A Servant Leader
Chancellor William Tucker’s careful eye toward the future prepared TCU for its transformation into a top national university.
William Edward Tucker ’56 BDiv, who served as TCU’s chancellor from 1979 until 1998, died Oct. 14. He was 90.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Tucker devoted his life to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and, eventually, Texas Christian University.
“I think TCU was always part of my dad’s destiny,” said daughter Jan Tucker Scully ’79 (MBA ’81).
Tucker first learned of TCU during his undergraduate days at Atlantic Christian College — later renamed Barton College — in Wilson, North Carolina. Then TCU Chancellor M.E. Sadler had graduated from Atlantic Christian, and Tucker, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English, religion and history, studied there while James Mattox Moudy ’43 (BDiv ’49), who became TCU’s seventh chancellor, was dean.
Tucker came to Fort Worth to pursue a degree from Brite Divinity School because he had planned to become a working minister. “I came to Fort Worth never having been west of the Mississippi River,” he told Michael Gutierrez, who was working on behalf of the TCU Oral History Project, in 2011.
While at Brite, Tucker fell in love with a TCU undergraduate from Albany, Texas, his future wife, Jean Jones Tucker ’56.
“Jean’s understanding of life has enabled me to derive all sorts of counsel,” Tucker told TCU Magazine in 1998. “She is more accepting of people on the earth, no matter their station in life or point of view, than anyone I have ever known.”
After 1956, when he became an ordained Disciples minister, he switched his life goals from ministry to service in higher education. He left Texas to pursue a master’s and then a PhD in church history at Yale University and graduated with honors. He returned regularly to visit Fort Worth. After he discovered it, he said, “I never really left TCU.”
Early in his academic career, he came back to Brite and worked his way from professor to dean. During that time, he and Lester McAllister co-wrote the seminal history of the Disciples Church, Journey in Faith.
“He was a seeker, a great intellect with an inquisitive mind,” granddaughter Kate Scully Wells ’08 wrote in a tribute.
Another Disciples-affiliated school, Bethany College in West Virginia, lured Tucker away from Brite by making him president. He served Bethany in that role from 1976 to ’79.
Back in Fort Worth, Moudy was experiencing failing eyesight. The executive committee of the TCU Board of Trustees unanimously recommended the 47-year-old Tucker to be his replacement.
Tucker embraced the appointment as TCU’s eighth chancellor, telling the Bayard H. Friedman-led board: “I accept with enthusiasm, without reservation and with sincere gratitude for their expression of confidence in me. It is a privilege to return to this university.”
Righting the Ship
When Tucker assumed the TCU chancellor’s role in fall 1979, “Higher education in America was at a time of low tide,” he told Gutierrez. “It was especially low tide at TCU.”
The mood in Fort Worth was “gloomy,” he said. Enrollment had dropped to 5,930 students, and the university was losing money. He made the tough initial decision to scuttle some faculty positions; the remaining professors were earning salaries in the bottom quartile for the industry.
An adherence to fiscal conservatism would mark Tucker’s tenure at the helm of TCU. He became known around campus, and in higher education circles, for his saying: “A university that is not fiscally sound cannot remain academically strong for long.”
As the 1980s took hold, Tucker focused on balancing TCU’s budget and raising funds to secure the university’s future.
“He never spent a penny on our office,” said Mary Nell Kirk, who served as Tucker’s administrative assistant for his final eight years as chancellor. “Every penny went to the endowment.”
TCU at the time derived more income from oil and gas than any other private school in the country, and Tucker found the petroleum industry’s volatility dangerous for the long-term financial stability he envisioned. He decided to cap the percentage of income the university could reap from oil and gas. “That was a major decision at a time when TCU was not flush with money,” he told the TCU Oral History Project.
In 1979, the combined endowment for TCU and Brite was $52 million, a figure too small to ensure the university’s long-term success. Tucker made a silent personal vow to raise an additional $52 million during every two years of his leadership. “I knew the endowment needed to grow — and grow significantly — if TCU were to ever fulfill its mission to become what it is today.”
The Next Frontier fundraising campaign, which he led alongside Provost William Koehler, aimed for a $100 million goal. The effort was slated to kick off in the 1980s, but the timing was terrible, Tucker said. “That’s when so many banks failed — the price of oil fell — it was a serious recession.”
They postponed the campaign kickoff until 1990. By 1997, the campaign had exceeded its $100 million goal, and faculty were earning salaries akin to high-ranked national universities.
By Tucker’s retirement in 1998, TCU’s endowment had reached $750 million — meaning he had far exceeded his secret fundraising goal.
Eyes to the Future
New buildings constructed during Tucker’s tenure could rise only if their maintenance would be provided for in perpetuity. The Dee J. Kelly Alumni & Visitors Center, the Mary D. and F. Howard Walsh Center for Performing Arts, W.A. Moncrief & W.A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr. Hall, the Winthrop Rockefeller Building for Ranch Management and new athletics training facilities popped up during those two decades. He also doubled the size of the Mary Couts Burnett Library and added a nursery to the physical plant so the campus would be permanently blanketed with fresh flowers.
By 1985, after a successful football season highlighted by an appearance in the Bluebonnet Bowl, TCU’s admissions woes had ceased. Koehler suggested TCU cap freshman admissions — a move that would have been unimaginable to the struggling university of 1979. The dormitories were so crowded that the facilities could not accommodate all of the incoming students. Bill and Jean Tucker invited some students to stay at their home while they looked for a place to live.
Enrollment was at 7,273 by the end of the Tucker years — a growth of 23 percent.
With Tucker serving simultaneously as chancellor and moderator for the North American Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — he had a separate Sadler Hall office for each role — TCU’s academic ambitions grew as well.
He launched an undergraduate program in engineering, which is now housed in the William E. and Jean Jones Tucker Technology Center. He grew doctoral enrollment in arts and sciences and wired the entire campus for the advent of the internet age.
He kept his head down for the duration of his leadership, Kirk said. “He would help students move in, and they would say, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m Bill Tucker; I work for the university.’ And then later on, they would find out that, oh, he’s the chancellor.”
Victor J. Boschini, Jr., TCU’s current chancellor, concurred: “Of the many things I admired and liked about Chancellor Tucker, the one I most appreciated was that he was such — what I would call — a secure leader. He did not need to be out in the spotlight. He did not always need to be the smartest guy in the room. He was more than happy to learn along with you in any given situation or circumstance.”
Tucker retired in 1998, having set the intentional course for a more ethnically and racially diverse, academically ambitious and wealthy university. Because of his diligence and foresight, the TCU of today little resembles the struggling regional college he assumed leadership of in 1979.
“In the dark of the evening when he finally felt comfortable leaving TCU’s campus,” said his son Vance Tucker, “he still found time to be a great husband and father, worthy opponent on the tennis court and a legendary force on the basketball court, with the sharpest, most dangerous knees known to mankind.”
In retirement, Tucker stayed connected to the university. “He was always there to help and guide me whenever I called him,” Boschini said. “He never made me feel as if my problems or concerns were unimportant or trivial … even when they were. He was the one person who I knew would always have a 100 percent appreciation of exactly where I was coming from on every issue.”
Tucker’s gentle guiding presence was not reserved for those in high-pressure leadership positions, his granddaughter Amanda Scully Peterson ’11 wrote in a memorial post: “He made everyone he met feel like the most important person in the world during that moment.”
Today’s TCU enrollment stands at 12,273 students, and the endowment Tucker labored over has reached $2.4 billion. Upon his retirement, Tucker refused to take credit for the university’s steady growth under his leadership. He told TCU Magazine: “I hope the word I use most often … is thanks. Bill Tucker may be getting a pat on the back, but I am merely representing a community that has succeeded. TCU is something that everyone should own, and claim, and celebrate.”
William Tucker is survived by his beloved wife, Jean; daughter Jan Tucker Scully, a longtime TCU Trustee; sons Will Tucker and Vance Tucker; several grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and by many thousands in the global Horned Frog community who are thankful for his enduring love for and service to TCU.