Senior executive editor Paul Burka talks about this month's cover story, "Greatness Visible."
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texasmonthly.com: In your article you say that UT has momentum. Is that why you decided to do the story now? How long do you think UT’s momentum will last?
Paul Burka: We have been talking about doing a major UT story for some time now. One of the problems in the magazine business is that you can talk about a story forever without ever doing it, because you’re waiting for the “right” moment to occur. We call it a “news peg”—some event you can hang a story on. Finally, we decided last spring just to go ahead and schedule the story for October, without really knowing what the story was. Sometimes you have to make a blind commitment in this business. As it turned out, a lot of things did happen to support the idea that UT was a very “hot” university right now. The basketball team reached the Final Four, the Humanities Research Center got the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate archives, the Legislature let UT and other state schools set their own tuition, and other things that I mention in my story. But the momentum is all in non-academic areas, which brings to mind the old joke about whether the football team has a university it can be proud of. (After the Arkansas debacle, it would be prudent to change the joke to say “the basketball team.”) As for how long the momentum can last, it all depends on a couple of factors: (1) The success of tuition deregulation. The Legislature has proved that it is not willing to provide the funding that is necessary for UT (and, let’s hope, Texas A&M) to achieve greatness. Tuition deregulation is the only other possibility. But most legislators don’t care about greatness; they want their hometown schools to get more funding, and they want free tickets to UT football games. Tuition deregulation is by no means a done deal; UT will have to defend it in future legislative sessions, and it will survive only if state leaders (mainly Governor Rick Perry and Speaker Tom Craddick) continue to support it. (2) The other factor is whether the university’s leadership continues to care about greatness. A board of regents can change in one appointment cycle—it happened in the sixties when Frank Erwin became chairman—and its priorities can change overnight. A&M made great academic strides in the nineties but lost its momentum with the Bonfire tragedy and a change in presidents.
texasmonthly.com: UT is such a huge topic. How did you approach this story? When did you see things coming together for your piece?
PB: In a way, I’ve been working on it for years. I went to law school there, I wrote editorials about the university for the Daily Texan, I have friends on the faculty and in the administration, and I have taught classes there. I’ve got a lot of UT trivia and history stored away in random brain cells. So I sort of knew what the issues were: whether there is an inherent contradiction between the idea of an elite university and the idea of a public university, and whether the two can be compatible in a state like Texas, which isn’t all that inclined to value intellectualism, much less spend public money to achieve it. What really helped the story come together was the appearance of the U.S. News and World Report annual ranking of American universities in late August. UT did not fare very well—it dropped out of the top fifty—and Texas A&M fared worse. The rankings accurately reflect UT’s strengths and weaknesses. UT’s reputation among fellow academics is very good, but the quality of the education it delivers is hampered by its unwieldy size (50,000 students) and lack of funding. It was not hard to find examples on campus of how these problems diminish the quality of the education UT delivers.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story? What kind of research was involved?
PB: On and off, I worked on the story for around 6 months—ever since we committed to doing it—if you count following higher education issues like tuition deregulation through the Legislature. I’ve had other stories to write and edit, though, so I didn’t really get to work full-time on the UT story until the last four to five weeks before we went to press. The research followed the pattern I always use: Start out by interviewing people I know, who are less likely to spin me—and easier to figure out when they try. Then collect enough information so that when I have to interview people I don’t know, the spin won’t catch me unaware. I did a lot of research on history too. I had wanted to do a section on old political fights, going back to when Governor James Ferguson vetoed the entire UT budget in 1917 and the firing of President Homer Rainey by the board of regents in the forties. These were defining moments at the time, but there was so much to say about the present that I had no room to write about the past.
texasmonthly.com: You teach a class from time to time, so being on campus isn’t anything new for you. But what about sitting in Don Graham’s English class? What was that like?
PB: It was really like going back to school. I was late to class. The class stared at me. I fled to the back row. Then I took six legal-tablet pages of notes in an hour and a quarter, as if I had a test the next day. It just reminded me of how great it is to be able to listen to really smart people talk about the areas about which they are knowledgeable. Don Graham (who is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly as well as a member of the English department faculty) made me like to read Walt Whitman, and I didn’t think that was possible.
texasmonthly.com: Did anything surprise you while working on this story? If so, what?
PB: Aside from Whitman, you mean? For most of the time I have been involved with UT, as a student, an observer, and a teacher, I found it to be indifferent to the quality of student life. So I was very surprised to find that UT is a much more user-friendly place than it used to be. In the story, I mention various ways that the university tries to help freshmen get adjusted. I’m not sure anyone would admit it publicly, but UT has been influenced by the way Texas A&M tries to keep students from falling through the cracks. (If you doubt that UT’s leaders pay attention to the Aggies, consider that President Larry Faulkner named former A&M president Ray Bowen to the Commission of 125 that is charting UT’s future.) There are still issues: The advising system isn’t as good as it was a few years ago when it was centralized; and there is some agreement on campus that the idea of having more courses that require writing essays hasn’t worked very well, in part because too many professors give students a grade but not much of a critique.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, do you think undergraduate students get a great education at UT? If so, why? If not, why not?
PB: Let me put it this way: I think that UT offers a great education for those who want it. You have to be aggressive. Apply for an honors program. Take a seminar as a freshman—and speak up. Linger after class to talk to a professor. Find out who the great professors are and try to take their classes, and if they are closed, you have to go look the professors in the eye and make them tell you there’s no room. And then you have to get the most out of the classes when you get in. It’s just human nature that not very many people will do this, and fewer will do so at a huge state university like UT than at a smaller school like, say, Rice, where I went to college. It’s another old story: that youth is wasted on the young. After you have been out of college awhile, you wish you had read all those books you skimmed over or learned by borrowing somebody’s lecture notes. You can slide by at UT, if that’s your intention, and you can fall through the cracks. All of this is true at every university, only more so at UT.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think is the best thing about UT? Why?
PB: I think of something Paul Woodruff, the director of the Plan II honors program, told me: that UT “is the largest concentration of smart young people in the world.” That’s a good start.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think is the worst thing about UT? Why?
PB: Self-satisfaction has been its greatest enemy over the years. Maybe this is not a “worst thing” but another “best thing,” because the current UT hierarchy is anything but self-satisfied. They are obsessed with the idea of achieving greatness.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story? Why?
PB: I wouldn’t say that this was difficult, but it was essential: I had to maintain an arm’s length attitude toward an institution I am associated with.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think UT will ever be a great university? Why or why not?
PB: If UT can successfully price its product so that tuition deregulation is accepted by the public and by the Legislature, and if its regents continue to care as much about academics as athletics, I think it can be the equal of any public university except Berkeley and perhaps Michigan. Better than Illinois or Wisconsin. Better than Virginia or North Carolina. This is especially true at this moment, because higher education institutions everywhere are getting less support from tax dollars than they used to. UT has apparently solved its long-term funding problem, while some of its competitors have not solved theirs.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
PB: This is the second profile I have written about a major Texas university. In 1997 I wrote that Texas A&M, which had pulled ahead of UT in that year’s U.S. News ranking for the first (and so far the only) time, offered the best undergraduate education of any public university in the state. In previous years, this magazine had written favorably and unfavorably about both schools, and here is the general rule about the reaction. The Aggies care a great deal about getting praise, and a great deal more about getting criticism. In previous years, when self-satisfaction ran rampant at the Austin campus, UT didn’t care what you wrote; the praise confirmed what they already knew, and criticism was off base. But when I wrote favorably about Texas A&M, then and only then did I feel UT’s wrath.