Texas town may lose sweetheart Denton would miss likely pick to lead Social Security


DENTON, Texas -- This North-Texas city of 69,000 is having a love affair with Dr. Shirley Sears Chater and, if the truth be told, it will be heartbroken if she runs off to join the Clinton administration.

Dr. Chater, 60, president of the Texas Woman's University (TWU) here since 1986, is the administration's likely nominee to head the vast Social Security Administration in the Baltimore suburb of Woodlawn.

"Denton is not big enough to keep her here," lamented Jeane Morrison, 54, wife and aide to Ed Morrison, 72, the chairman of the family-owned grain mill, Morrison Milling. "It is going to be a tremendous loss, and a tremendous gain for whoever gets her."

Said Denton Councilman Jerry Cott: "Because of what she's done here, we'll go on well. She's left us in wonderful condition. . . . But we'll miss her like hell."

Dr. Chater was out of town last week attending meetings in Washington. Until her nomination is final, she is declining interviews.

A small town at heart, Denton is now being overtaken by the

urban sprawl from the Dallas-Fort Worth "metroplex" 35 miles to the south. Its skyline and economy are dominated by TWU and the University of North Texas across town.

Dr. Chater seems to be almost universally respected here, as a skilled administrator and a persuasive advocate for TWU in Austin, the state capital. Town and gown alike describe her as an accessible listener, and a creative and compassionate leader with boundless energy.

If she gets the Social Security job, she will leave the red brick and white pillars of a campus with 9,600 students and an annual budget of $45 million, for the Capitol marble and gray-steel cabinets of a federal agency with 65,000 employees -- 15,000 in the Baltimore area. The agency oversees $329 billion in pension and welfare checks. Few in Denton doubt Dr. Chater's ability to make the leap.

"If there is a need at Social Security that centers on someone who understands the needs of people nationally . . . someone who cares about people and the organization she serves, someone who can inspire and motivate a team of people to address those needs, Shirley will be that person," said Kathleen Casey Gigl, TWU's vice president for institutional advancement.

Dr. Chater seems to have come to President Clinton's attention through the efforts of Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who had watched her fight for TWU in Austin and was delighted with her leadership on a recent state task force on health care.

"Steal her from us if you can. It would be in the public interest, even if a loss to Texas," Kenneth H. Ashworth, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said in a letter to Hillary Rodham Clinton. He described Dr. Chater as "a quick study on any subject, an articulate and persuasive speaker, and a most capable administrator."

TWU offers undergraduate and graduate programs in liberal arts, education, health sciences, nursing, occupational and physical therapy, with some programs in Dallas and Houston. Its enrollments and private support have climbed under Dr. Chater, and its state support has grown -- modestly, but faster than that of higher education in Texas as a whole.

She started quickly

Its future wasn't always so bright. When Dr. Chater was recruited, TWU faced the likelihood of a state-ordered merger with the University of North Texas. Texas oil and gas revenues were sagging and lawmakers saw the shotgun marriage of the two institutions as a natural.

But barely a week after arriving on campus, Dr. Chater went to Austin with 600 staff, faculty, alumni and friends. She made a powerful presentation on the importance of sustaining and developing an institution dedicated primarily to meeting the educational and personal needs of women, while nurturing their potential for leadership.

Two months later, committee members, too, were believers, and the merger proposal was withdrawn.

Dr. Chater then turned her energies to reorganizing and reinvigorating the hidebound university to meet the high-tech, contemporary needs of its students, while recognizing the state's limitations.

"What fascinated me about her was that she did it creatively and positively, and achieved the same results without saying X-number of people have to go," Mr. Cott recalled.

Working largely with the executive staff she inherited, she set about to articulate her vision of TWU's future, while soliciting the thoughts of her staff and faculty.

She moved quickly to ditch the red rose and frilly lettering that had graced TWU's stationery since the 1930s. Alumnae objected until she explained it as part of her effort to have TWU's modern educational mission taken more seriously.

"Shirley is very insightful and intuitive," said Ms. Gigl, who was hired by Dr. Chater and assigned to help track down and enlist the school's alumnae for their moral, political and financial support.

"She reads people very well and she's a great listener," she said. As a manager, "she is strong enough and secure enough in her own competency that she has no problem letting people take hold of their own areas of responsibility. It's not delegating; it's joint decision-making: 'Where do we go from here? What are our resources? How do we get others to join us in ensuring the mission of TWU?'"

How solutions are reached

No votes are taken in her executive staff's weekly meetings. Participants talk about problems and solutions, clarifying each other's thinking. Solutions are not handed down, but "eventually you see your role in it, and that makes you a part of the vision, part of the solution. It's very participatory," said Robert O. Benfield, TWU's vice president for fiscal affairs.

In a 1988 interview with the Denton Record-Chronicle, Dr. Chater said, "I believe in a style of management that encourages creative thinking. It's important for faculty andstaff to feel they can take risks, that they can make a mistake and it won't be held against them."

Among the most potentially divisive issues she confronted was the need to weed out, recombine and redirect the school's academic programs.

"The university had no mission, Mr. Cott said. "It was trying to serve all people at all times." Among the accumulated academic furniture were 33 degree programs that had graduated no more than two students each in six years.

The impending changes stirred fears among the faculty. But what could have been a bitter and divisive upheaval, wasn't, largely because Dr. Chater listened first, and kept the faculty involved in shaping what emerged, according to faculty leaders.

"I've had some real blunt conversations with her," said Dr. Clay King, the new head of the Faculty Senate. "Her philosophy is that you have a right to be involved."

And, she can also be tough. When an audit revealed mishandling of some research funds under Dr. King's control, Dr. Chater took a personal interest.

"When she sees danger, a system will be set in motion and you'll be asked to explain and put in writing how it will be fixed, and you'll be reviewed for it," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen her angry, but you can tell when she's not happy. It's in her eyes."

That's not the image she usually projects. She is welcomed like family at Hufford Hall, a campus residence with apartments, day care and other support services for 35 students who are also single parents.

The average age of TWU's students is 29, and many of them are single mothers struggling to better their circumstances. Dr. Chater is a frequent visitor to Hufford Hall and is constantly on the lookout for ways to augment its resources.

"She was a mom herself when she was in school, and she took her children to classes," said Vicki Ratcliffe, coordinator for the residence. "I think she saw this as meeting a big need in the world today."

Bonita Hiher-Kramer, 34, had been living with her mother and scraping by with a $13,000 job in corporate day care. Now she lives at Hufford with her two daughters, while working full-time toward her bachelor's degree in special education. "If it wasn't for Hufford Hall, I wouldn't have come at all," she said.

Dr. Chater also responded enthusiastically when nursing students asked how they might establish a primary-care clinic at Denton's largest public housing project. The city's public hospital had closed and most local doctors were not accepting more Medicaid patients. The poor, when they got health care at all, got it in the emergency rooms.

No money was available, and university lawyers worried about liability. Dr. Chater found used furniture and supplies and sought out the publicity needed to attract more equipment, and state, federal and private grants.

Today, the homely but busy TW Cares Health Center, squeezed into space beside the project's laundromat, is open 25 to 30 hours a week. Last year, faculty, volunteer professionals and students seeking clinical experience saw more than 2,000 scheduled patients and uncounted others who dropped in.

Shirley Chater off-duty, looks pretty much like Shirley Chater on-duty, friends and colleagues say. She is up and walking on campus most days by 6 a.m., and is often on the job well into the evening and on weekends.

"Walking is her recreation," said Ms. Gigl. But even that is tainted by work. Often when she arrives at the office in the morning "she will have been out walking and noticing the need for improvements on campus," Ms. Gigl said. Observers say the Denton campus has never looked better.

Her "voracious" reading leans toward professional reports, although colleagues say they have shared popular fiction with her. She is also fond of Victorian antiques, and is a frequent customer at the Red Barn Antiques store on Hickory Street.

Dr. Chater was born to modest means in a Pennsylvania coal town and reminds reporters that, despite her maiden name -- Sears -- "I am not an heiress." She earned her bachelor's degree in nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, her master's at the University of California at San Francisco and her doctorate in education at the University of California at Berkeley.

Prior to her appointment at TWU, she worked for a university president search firm in Washington. She is also a former vice chancellor for academic affairs at UCSF.

Dr. Chater is married to Dr. Norman Chater, a semi-retired San Francisco neurosurgeon who continues to spend most of his time at their California home. This week they are headed for Vancouver, British Columbia, for the wedding of their son, Geoffrey, 28, a geologist. They also have a daughter, Cris, who is an independent California filmmaker.

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