Photography: Dustin Ashcraft
Four decades after leaving his home state, Dr. Steven H. Tallant re-established his Texas roots, this time as president of Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
Most Americans may remember 1969 as the year the first man set foot on the moon. But for Tallant, that was the year he finished an associate’s degree in his hometown school, Paris Junior College. That same year, he became a radioman in the U.S. Navy.
He had a long career in many communities outside of Texas, taking advantage each step of the way of the educational opportunities afforded him in the military and through state school systems.
Since taking the reins in Kingsville in 2008, Tallant has managed a daunting task. State appropriations cuts, rising tuition costs and a battered economy presented challenges that might have put the school’s programs into a tailspin.
“Last year, we took a 15 percent cut in our state appropriation,” Tallant said. “I had to combine or eliminate 81 positions on campus.”
The $6 million hit forced Tallant to leave some workforce vacancies unfilled. Forty-three employees retired early through a voluntary separation program.
But he saved all of his faculty positions. On a campus that prides itself on small classroom sizes and developing student-teacher relations, that was a major accomplishment.
The future remains uncertain, but Tallant is optimistic that A&M-Kingsville has weathered the worst of the Great Recession punch.
“Sales taxes are up in Texas,” he said. “The economy is improving greatly in Texas. It is my understanding that Texas is much better off than it was two years ago.”
There remains, however, uncertainty over how dedicated the legislature is to higher education. No one can definitively say the appropriations cuts have ended, but Tallant is doing his part to avoid them.
“In the 1960s, taxpayers paid over 90 percent of the cost of higher education” at publicly funded institutions, he said. “Today, tax dollars cover about 37 percent of the cost.”
A full-time, in-state student pays $6,600 to cover two semesters of studies at A&M-Kingsville. In many other states, in-state student costs at state schools are more than double that.
“I’m very pleased Texas kept tuition down, compared to other states, but it’s still a lot of money,” Tallant said.
There was a time when students could work summer jobs to raise their tuition money. That is no longer possible, he said.
“My belief is we have to turn it around. We must find a way to keep college affordable, or else we’re going to limit a huge portion of our population from going to college at a time when competitor nations around the world are paying all of the students’ education.”
China, he somberly noted, has more students in universities than the United States has citizens.
❖ A triumphant return ❖
Tallant’s personal story reads like a testimonial on the benefits of higher education. He grew up in a little town a two-hour drive northeast of Dallas and served 20 years in the military.
After a four-year enlisted commitment in the Navy, he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of Florida and a master’s degree in social work at the University of Utah.
He then commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force and studied for a Ph.D. in clinical social work at the University of Wisconsin.
He was a child abuse protection officer who later did research on family separations at the Pentagon and helped develop family support centers before retiring in 1994 as a lieutenant colonel.
From 1994 to 2008, he was at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he rose from assistant professor to vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost. In 2008, he was getting offers to run other campuses, and he laid down some criteria.
“I would only leave Wisconsin for a job in Texas,” he said. “I wanted to be at a university that was dedicated to providing students access and opportunity. And I wanted to be at a public institution. I am the product of public higher education.”
Kingsville, Tallant concluded, met those criteria, so he and his wife moved from 35-below-zero winters to South Texas humidity.
“It took us a while to get used to the hot summers, but we absolutely love it,” Tallant said.
One of Tallant’s first introductions was to Stephen J. “Tio” Kleberg, member of the King Ranch Board of Directors. His first week in town, Kleberg invited him to breakfast, and so began a long-term relationship.
A patron of the university for more than 40 years, Kleberg advised Tallant on the inner workings of the university and introduced him to the movers and shakers.
“He is a very quick study,” Kleberg said. “He surrounds himself with people that are smarter than he is. Leadership describes Steve better than anything. He wants to make you the best you can be.”
Tallant is dedicated to preparing students to graduate and find good jobs, but he also tries to instill in them a desire to contribute to their communities, Kleberg said.
“I don’t think anyone could have done any better,” said Kleberg First National Bank President Joe Henkel on Tallant’s first four years. “He’s energized the university. He brought in a bunch of new people – all high-energy professionals. He’s instilled a passion within the university for excellence.”
As chairman of the Texas A&M-Kingsville Foundation, Henkel has been able to rely on Tallant to keep alumni engaged and dedicated to the university’s future. The student body has grown, and a once rundown campus has enjoyed the benefits of renovations.
Tallant built on the legacy of his predecessors and accomplished some feats that show a willingness to reach for the stars.
“The College of Business Administration was on the ropes,” Henkel cited as an example. “The previous administration, an interim president, recommended it be closed. Tallant saw it was a necessary college and turned it around to where it is a really strong program.”
Tallant has become the face of the university, day and night, on and off campus. He gets to the office before 7 a.m., stays until 5 p.m. and regularly attends university activities in the evenings and on the weekends.
He also travels around the state frequently. “When I’m on the road, it’s primarily to meet with legislators and alumni. I meet with my representatives to discuss the things we need, to talk about the needs of higher education in general, so that they know the issues.”
The president’s home on campus is Tallant’s 15th residence in 38 years, and he is Texas A&M-Kingsville’s 19th president. He intends to keep those numbers current for many years.
“I enjoy the faculty, and we have great students. I’m very excited about what we’ve done. One of the most pleasant surprises has been the city of Kingsville and South Texas. My wife and I really enjoy living here. It’s one of the most welcoming places we’ve ever lived.”
For more information, you may contact Dr. Steven H. Tallant through the Office of the President at Texas A&M University-Kingsville at 361-593-3209.