Sul Ross State University

By: Earl H. Elam

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: November 2, 2001

Sul Ross State University, in Alpine in Brewster County, was authorized by act of the Thirty-fifth Legislature in 1917 as a state college to train teachers and was named for Lawrence Sullivan Ross, governor of Texas from 1887 to 1891 and president of Texas A&M from 1891 to 1898. The institution was a successor to Alpine Summer Normal School, which had since 1910 brought students to the pleasant Alpine climate each summer to study for teachers' certificates. With no other normal school in the broad region between the Austin-San Antonio area and El Paso, students and teachers in the Alpine Summer Normal School, the Alpine Commercial Club, and local citizens from communities scattered across the region petitioned the legislature for the establishment of a permanent state school in Alpine. The bill founding the institution required that the residents of the town provide land, water, and utilities for the college and housing for the students. This condition was met, and following a delay because of World War I, in 1919 the legislature appropriated $200,000 for buildings and equipment. Construction proceeded, and under the presidency of Thomas J. Fletcher, Sul Ross State Normal College began operations in the present Administration Building on June 14, 1920. Seventy-seven students enrolled in the summer of 1920, representing thirty-one communities, extending from Floresville and Carrizo Springs on the southeast to Ysleta and El Paso on the west. They studied education and liberal arts subjects leading to teachers' certificates and junior college diplomas. In 1923 the legislature changed the name of the institution to Sul Ross State Teachers College, and advanced courses leading to baccalaureate degrees were added. The first bachelor's degree was awarded in the summer of 1925. In 1930 coursework at the graduate level was initiated, and the first master's degrees were awarded in 1933. By 1985 10,925 bachelor's degrees and 4,862 master's degrees had been conferred.

Under the leadership of President Horace W. Morelock from 1923 to 1945 the curriculum was expanded, additional academic buildings and dormitories were constructed, the college was admitted into membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, and enrollment increased to 500 students. A decline in enrollment during World War II threatened the continued operation of the college but was offset by the establishment of a successful United States Navy pilot training program and a Woman's Army Corps Training School on campus, programs that brought more than 1,500 military trainees and officers to Sul Ross.

Following the war the return of veterans increased the annual enrollments and prompted the expansion of the curriculum. Richard M. Hawkins became president in 1945. The college was reorganized into divisions of fine arts, language arts, science, social science, teacher education, and vocations. Athletic teams in football and intercollegiate rodeo brought home conference and national championships. In recognition of the broadened mission of the institution to prepare students for a variety of careers and occupations, the name was changed in 1949 to Sul Ross State College. The enrollment grew to more than 1,000 in 1960 and to over 2,000 in 1970. During the presidencies of Bryan Wildenthal and Norman L. McNeil, between 1952 and 1974, the academic programs continued to be strengthened; new fine arts, physical education, science, and range animal science buildings and a new library were constructed; and several new degree programs were begun. In 1969 the legislature again changed the name of the institution, this time signifying full state university status by the name-Sul Ross State University. In the 1970s enrollments declined because of the opening of several new colleges in West Texas. The general education requirements were revised, and new degree programs were added in criminal justice, business administration, and geology. Sul Ross also established Rio Grande College on the campuses of Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde, Del Rio, and Eagle Pass to provide upper-level and graduate work in teacher education and business administration. In 2001 academic programs at Sul Ross were divided into the schools of agriculture and natural resource sciences, arts and sciences, and professional studies.

Early in its history Sul Ross State University became the cultural and educational center of the mountainous, remote Big Bend region. The institution developed an importance in relation to its environment unique among institutions of higher education in Texas. It became a pioneer in promoting international goodwill by sponsoring fifteen annual educational tours to Chihuahua, Mexico, during the 1920s and 1930s, and it continued in the 1980s to participate in joint endeavors with the University of Chihuahua. The state-supported Museum of the Big Bend in the Bryan Wildenthal Memorial Library was organized to provide a permanent depository and research facility for regional manuscript collections. The university promotes scientific research in biology, geology, and range animal science, with particular emphasis on Chihuahuan Desert studies, and is involved in cooperative projects with the private, nonprofit Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, which is headquartered on campus. Through the university's Center for Big Bend Studies, research and educational activities are conducted in the historical, cultural, and economic development of the Trans-Pecos and adjacent areas in Mexico and New Mexico. A conference called Acculturation in the Rio Grande Borderlands: The Spanish Era, 1492–1821, was held in October 1990 by the center in conjunction with the Columbian Quincentenary. The outdoor summer theater of the university's Theatre of the Big Bend performs for many visitors each year, and musical productions and athletic events are popular attractions. The university was a founding member of the nonscholarship Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association. It was the birthplace of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, and it has been designated as the home of the NIRA Hall of Fame. All these activities complement the educational programs of the university, which in 2000 included thirty-eight undergraduate and twenty-six graduate degree programs that enrolled 2,010 students. Sul Ross State University had 161 faculty members in the fall of 1998. In 2001 the president of the university was R. Vic Morgan. The governing body is the Board of Regents of the Texas State University System. The annual operating budget in 2001 was in excess of $25 million.

Clifford B. Casey, Alpine, Texas, Then and Now (Seagraves, Texas: Pioneer, 1981). Clifford B. Casey, Sul Ross State University: The Cultural Center of Trans-Pecos Texas, 1917–1975 (Seagraves, Texas: Pioneer, 1976).
  • Education
  • Public Four-Year Colleges and Universities

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Earl H. Elam, “Sul Ross State University,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 2, 2001