A response to Michael Quinn Sullivan
Wed June 29, 2011 10:39 am

Michael Quinn Sullivan has a bone to pick with me. I am the subject of a blog post by Sullivan published on the Empower Texans web site yesterday under the headline, “Texas Monthly: Disclosure-Free Zone.” Sullivan objects to the fact that in an April column about higher ed reforms, I did not disclose that I have taught at UT from time to time. Here are some pertinent paragraphs:

Paul Burka, the “senior executive editor” at Texas Monthly has taken to defending the higher education status quo – skyrocketing tuition and a lack of transparency. He follows the administrative bureaucracy party line by deriding reformers, disparaging them and calling motivations into question.

Couldn’t be because he has a financial interest in the status quo, could it? Mr. Burka received $10,159 in compensation ($9,295 in salary) for teaching 13 students. (NOTE: the numbers are from UT’s own data, which the institution says may or may not be valid or accurate.)

He hasn’t disclosed in any recent writings supporting the higher-ed establishment that he is a “visiting lecturer” for the University of Texas, teaching a three credit-hour class – ironically titled “Right And Wrong In Politics.”

Mr. Sullivan has a point, though he overplays it to a ridiculous extreme, as is his custom. I should have included a parenthetical statement in that April column saying that I had taught at UT on various occasions in the past (though I was not teaching there or receiving compensation at the time that I wrote the column). But it is far-fetched to suggest that I have any permanent attachment to UT, or a financial motivation to defend the university. I am not an academic, I am a journalist. Over the past twenty years or so, I have been fortunate enough to teach courses at UT (and also at St. Edwards). During that time, I have written several editorial columns about the university. One was supportive of tuition deregulation; one was critical of a watered-down degree program I referred to as “B.A. Lite” (this one, alas, is not yet available online). I have not tried to hide the fact that I teach at UT; in 2001, for example, I wrote about volunteering to evaluate applications for admission to the Plan II honors program, as I was eligible to do as an instructor. I have also written a skeptical column about the athletic department’s efforts to find a home for the Longhorns after the breakup of the Big XII conference. In short, I choose subjects that Texas Monthly believes are important, and I try to call ‘em as I see ‘em. I leave it to readers to judge for themselves whether they believe that my reporting on UT is influenced by what Mr. Sullivan refers to as my “financial interest in the status quo,” or whether it reflects my strongly held personal belief in the importance of allowing state universities to pursue excellence free of political interference.

As for my teaching itself, in some cases, I co-taught classes at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs with former state senator Max Sherman, who was then dean of the school. I have also taught a freshman seminar in the Plan II honors program, which I call (without irony) “The Search for Right and Wrong in Politics.” It is essentially a great-books course on politics. We read selections from Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War—the Mytilenian Debate and the Melian Dialogue, which have considerable relevance to contemporary politics; we read Julius Caesar as a political play; we read All the King’s Men, one of the great American novels, which is based upon the story of Huey P. Long; and, of course, we read Machiavelli’s The Prince. In addition to the readings, I invite people from the Capitol community—members, consultants, and lobbyists—to talk to the students about what they do.

Why do I teach? It’s certainly not about the money. I’m a lowly adjunct instructor. I teach because I hope to infuse my students with the respect for politics that I myself have come to hold. I hope to transmit my beliefs that politics matters, that it is a worthy process, that it raises fundamental questions about human nature that are as relevant today as they were in the ancient world. I teach because one of the great rewards of teaching is how much you learn from your students.

Mr. Sullivan has himself become an integral part of our political process in Texas. Two months before the April column that he objects to, in compiling a feature story for Texas Monthly on the 25 most powerful people at the Capitol, I wrote the following lines about him:

No one in Texas politics can stir up a fuss quicker than this onetime newspaperman and aide to Congressman Ron Paul. Sullivan’s power is unique. As the president of Empower Texans, he uses his influential website to get conservatives across the state engaged on issues he regards of high importance. With a few keystrokes, Sullivan can rouse the right in greater numbers, and instill in them a greater alarm, than anyone—and in the process he can put enormous pressure on Republican lawmakers to hew to conservative fiscal orthodoxy.

Spot on, I would say. As we foresaw, Mr. Sullivan, Empower Texans, and a second affiliated group, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, exerted tremendous influence during the legislative session, from opposing the use of the rainy day fund to whipping up an anti-federal government frenzy over the patently unconstitutional anti-groping bill. Indeed, even as I write, Mr. Sullivan is releasing his fiscal responsibility index, which can make careers or break them (mostly the latter). Mr. Sullivan has also strongly supported the higher education “reforms” that are being thrust upon the UT and Texas A&M, including greater transparency and accountability.

But in raising the issue of disclosure, Mr. Sullivan operates by the adage, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility operate behind the impenetrable shield of 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 nonprofit corporations. The Empower Texans Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit whose purpose is “educational.” Contributions are tax deductible. Texans for Fiscal Responsibility is a 501(c)4 nonprofit whose purpose is advocacy. These devices are completely legal and above board and they are in widespread use in contemporary American politics. They allow Mr. Sullivan to avoid the transparency he demands of the universities he criticizes. He does not have to reveal the names of the corporations and individuals who fund his work. The third leg of the stool is Empower Texans PAC, which engages in political races and is subject to state ethics laws. All we really know about Empower Texans is its organizational structure and its board of directors, the most prominent of whom are Midland oilman Tim Dunn, chairman; Mr. Sullivan, president; and Jeff Sandefer, the former UT professor who developed the reforms that have stirred up such controversy.

To repeat: What Mr. Sullivan does is perfectly legal and above-board, and the organizational structure of his groups is in widespread use by many other groups across the political spectrum. But since he has made the topics of transparency and disclosure such a battle cry, it is fair to point out that he could practice a little more transparency and disclosure himself.

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