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Do You Know? Dr. Alisa White

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Photos by Libby Rogers

 Many things have changed during 2020. As a pandemic swept across the globe, terms like “masks” and “social distancing” became the norm. It became almost impossible to enter any public place without seeing dispensers and bottles of hand sanitizer in every direction you look. The world has been trying to adapt to a new normal. In the midst of all this, another change has occurred. Sam Houston State University welcomed its 14th president, Dr. Alisa White. Without the pandemic, by now you would probably have seen or met Dr. White at any number of community activities and events; but, with the changes going on, those events simply have not happened. 

Recently on a lovely fall afternoon, we sat outside in the center of the beautiful SHSU campus and had the opportunity to visit with Dr. White so we, and our readers, could get to know her a little bit better! 

I’ve read that you’re a native of Texas…is there a part you’ve called “home”? 

I was born in Weatherford. We moved to Dallas when I was one, then Bonham when I was three, and moved to Montana when I was about five. My dad’s a preacher. We moved about every four years…Texas, Montana, Arizona, West Virginia, Tennessee… 

People say, “Where’s home?” Home is wherever I am at the moment, and you make it home, and you make it community…you dig deep there, wherever that may be. 

I moved back to Texas in 1998. I was at UT-Arlington for a number of years, then UT-Tyler. I was in Texas for 16 years. My son moved here with me when he was three, so he considers himself a Texan. My husband, who is from New York, has lived in Texas longer than I have! But all three of our kids, our five grandkids, and my dad all live in Texas. 

I’m guessing that might have been a good draw to bring you back to Texas? 

It was! But I told the Chancellor, Sam Houston State is such a fabulous opportunity… I would have taken this job if it had been across the country. It is that kind of an institution. Lucky for me, it’s in Texas, which is great. 

What is it about Huntsville and SHSU that drew you here? 

Sam Houston is very well-known for its access mission and for student success. So, there is a great responsibility the institution feels to get people “in and through,” not just “in.” 

About a year and a half ago, I was part of an accreditation site review team that visited here. I spent three days on campus, met a lot of people, and had done a deep dive already into budget, governance, and the quality enhancement plan. So, I knew a lot about SHSU, but had no idea that the job of university president would come open here. 

When this job came open, I was nominated for it by someone (I don’t know who), but I immediately thought, ‘Wow, that’s a great place to be!’ 

I didn’t know a lot about the community, just the institution. But what I have found is that it’s a great place to live as well. 

What has surprised you most about living in Huntsville? 

This is so pedestrian… but really, how easy it is to get around! We are early everywhere because it doesn’t take the time to travel like it did in other places I’ve lived. 

We haven’t met a lot of people in town yet, due to Covid-19. We are looking forward to those opportunities, but trying to be respectful of people as well. 

Speaking of Covid, what do you think the long-term implications of that are for the university? 

I think this has helped us find out we can be “ingenious” in how we offer a higher education experience, and it may not look the same for every student. 

The state of Texas has an initiative called “60 by 30.” They want 60% of residents to have some type of degree by 2030. That number does not just include graduating high school seniors. It also includes folks who have gone to college in the past who need to finish, or people who have education needs because of careers or changing careers. 

I think we will always be in some sort of “change mode” to accommodate returning adults and any who don’t fit the model of the “18-year old coming to school to live in the dorm” for a four-year experience. 

Now, we know that we can accommodate people working full-time, who want to take online classes, or need or want to obtain a learning experience in a short format, a class that meets more often for a shorter period of time. 

That said, I think it’s very important we realize a lot of learning is not just in the classroom. Kids grow up here. We provide a safety net. Rather than just leaving home and entering the work world, they can learn here, make mistakes here, and learn to redeem themselves. I hope we never lose the traditional experience because I feel it is so important to the development of many of our students. 

We talked about the positives. Are there any unique challenges for SHSU you feel like need to be addressed? 

Sam Houston has a good reputation in East Texas and Texas, but it’s not as well-known as I would like for it to be. Our alumni are very proud of their experience here, and we hear from employers they are excited about hiring our graduates because they are well-prepared and ready to work. I would like to broaden that knowledge of our reputation. 

Another challenge for us, as well as most institutions, is to have enough financial support to do all we know we should do, as well as to support students who face financial struggles in coming here. While Sam Houston is one of the better-performing institutions in the state of Texas, it is not one of the best-funded. 

When people see a “Bearkat claw,” or hear “Eat’em up, Kats,” what do you want them to think or see? 

Quality. That we graduate people who can do well and add value… 

people who are well-grounded and well-rounded. 

Part of the quality comes from the fact that so many of our faculty work with active learning, which is a higher level. You can memorize, but you learn more when you can synthesize. This is important in the process of applying learning to solve problems. 

I think another aspect of quality is the culture we have on campus. Not that everybody here agrees, but this is a very civil campus. People disagree respectfully. You want an institution where people can be different and talk about things that are important to them but do so in a way that is respectful. 

I believe our employees do quality work. Our grounds are gorgeous. This is one of the cleanest campuses I’ve ever been to. Our buildings are really well done and well-maintained. 

Sam Houston himself had a pretty colorful history. Have you read much on him, and do you have a favorite “Sam Houston moment?” 

Sam Houston was a governor of both Tennessee and Texas. I left an institution named after Austin Peay, who was governor of Tennessee. I may be the only university president who has been president of two schools named after their state governor! <laughs> 

Something I really value personally about Sam Houston’s life is, ‘It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.’ Sam Houston, as a man, made a lot of mistakes. But, if you look at his life, he didn’t sit in them. He changed things. He changed himself. As he grew, he was able to create a legacy. That is a wonderful story of redemption with lessons for our students.

All presidents leave their mark. As you look forward, what do you hope your mark will be?

I have been fortunate to follow excellent presidents. Dr. Hoyt was a good president, who followed a good president. I think one of the marks of a good president is to build on what was done before. I think one of President Hoyt’s greatest accomplishments is the medical school, something that will be vital to the health of our communities across the state. So, one of my important areas of focus will be to get that medical school thriving. Secondly, branding. I want Sam Houston State University to be “top-of-mind” for anyone thinking about going to college. Finally, continuing on this emphasis of “60 by 30.” We just had another record enrollment, in spite of Covid. We need to look around and ask, ‘Who is missing?’ We need to work to help all our communities rise.

Welcome to our community, Dr. White. We look forward to an even brighter future for SHSU under your leadership.

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