Greatness Visible

The University of Texas has more going for it today than ever before: unregulated tuition, unfettered diversity, smart students, winning sports teams, first-class cultural facilities, academic programs with buzz, and finally, an administration with realistic goals. So why isn't it living up to its potential? Good question.

THE DREAM OF A GREAT UNIVERSITY rising out of the prairie north of the Colorado River is almost as old as Texas itself. The Battle of San Jacinto was only three years distant when the Congress of the Republic provided for a college to be located in Austin, the soon-to-be seat of government, with an endowment of almost a quarter of a million acres of land. In 1876 the state constitution called for the establishment of “a university of the first class.” The University of Texas opened its doors in 1883, but here we are, 120 years later, the promise still unfulfilled. In the latest annual rankings by U.S. News and World Report, UT lost its spot among the nation’s top fifty research universities, dropping from forty-ninth to fifty-third. Among the best public universities, it slipped from thirteenth to seventeenth.

The story of UT’s inability to achieve greatness in many ways mirrors the state’s own quest for respect. The obstacles over the years have been the same: lack of money, lack of pizzazz, a surfeit of complacency and self-satisfaction, and a lot of political meddling. Perhaps it is unfair to the meddlers to characterize their concerns so cavalierly. The notion of a university that is at once elite and public carries with it an inherent contradiction. In the political world, it means that the tax dollars of the many must be used to serve the few—a tough proposition to sell, but give UT president Larry Faulkner credit for trying. “A major institution is a listening post,” he says. “It’s plugged into what is happening in the top level of every field of knowledge. Texas must have a player in that game. It is fatal not to have that in this world.” He’s right. But most parents would settle for their kids being able to get into school.

Still, in competitions of the mind, as in competitions of the body, rankings and occasional fumbles do not tell the whole story. The game goes on, and as every football fan knows, the scoreboard is not the only indicator of the eventual outcome. There is also momentum, and for the first time in at least two decades, UT has it. The reason is that earlier this year, the Texas Legislature, facing a $10 billion shortfall and unwilling to raise taxes, grudgingly agreed to allow state universities to set their own tuition rates according to what the market can bear. At the same time, it reduced their funding, necessitating budget cuts at individual campuses. In the short term, UT faces a couple of very lean years, but in the long run, its financial worries are over, assuming that lawmakers don’t change their minds. As a bonus, the Legislature discontinued the practice of grabbing a portion of the money from research grants, a policy reversal that is worth $22 million a year to UT. One other favorable development was the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding affirmative action in university admissions, which dissolved the Hopwood decision prohibiting special treatment of minorities by Texas universities only. At this moment in its history, UT enjoys more freedom from political regulation—and more control over its own destiny—than it has ever had.

The question now is, Where does UT go from here? In some ways, it is already on the right track. The entering freshman class is the best in its history, at least by the standards that are used to measure such things: average score on the SAT I (1240) and average class rank (ninety-first percentile). Other universities have entering classes with higher average scores, but none has so many students who score so well, leading some UT officials to describe their campus as “the largest concentration of really smart kids in the world.” But the size of the student body is also one of the two significant impediments—money being the other—standing between those really smart kids and the education they deserve.

What follows is the story of a university that has always wanted to be great but until now never had both the will and the resources to get there. It is also a story about what it means to be “great” in academia today and why UT falls short and what it has to do to get to the next level—and how hard that will be. I am not a wholly neutral observer in these matters. I have a lot of connections to UT. I graduated from its law school; I teach on campus from time to time; I have friends in the administration and on the faculty; and I am tired of watching the football team lose to Oklahoma. I believe that if UT is not among the best public universities in the country twenty years from now, this state will be in big trouble. But this is an arm’s-length exercise. It’s not just a story about a university with momentum. It’s a story about a university that has no more excuses.

TWENTY YEARS AGO, WHEN UT was celebrating its one-hundredth anniversary, then-president Peter Flawn appointed a committee of university types and citizen boosters to chart its future. Robert King, the dean of liberal arts at the time, remembers addressing the group, which naturally wanted UT to be number one in the nation academically. King was then and is now a crusty, rather blunt fellow, and he told the committee, “We can’t be Harvard.” He went on to explain that in long-established fields like English, history, political science, and philosophy, the top schools—Harvard and others of its ilk—have a lock on the top ten. “My number one priority,” he said, “is to hold on to the top rankings we have in areas like Spanish, German, and linguistics.” The next day, he got a

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