth "metroplex" 35 miles to the south. Its skyline and economy are dominated by TWU and the University of North Texas across town.

Dr. Chater seems to be almost universally respected here, as a skilled administrator and a persuasive advocate for TWU in Austin, the state capital. Town and gown alike describe her as an accessible listener, and a creative and compassionate leader with boundless energy.

If she gets the Social Security job, she will leave the red brick and white pillars of a campus with 9,600 students and an annual budget of $45 million, for the Capitol marble and gray-steel cabinets of a federal agency with 65,000 employees -- 15,000 in the Baltimore area. The agency oversees $329 billion in pension and welfare checks. Few in Denton doubt Dr. Chater's ability to make the leap.

"If there is a need at Social Security that centers on someone who understands the needs of people nationally . . . someone who cares about people and the organization she serves, someone who can inspire and motivate a team of people to address those needs, Shirley will be that person," said Kathleen Casey Gigl, TWU's vice president for institutional advancement.

Dr. Chater seems to have come to President Clinton's attention through the efforts of Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who had watched her fight for TWU in Austin and was delighted with her leadership on a recent state task force on health care.

"Steal her from us if you can. It would be in the public interest, even if a loss to Texas," Kenneth H. Ashworth, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said in a letter to Hillary Rodham Clinton. He described Dr. Chater as "a quick study on any subject, an articulate and persuasive speaker, and a most capable administrator."

TWU offers undergraduate and graduate programs in liberal arts, education, health sciences, nursing, occupational and physical therapy, with some programs in Dallas and Houston. Its enrollments and private support have climbed under Dr. Chater, and its state support has grown -- modestly, but faster than that of higher education in Texas as a whole.

She started quickly

Its future wasn't always so bright. When Dr. Chater was recruited, TWU faced the likelihood of a state-ordered merger with the University of North Texas. Texas oil and gas revenues were sagging and lawmakers saw the shotgun marriage of the two institutions as a natural.

But barely a week after arriving on campus, Dr. Chater went to Austin with 600 staff, faculty, alumni and friends. She made a powerful presentation on the importance of sustaining and developing an institution dedicated primarily to meeting the educational and personal needs of women, while nurturing their potential for leadership.

Two months later, committee members, too, were believers, and the merger proposal was withdrawn.

Dr. Chater then turned her energies to reorganizing and reinvigorating the hidebound university to meet the high-tech, contemporary needs of its students, while recognizing the state's limitations.

"What fascinated me about her was that she did it creatively and positively, and achieved the same results without saying X-number of people have to go," Mr. Cott recalled.

Working largely with the executive staff she inherited, she set about to articulate her vision of TWU's future, while soliciting the thoughts of her staff and faculty.

She moved quickly to ditch the red rose and frilly lettering that had graced TWU's stationery since the 1930s. Alumnae objected until she explained it as part of her effort to have TWU's modern educational mission taken more seriously.

"Shirley is very insightful and intuitive," said Ms. Gigl, who was hired by Dr. Chater and assigned to help track down and enlist the school's alumnae for their moral, political and financial support.

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