Lamar president retiring in 2013

Dr. James M. Simmons

“I’m just here to confirm a rumor,” Lamar University President James M. “Jimmy” Simmons told LU faculty, staff and members of the media in a meeting held at the Gray Library on Friday, Aug. 3, at 10 a.m.

The “rumor” in question was his retirement. Simmons announced that, after a 14-year tenure as president of the university, he will officially step down on Jan. 31, 2013.

“(My wife) Susan and I were figuring out, we now have nine grandchildren, we only have x amount of vacation days — there’s no way we could make it to all their birthdays,” Simmons said to applause and laughter. “This was an extremely difficult decision for Susan and for me. We’ve been affiliated with this institution for more than 42 years. That is very, very special.

“I want to thank the more than 70,000 alums and friends — and the community. There has not been a time that I have asked this community for help that I haven’t received it.”

During the four decades Simmons has been involved at Lamar, he has worn many hats — first band director, then department chair, then college dean, then interim vice president for advancement, and finally president. Under Simmons, Lamar has seen its largest increase in enrollment ever — from 7,800 students when he began in 1998 to 14,500 students in fall 2011. He also played a key role in returning football to Lamar’s campus after 21 years without it.

“This is a sad day for our system,” said Texas State University System Chancellor Brian McCall. “But it’s a happy day that Jimmy Simmons did what he did, the way he did it, for as long as he did, for the right reasons, with a good result, affecting so many lives in a positive way. He is a good, good man.”

Perhaps what Simmons will be remembered most fondly for is the uniquely personal relationship he established between himself and the student body.

“Because I was a faculty member, teacher, band director, I’ve really taught thousands of our students myself, and I’ve always maintained a very close relationship with them as president,” Simmons said. “I’ve had an open-door policy, and I’ve gotten to know so many of them — they’ve become part of our lives. The most exciting thing about being a college president is being able to watch students grow and see their lives change and the success they have. I think if we have any legacy, that will be it.”

But, as Simmons was quick to remind those present, he isn’t quite finished yet.

“Remember, until Jan. 31, I am still the boss,” he said jokingly. “And I want you to put your helmets on, because this is going to be a sprint to the finish.”

The process of selecting the next president of Lamar University will begin immediately. An outside search firm will conduct a nationwide search for candidates, and an advisory committee appointed by the chairman of the Board of Regents of The Texas State University System will narrow the field of candidates to three. The advisory committee, will include members of the TSUS Board of Regents, Lamar University faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members. Chancellor Brian McCall will then recommend a sole finalist to the Board of Regents.

“He is in my view the perfect university president, and he’s going to very difficult to replace,” said Steve Doblin, provost.

“Dr. Simmons is a wonderful president," added Valentin Andreev, associate professor of mathematics and former president of Faculty Senate. "He came at a very difficult moment. He contributed enormously – unbelievably. It’s a sad day but happy because he also accomplished so much.”

Among his accomplishments is the significant growth in online education. By pairing innovative education delivery models with the university’s academic excellence, Simmons has made LU a recognized leader in online education in the state and beyond. More than 30 percent of Lamar’s semester credit hours are generated by online courses. Nearly 4,200 of Lamar’s current students will get their first glimpse of the campus when they attend their graduation ceremonies. The university further increased the scope of its online offerings by adding six new online programs this year.

The face of the campus has changed substantially during Simmons’ tenure. Many campus academic buildings have seen renovation; campus landscaping, signage and fencing were updated; and many new student-focused facilities have been built including five Cardinal Village residence halls, recreational sports center, and a state-of-the-art dining hall.

“I am so happy to have been able to work here at the university with Jimmy Simmons,” said Sherri Fitzgerald, president of the Staff Senate. “He has just been a wonderful influence on everyone – on campus, in the community, in the state. And he has really brought us great recognition.”

Simmons was instrumental in bringing football, and the excitement it embodies, back to the university after a 21-year absence. That decision led to the renovation and expansion of facilities: the football stadium, athletic complex, and new luxury suites.  Complementing the return of football are two other new athletic programs, women’s soccer and softball. The return of football also brought back to the campus the “Showcase of Southeast Texas” marching band, which invigorated another tradition: Lamar’s “Grandest Band in the Land,” which had 350 members when Simmons directed in the ’70s.

The university’s first-ever comprehensive campaign began under Simmons’ leadership and has raised more than $100 million for facilities, student scholarships and programs.

“Fifteen years ago, Dr. Simmons hired me as director of development,” said Camille Mouton, vice president for advancement. “We worked hard to build an understanding of the importance of private philanthropy among the university’s many friends and alumni. We had great aspirations, but never in our wildest dreams did we think Lamar's first-ever campaign would raise $50 million, much less $100 million! His visionary leadership has inspired confidence from alumni and friends who have invested in our university and in educational opportunities for our students. Including the entire LU community in the process of improving our university is having a tremendous impact on our students, faculty and staff.  Thanks to Dr. Simmons, Lamar University has been transformed. He has built a great foundation from which Lamar will continue to grow, and we are all committed to carrying on his legacy.”

Simmons holds a unique position among the nation’s top educational executives. An accomplished musician on clarinet, saxophone, and piano, he continues an active performance and conducting career after rising through the ranks as a music educator and administrator to Lamar’s 10th president. Response to Simmons’ appointment on Feb. 1, 1999, was enthusiastic – from his native Beaumont, throughout the region and from colleagues and former students across the country.

A member of the faculty and leadership team at Lamar for more than four decades, Simmons served as dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, as interim vice president of university advancement, as music department chair and as director of bands. Simmons joined the faculty in 1970. He earned his doctorate in music education from McNeese State University, his master of music degree from the University of Houston and bachelor of music education degree from Memphis State University.

Simmons has been the recipient of dozens of prestigious honors – the most recent on July 22, with induction into the Phi Beta Mu Texas Bandmasters Hall of Fame. In selecting Simmons to become part of the Hall of Fame’s 2012 class, the international bandmasters fraternity continues its tradition of “honoring outstanding Texas band directors whose dedication and devotion to their profession was paramount.”

Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the oldest and largest music fraternity for men, honored Simmons in 2010 as a Signature Sinfonian. Also in 2010, the Christus Health Foundation of Southeast Texas paid tribute to Simmons at its 30th annual gala, billing him “Beaumont’s own king of horns” as he shared the spotlight with Chicago, featured entertainment attraction for the evening.

In 2009, he received the Chief Executive Leadership Award from District IV of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, which includes Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mexico.

The Press Club of Southeast Texas has twice honored him as Newsmaker of the Year (1999 and 2009), as well as naming him Newsmaker of the Decade. The Beaumont Chapter of the American Heart Association honored Simmons and his wife, Susan, with the Jay C. Crager Award, bestowed on an individual or individuals whose endeavors exemplify making the community a better place in which to live. Simmons also has been recognized as a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International, Executive of the Year by the Sales and Marketing Executive Club of Southeast Texas, as King Neches the 53rd and Citizen of the Year by the Neches River Festival and as “Mr. East Texas” by the Texas Dogwood Festival in Woodville.

Young Audiences of Beaumont honored Simmons with establishment of the annual Jimmy Simmons Artists Showcase – testament to his decades of contributions to the arts in the community. Beaumont’s annual Beaumont Jazz+Blues Festival, honored him as the inaugural recipient of the Dr. Raul Ornelas Lifetime Music Achievement Award “for his contributions to music and for being an exemplary citizen and ambassador to the city of Beaumont.”

“This is a sad day, but it’s also a day of celebration,” said TSUS Regent Rossanna Salazar of Austin.  “We’re celebrating the record of achievement that Dr. Simmons is leaving Lamar University with, and it’s a notable record. Of course, Dr. Simmons is an educational leader in the state of Texas and nationally. He leaves a tremendous legacy and a university that is poised for even greater things.”