Sinking Flagship

State funding is down. Pork barrel is up. Excellence is out. Mediocrity is in. Can new chancellor Mark Yudof save UT from the Texas Legislature?

EVERY INSTITUTION OF HIGHER LEARNING wants to have a football team the university can be proud of. But there’s an old joke that asks whether the football team has a university it can be proud of. What calls this hoary jest to mind, sad to say, is the current plight of the University of Texas. Its football team is doing just fine—indeed, as Brian D. Sweany writes in an article beginning on page 72 (in the magazine), the Longhorns should win the national championship. Its academic prospects, however, are not so bright. The July 5 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features an article with the headline “The Fall of the Flagships.” Its focus is on UT-Austin and Texas A&M, and it uses the story of declining financial and political support for Texas’ two biggest and best public universities to shed light on a nationwide problem.

When a football program is in trouble, the answer is recruiting. UT regents have taken the same approach to academics by bringing in University of Minnesota president Mark Yudof, who had previously served as law school dean and provost at the Austin campus, to be chancellor of the sprawling UT System, which comprises nine universities and six health institutions. Beating Oklahoma is a snap compared to Yudof’s assignment: Rally the public and the politicians to the idea that higher education in general, and elite institutions in particular, deserve to be in the top tier of the state’s priorities, along with public schools, health care, prisons, and highways.

Not too long ago, this premise was widely accepted in Texas. Governor John Connally was the first to champion higher ed, as it is known in political shorthand. He talked about a “brain drain,” in which the shortage of good universities was causing many of the state’s best high school students to defect to out-of-state colleges, never to return. He decried the legislative propensity to fund “bricks over brains”: gaudy new buildings instead of classroom-related items

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