An early step on the path to Steven Currall’s new leadership role at Southern Methodist University was his participation in the Leakey Leadership Lab, an intensive weekend for seniors Baylor once held to foster leadership skills.
“It was one of my first experiences as a student leader and I went initially as a participant and then as co-director,” says the 57-year-old Currall. “The Lab planted the seeds of my interest in being a leader in higher education. Additionally, my education and career was very positively impacted by my contact with administrators at Baylor. In particular, I’ll always remember the generosity and support of the late Virginia Crump” a 1946 Baylor graduate who served as Assistant Dean of Students from 1961 until her retirement in 1982 and has a university award named for her that recognizes an undergraduate female Baylor student who has exhibited an exemplary dedication to community service.
Currall arrived at SMU as provost and vice president for academic affairs on Jan. 1, 2016, from the University of California, Davis, where he had served first as dean of the Graduate School of Management and later as senior advisor for strategic projects and initiatives to the UC Davis chancellor. As provost, Currall is SMU’s chief academic officer.
“My most important job (at SMU) will be to continue to advance academic excellence, further strengthening the faculty’s scholarship and teaching,” he says. “I was attracted to the job because it’s an extraordinary stewardship opportunity where I can contribute to the process of making a great university even greater.”
Currall recognizes that SMU has received some negative press about the school’s lack of football competitiveness and challenges that have cost its basketball program a spot in this year’s NCAA tournament. A former coach noted the university’s unwillingness to admit athletes with poor academic histories hurt his ability to recruit; others say the university’s modest size limits its ability to admit too many athletes with low SAT scores without impacting its strong average.
“Athletics is a vital part of the fabric of the student experience, not to mention that of faculty, staff, alumni, and others,” Currall said. “It’s still too early to be more specific than that, but I am confident that academic excellence and strength in athletics can co-exist.”
Currall was known in previous positions at Rice University, University College London, and UC-Davis for his advancement of programs to ensure that university innovations benefit society and hopes to bring the same approach to SMU.
“I believe a university can play a catalyst role in regional economic development, and part of my mission at SMU will be to reinforce our role in job creation and fostering regional economic development,” he said.
Currall says he’ll be recognized as successful in his new role if SMU grows in its scholarly and creative impact on the academic community and among external policymakers, businesses, and non-profits. He says “impact” has two components – visibility and thought leadership.
After a number of years away, Currall says he’s delighted to be back in Texas but was careful not to pit his alma mater against his new home.
“Baylor revealed to me how university education can successfully integrate Christian values,” he said. “SMU and Baylor share faith-related histories but I don’t see this as a competition. The two schools have sufficiently different trajectories that they are not positioned as direct competitors. I have great respect for both institutions and wish both the best.”
Other things we learned about Currall:
- The Baylor professor who had the greatest impact on me was…Professor Roger E. Kirk, my statistics professor. He instilled in me an excitement for, and appreciation of, quantitative methods. That appreciation continued throughout my graduate education and has influenced my academic research.
- One thing that’s not on my resume: I was an all-state athlete in high school (track and field).
- I’m currently being inspired by…The Creation of the Future: The Role of the American University by Frank H.T. Rhodes. I also recently read The Road to Character, by David Brooks, (the New York Times columnist who recently visited Baylor for President Starr’s On Topic conversation series).
- The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten is…“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” (Mark Twain).
- The advice I give young college graduates is… Make educational and career choices that open new educational and career choices. You are at a time in your life when you must make decisions that create options to pursue, not decisions that reduce or limit your options.
- My creative process begins with… Speaking with people from fields outside of my own. My most creative activities have been a result of communications with alumni and leaders from business and government.
- Favorite Bible Verse: I John 4:18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”
- For breakfast, I eat… Yogurt, almond milk, cereal, blueberries, and strawberries.
- One place I find overrated is… New York City. I had a residence there some years ago and enjoyed being in New York. But, it is overrated compared to other global cities where I have lived (e.g., London, San Francisco, Chicago).
- The best gift I’ve ever received is…The greatest gift that any of us can receive is God’s love through Jesus Christ. In terms of gifts I’ve received during my life, my parents gave me an unshakable belief in human potential.
- One place I could return to again and again…The Amalfi coast of Italy.
- One of the great satisfactions of my life has been…Hearing that the lives of my students have been impacted by my teaching.
- My favorite musical artist is…Dusty Springfield, a British jazz singer popular in the 1960s and 1970s.