A New Journey
Q&A With President Alisa White
Sam Houston State University’s new president has taken over at a time like no other in higher education. The current pandemic has meant tackling uncertain enrollment growth while continuing to invest in and adapt to safer environments and new instructional models. Meanwhile, SHSU also joins other institutions grappling with important societal and economic concerns.
Yet, in the face of these unprecedented challenges, President Alisa White sees hope and said she is confident the university is headed in the right direction.
Before joining the ranks as SHSU’s 14th president, the Texas native served as president of Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, for over six years. Prior to that, she was senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at Tyler and provost at Midwestern State University.
Shortly after arriving on the SHSU campus, White ushered in a new class of students, including the university’s first medical school cohort. The new president made time for Heritage Magazine to talk about her background and the transition to SHSU.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your family.
I’m really privileged to have a great family, and, of course, the center of my world is my husband, Elliott Herzlich. We’ve been married almost 20 years and have a blended family. When I got him, I was lucky enough to get Shara and Rachel, our daughters. My son, John, was 6 years old when Elliott and I married. All our kids and grandchildren are in Texas, my dad is in Texas, and I’m happy to be back home.
How did you get involved in higher education?
I was fortunate to have started a career in higher education because someone I knew offered me a job in an academic library. I almost just fell into it, frankly. My undergraduate degree is in business. After grad school, I worked in advertising for Southwestern Bell in Dallas, Texas. A few years later, I went back to Tennessee where my parents lived and started to really think about what I wanted to do long term. And then, a friend offered me the job.
I found it very exciting working in an academic library. At that institution, to be a librarian full time required a doctorate to get tenure. Since I didn’t want a doctorate in library and information science, I chose to go into mass communication. And then, when I did that, I started teaching. I also was part owner of a radio station at the same time.
I really, truly fell into higher ed because I started teaching part-time when I worked in the library. And then, I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do. And it’s been a wonderful career.
Are you a first-generation student?
Although I’m not a first-generation student, my dad came from a very poor region of south Mississippi, and he was the first in his family to earn a college degree. I remember both my parents going to college while my brother and I were young, growing up in Montana. My dad was also able to earn his master’s degree and doctorate.
From that, I learned an education can help promote a certain quality of life. There’s no value that is higher to me than the value of an educated life and being able to have choices and make decisions about what you want. It’s not that you can’t have a wonderful life otherwise, but you have many more options with an education. I’ve seen it first-hand.
As a new president, there are many challenges facing you, including the COVID crisis, new teaching models, a possible financial hit and issues surrounding racial injustice. Why Sam Houston and why now?
This is my second presidency, my seventh year as a president. The challenges that we have at Sam Houston State are the same challenges that other institutions are facing. They’re the exact same challenges I was facing with my last institution.
I know that success really depends on everybody rowing in the same direction, everyone having a vision, a focus on the future. Success means having goals to help students succeed and to really help them find their way and offer places where we can discuss difficult issues and difficult topics and bring these great minds together to solve problems. That’s our challenge here. That’s our opportunity here.
I’ve known of Sam Houston State University for years. I spent 16 years in Texas higher education. I was a fan then, and I’m a fan now. Opportunities like this at Sam Houston do not come very often. It was certainly one that I could not pass up.
What do you feel the most important attributes of a university president are?
The attributes that make presidents successful are—number one, an understanding that university life is made up of experts and it’s not up to the president to manage every little detail. We have brilliant people on this campus who truly are excellent in their field. Some are consultants across the country. So, why shouldn’t we use them to promote the best ideas of the university?
Another attribute is being able to make tough decisions that are unpopular. I’ve learned, over the years, that regardless of the decision, there are going to be some people who are unhappy. It’s important that presidents make the best decisions they know to make, given the information they have and not to take things personally.
A third attribute, I think, should be central to everybody on this campus, whether it is a person working in the dining hall or advising a student or caring for these beautiful campus grounds. Every single thing we do should be done with students in mind. This doesn’t mean that employees are not equally as important because it takes faculty and staff to create teaching and learning environments where students can be successful. Why do we do what we do? Knowing that, is really important for a president. Knowing that we do what we do because it facilitates an environment where people are happy to work and happy to learn, I think is very critical, not just for the president, but for everyone.
If there is one piece of advice you could give to today’s student in these unprecedented times, what would it be?
Be hopeful. I want today’s students to know that even though it’s a tough environment, it’s not an impossible environment and things will get better. Regardless of what they’re going through, regardless of the struggle, don’t give up. Don’t think this is it. Don’t think there’s no hope. Don’t think that it won’t get better, because it will. That’s the number one piece of advice I have for every student and every person I interact with.
As a new Huntsville resident, what are some of your first impressions of the community?
Elliott and I are excited to be living in Huntsville. For one, our neighbors are so nice. Yahtzee, our dog, and I walk about two miles every morning and many people stop and say hello. They might not even know us but, Yahtzee is cute—maybe that’s why.
We have found people in Huntsville to be very kind and polite. Restaurant servers have been so welcoming, for example. And I like that. I like that hometown feel. I also like being in a college town, because there’s a flavor to a college town that is like no other. You have different kinds of restaurants, different kinds of retail, different things you find around a university, and we are really enjoying exploring that.
What is your favorite Texas dish?
My mama, who passed about 10 years ago, was a fabulous, fabulous cook, and I grew up loving her Texas Sheet Cake. It’s a 22 minute cake with cooked fudge icing. I am not a baker. It’s sad I didn’t get her baking abilities, but I still enjoy that delicious cake with Texas pecans.
So far, what have you enjoyed most at SHSU?
This campus is gorgeous, and I’m a walker, so I have really enjoyed walking around campus and finding really neat things that just kind-of pop up out of nowhere—like our motto you see in the quad area right in front of the student center. I love our fountains. I love turning the corner and seeing a clock tower, and seeing beautiful public art. There are a lot of things to explore here. If you just walk around, you realize how much thought and effort has been put into how this campus looks.
What do you want to accomplish during your tenure at SHSU?
Sam Houston State University has been privileged to have good leadership over many years. I have been blessed to have talked to Dr. Hoyt, Dr. Gaertner and Dr. Marks since I’ve been here. Each left an important legacy and mark on this institution. That’s given me a good foundation from which to start and grow.
What I’m hoping they will say about me when I leave here is that people felt good about being here. They felt they could reach their objectives and goals, that I helped create an environment where they could be the best at what they did, providing professional development opportunities, providing opportunities to grow, providing that atmosphere that institutions need to really be good stewards of place.
I want to continue the legacy where Sam Houston State is an important partner in economic development, where we are an important part of the school system here and support social improvements. I want Sam Houston State to have a voice where we can make it not just a better Huntsville or a better East Texas or better Texas, but a better society so that everyone has an ability to be self-actualized. That’s what I want. That’s my goal.