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Lumberjack Legacy

Feature Story

Alumnus named 10th university president at sunset of decades-long SFA career

Story by Amy Roquemore '93 & '12

To the best of his recollection, Dr. Steve Westbrook '81 & '89 has held more than a dozen positions in the course of a distinguished SFA career spanning more than four decades. His most recent promotion came as a surprise in late January when the Board of Regents voted unanimously to remove "interim" from the title he's held since April 2022, officially naming him the institution's 10th president and cementing his place in the annals of SFA history.

Although Westbrook won't serve as SFA president for long — he still plans to retire (for good) later this spring — he told the board he was both honored and humbled by the gesture. He then added, with his trademark self-deprecating humor, "I'm glad there was no split vote."

Steve Westbrook 1977
1977

Leading the university during the past year has bookended a rewarding career in higher education Westbrook said he couldn't have imagined when he arrived at SFA in 1977. A first-generation college student from the small East Texas town of Kennard, he moved into Dorm 14 intent on studying history and political science as a stepping stone to law school. He quickly got involved with the Performing Arts Committee, a forerunner of the Student Activities Association, helping produce multiple large-scale concerts each year.

He also juggled several off-campus jobs, working at a local tire store and serving as a late-night radio DJ. He even rang up sales at Jack in the Box on North Street, where he would sometimes stand outside wearing the famous clown head and encouraging passersby to stop in for burgers and fries.

"I needed the off-campus jobs to pay the bills, but I fell in love with campus activities," he said. "The experience truly changed the concept I had of myself, and I became a lot more confident. I learned I was just as capable as the kids from big cities, and I became very engaged. Toward the end of my sophomore year, I began to think I may want to do this as a career."

Steve Westbrook 1988
1988

He eventually got up the courage to tell his parents he wasn't going to be a lawyer after all, and with his family's wholehearted support, he landed his first SFA job after graduation as a University Center programs advisor. He began a steady rise through the Student Affairs ranks, earning a Master of Education in counseling and serving as coordinator of UC programs, director of student activities, director of student affairs and executive director of student affairs.

"I never know what to tell people when they ask me about my leadership style because I didn't consciously choose one," Westbrook said. "But it boils down to relationships — getting to know people and letting them get to know me. Once we have that common ground, we can work through things and manage whatever challenges come along."

He acknowledges he is innately calm in a crisis — be it a hurricane, a flooded building, a pandemic or a budget shortfall. His default response is to slow down, consider all angles, make a plan and execute the steps needed to resolve the problem.

Westbrook said one especially enjoyable aspect of his SFA career has been working directly with talented and motivated student leaders on such efforts as passing the student fee that made possible the expansion and renovation of the Baker Pattillo Student Center and the construction of the Student Recreation Center, both of which were completed in 2007. Continue

  • The Board of Regents and Westbrook show their axe 'em signs by the resolution that made Westbrook the 10th president of SFA. Regent David Alders wrote the resolution and read it at the board meeting. Pictured, from left, are Alders; Judy Larson Olson; Jennifer Wade Winston, board secretary; Brigettee Carnes Henderson; Westbrook; Karen G. Gantt, board chair; M. Thomas Mason, board vice chair; Paige Vadnais, student regent; Nancy C. Windham; and Robert A. Flores. Photo by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes

    The Board of Regents and Westbrook show their axe 'em signs by the resolution that made Westbrook the 10th president of SFA. Regent David Alders wrote the resolution and read it at the board meeting. Pictured, from left, are Alders; Judy Larson Olson; Jennifer Wade Winston, board secretary; Brigettee Carnes Henderson; Westbrook; Karen G. Gantt, board chair; M. Thomas Mason, board vice chair; Paige Vadnais, student regent; Nancy C. Windham; and Robert A. Flores. Photo by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes

  • The SFA Board of Regents celebrated Presidents Day by officially electing Dr. Steve Westbrook the 10th president of the university Feb. 20. Photo by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes

    The SFA Board of Regents celebrated Presidents Day by officially electing Dr. Steve Westbrook the 10th president of the university Feb. 20. Photo by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes

  • Dr. Steve Westbrook signs the Bible all previous SFA presidents signed before him while surrounded by his family: wife, Dayna, and sons, from left to right, Reed and Bryce. Photo by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes

    Dr. Steve Westbrook signs the Bible all previous SFA presidents signed before him while surrounded by his family: wife, Dayna, and sons, from left to right, Reed and Bryce. Photo by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes

"I have also had the pleasure of working with faculty and staff, community members, and regents on numerous initiatives over the years," Westbrook said. "When I think of the university, our people are who I always come back to — faculty, staff, students and alumni. They are what make SFA a special place."

SFA is also the place where he met his favorite person, his wife Dayna Reed Westbrook '91 & '91. A former high-scoring SFA point guard and member of the Ladyjack Basketball Hall of Fame, the SFA first lady recently retired from Douglass Independent School District after a successful career as a high school teacher and basketball coach.

Married for 32 years, the couple has two sons, former Lumberjack basketball player Reed Westbrook '17 and Bryce Westbrook, a University of Texas alum; two daughters-in-law, Annabeth '19 and Ellen, respectively; granddaughter Slayde; grandson Hayes; and granddog Lottie. They are a close-knit family who the president said — along with extended family, good friends and a deep Christian faith — has provided him invaluable support throughout his career.

The SFA role in which Westbrook served the longest was vice president for university affairs, a position he held for 13 years. As vice president, he oversaw more than 300 full-time employees and 640 student workers and was responsible for a $50 million annual budget. His portfolio of campus departments included Campus Recreation, the University Police Department, Information Technology Services, Student Affairs, auxiliary services, student publications, Residence Life and divisional operations.

Westbrook assumed the duties of the SFA president for the first time in late 2018 when his longtime friend and mentor, then-president Dr. Baker Pattillo, became ill and passed away. He served as interim president until Dr. Scott Gordon was named SFA president in 2019 then resumed his post leading the university affairs division through a time of unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He retired from SFA at the end of 2020, expecting to never go back to work full time. However, when Gordon and the university parted ways in April 2022, SFA once again turned to Westbrook for leadership.

"I love the place," he said when asked why he agreed to serve again as interim president. "I knew it was something I could do for a year or so to help the university through another important transition. SFA changed my life, and I felt I owed a little more time for that. The least I could do was help see it through until the next leader was in place." Continue

  • As part of SFA's centennial celebration, SFA pledged to plant 100 pine trees across campus. Dr. Steve Westbrook planted the 10th pine tree as the 10th president of SFA in front of the Austin Building. Photo by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes

    As part of SFA's centennial celebration, SFA pledged to plant 100 pine trees across campus. Dr. Steve Westbrook planted the 10th pine tree as the 10th president of SFA in front of the Austin Building. Photo by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes

  • In addition to friends, family and past regents, Dr. William R. Johnson (right), SFA's fourth president, and relatives of the late Dr. Baker Pattillo, SFA's eighth president, attended the board meeting and luncheon. Photo by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes
    In addition to friends, family and past regents, Dr. William R. Johnson (right), SFA's fourth president, and relatives of the late Dr. Baker Pattillo, SFA's eighth president, attended the board meeting and luncheon. Photo by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes
  • After the board meeting and luncheon, Dr. Steve Westbrook met with SFA students, faculty and staff for an informal reception in the Baker Pattillo Student Center. Photos by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes
    After the board meeting and luncheon, Dr. Steve Westbrook met with SFA students, faculty and staff for an informal reception in the Baker Pattillo Student Center. Photos by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes
  • After the board meeting and luncheon, Dr. Steve Westbrook met with SFA students, faculty and staff for an informal reception in the Baker Pattillo Student Center. Photos by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes

    After the board meeting and luncheon, Dr. Steve Westbrook met with SFA students, faculty and staff for an informal reception in the Baker Pattillo Student Center. Photos by Lizeth Rodriguez Santes

Westbrook's second term as interim president turned out to be a time of greater change than anyone anticipated. In the months after his return to campus, the Board of Regents decided to explore a possible affiliation with one of the state university systems. Westbrook directed a months-long process of vetting interested systems, which led to a board vote last November to become a member institution of The University of Texas System.

"Dr. Westbrook has led SFA during two critical times in the history of this institution," Karen Gantt, chair of the Board of Regents, announced at the January meeting. "When Dr. Pattillo fell ill and later passed, Dr. Westbrook led SFA through that time. As we have recently gone through a system affiliation evaluation process, Dr. Westbrook led SFA through that process, as well.

"You have given so much to this institution," she said directly to him. "It has been your personal sacrifice and to the benefit of SFA. And our history at this institution needs to reflect you being a president."

According to SFA's university historian and retired professor Dr. Jere Jackson, the 10th SFA presidency will be historically significant, despite its brevity.

"Dr. Westbrook's leadership at the end of the institution's first century is going to give him a preeminent position on the roster of SFA presidents," said Jackson, who served as Westbrook's faculty advisor during his first year at SFA.

"He offered the kind of leadership the university needed to cope with the remnants of the COVID-19 pandemic and has guided SFA in a very transparent way throughout the affiliation process with The University of Texas System. In some ways, it's a miracle he agreed to come back to help us through this time, and that speaks to his devotion to SFA."

As his term as president winds to a close amidst the university's centennial celebrations, Westbrook said he is confident the institution is poised to begin a new era of success and prosperity.

"I am very excited about the future of SFA," he added. "The affiliation with The University of Texas System, the new energy I feel on campus, and the support of the community, region and state leaders have positioned us for a period of growth and increased excellence. It's a great time to be a Lumberjack."