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?