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From Astro-scientist to Administrator
By Janice Odom
(956) 381-2741
Posted: 09/21/1997
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When William Lee "Bill" Morris walks the grounds of The University of Texas-Pan American’s new Science Building, he can’t help thinking back to his earliest days on campus — when there were just 1,300 students and the astro-science program was going strong.

A 1968 graduate of the discontinued academic program, Morris is one of many who are pleased to see the campus Planetarium taking on new life after years of being ignored.

"It is really satisfying to see the Planetarium, where I spent so many hours as a student and an employee, being rejuvenated," he said. "I think Paul Engle, who was basically the father of the astro-science program, would have been happy to see the Planetarium’s rebirth as an anchor for a solar system-themed courtyard surrounded by an ultramodern $26 million science facility."

Morris, assistant vice president for academic affairs at UT Pan American for many years, graduated from Edinburg High School in 1963 and, like so many high school students, "didn’t know what I wanted to do — or be."

He gravitated to astro-science for a couple of reasons — his older brother was working at the campus observatory and because "it was something I had heard about and was interested in."

"This was about the time that Sputnik was going up," he recalled. "The space program was starting to get going, so it was kind of a natural thing to drop into."

He had shown an interest in science — "not real overboard, but it was something I enjoyed," Morris said.

"I hung around with the some of the nerds — I wasn’t smart enough to be a nerd, but I hung around with them," he recalled with a smile, "so when we came over here (to campus) for career days, I met with the astro-science people, and that became my major."

During his first fall semester on campus, he started working as a student assistant for 50 cents an hour in the observatory, a structure that was located just south of the Planetarium but has since been torn down.

"I helped maintain the equipment (including a 17-inch telescope Engle had built and donated to the university) and then, when I got further along in the program, I was a lab assistant, teaching some of the night labs and putting on the planetarium shows," he said.

"We used to bring in ‘billions’ of grade school kids by the bus loads, and we would make planetarium presentations for them. I think the facility would seat about 60 at a time, so we would do two or three presentations in succession.

"Generally, we would have our regular classes in the morning, and in the afternoon we ran the planetarium shows. There were a number of us doing that kind of thing."

For Morris, a highlight of his undergraduate days was his involvement in research projects at an observatory Pan American operated in Mexico in cooperation with Monterrey Tech.

"It was about 80 miles south of Monterrey on top of Mt. Infiernillo," he said. "They had a couple of NSF (National Science Foundation) research grants to do photometric research on eclipsing binaries — two stars that are rotating around each other.

"I went there many times when I was working for the observatory. I enjoyed going down there, but a lot of people didn’t like it — too primitive. You would drive to 8,000 feet, park the vehicles in the meadow and take burros and mules up the side of the mountain to the 10,392-foot level, which was where the observatory was."

The Pan American researchers would usually go down for long weekends every two or three months.

"There were log cabins up there, and everything was brought in on the backs of animals — or man. It was just a really neat deal," Morris said.

"I remember one time we tried to cook a chicken up there, and we cooked that chicken for a day and a half. We never got it done because of the altitude. The problem was that, at that altitude, you could almost stir boiling water with your fingers. What we needed was a pressure cooker."

The mountaintop observatory was a great recruiting tool for the astro-science program in the early ’60s. Through an NSF grant, the university would bring in high school students for on-campus instruction and research at the Mexio facility.

"We got a number of our subsequent people in the program from that," he noted. "We had people from all over the country coming down here for the program because it was the only one of its kind in the country. Other programs were totally astrophysics or astronomy or astronautics, and ours was a blend of all of those things."

As for Morris, his early career goal was "to go into the planetarium field."

"About the time I got out of school, the space program was tapering off, but there were government grants to build planetariums," he said.

Facing the job market with enthusiasm, he went on several interviews before reality set in.

"My feeling was that they (the planetarium developers) weren’t comfortable with letting this wet behind the ears, fresh out of college kid come in, set up some $200,000 operation and run the thing," he noted.

That’s when he returned to Pan American to work on a bachelor’s degree in business, which would later lead him to a new career in higher education administration.

Morris says he doesn’t regret not finding a home in the planetarium field.

"The important thing — and what I try to tell students — is to get a degree. You’re learning how to think and use your mind, whether or not you ever go into your particular field of study," he noted.

As he was finishing his BBA, Morris decided it was "time to get a real job and quit being a student."

He went to an employment agency and told them the one thing he wasn’t interested in was retail sales, and "that’s what they sent me out to interview for."

So he turned to the people he knew best — his friends

at Pan American University.

"I had worked at registration my whole career at Pan Am, so I started checking around here," he said.

He was directed to John Hook, who had just been named dean of admissions and registrar, and Morris began his first full-time assignment at the university making $390 a month, "which was about what the school teachers were getting back then."

From evaluating transcripts to serving as director of admissions to helping guide the academic affairs of UT Pan American as assistant vice president, Morris is pleased with the direction his life took almost three decades ago.

"The university has been good to me over the years," he noted.

During his time at Pan American, he also has seen many changes.

"Of course, the campus has grown significantly. The physical plant is something that continues to amaze me, especially when I go to other campuses and come back and look at ours — how beautiful and related it is, all the buildings tying together."

The enrollment also has increased dramatically during his tenure — from the 1,300 students of his early days to almost 13,000 today.

"I think we are providing an excellent service to the Valley, one they probably wouldn’t get otherwise. I think the ‘value-added’ aspect that we provide is much greater than for most universities," he said.

"We still have a significant number of first-generation college students, so if you are changing the educational level from maybe ninth grade to receiving a college degree, I think we’ve made a dramatic impact. I guess that’s the thing I’m the proudest of in being associated with this institution — that it’s able to provide that for the student."

On a personal level, Morris is also proud of the influence he has had on providing administrative services for the students.

"Sometimes, when someone asks me what I do at the university, I have a difficult time trying to explain my job," he said. "I’m an expediter. People give me something they want done, and I try to make it happen, and hopefully reduce the administrative bureaucracy for student."

Morris was a prime mover behind implementing telephone, in-house computer terminal and World Wide Web registration options; he has brought in electronic kiosks at five sites on campus (with two more to be added this year) that provide instant information to students about class schedules, as well as their account balances and academic status; and he’s working on a Web-based application for admission and an on-line degree audit system.

"I want to provide for the student as many avenues of access to information that I can," he noted. "One of the things we’ve tried to do as a university is stay on the front edge of technology in the services we provide.

Another major step in the technology area will be taken at the beginning of the fall semester, when every student who registers will be provided a free e-mail account, "so they’ll have full electronic access," Morris said.

Despite his own involvement in technology, the longtime administrator is cautious about distance learning.

"We may be able to provide the course content to the student (via technology), but higher education is not just course content," Morris said. "There’s social interaction; there’s the dialog that goes on between students and faculty and other students that is probably as important as the course content. I may not use the astrophysics course that I took here back in 1966, but it helped teach me how to think."