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 such as salaries and equipment. In the seventies and eighties Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby took up the cause, saying that Texas could no longer afford to rely on what came out of the ground; instead, it had to rely on what came out of people’s minds.
No one in elective office talks like that anymore. Support for higher ed began to wane during the oil bust of the eighties and the state budget crunch it induced. In the nineties a school finance crisis and George W. Bush’s education reform proposals gave public schools first claim on state tax dollars. Higher ed was not on Bush’s radar screen. He believed that colleges and universities, particularly the flagships, had other ways of raising money, such as research grants and private philanthropy, that were not available to K-12 public schools.
No longer the darlings of policymakers, the flagships suffered the consequences. Oh, the Legislature still puts a lot of money into state universities and medical schools—around $5.4 billion in 2002. But too much goes for pork barrel (legislators covet new satellite campuses of major universities in their districts) and too little for excellence. On the big question of whether the state will continue to support two elite universities, the Legislature’s preference for broad-based mediocrity over excellence is all too clear: State funds now account for just 22 percent of UT-Austin’s budget, down from 44 percent twenty years ago. A 2002-2003 budget item called “Institutional Enhancement” provides extra funding to every university in the state. UT gets $6.3 million, less than Sul Ross State ($8 million) or Angelo State ($7.3 million).
The argument for flagships is simple: They import talent into a state. They import federal tax dollars for research. They attract businesses that become employment centers like Silicon Valley, Boston’s Route 128, the North Carolina Research Triangle—and Austin. But if you live in places like Houston or Dallas or San Antonio or Lubbock or El Paso, or represent one of them in the Legislature, an economic boom in Austin or College Station doesn’t interest you very much. You want that flagship in your own back yard, transforming your economy, raising your standard of living.
For a model of what has happened to higher education in Texas, look at Afghanistan: a battlefield of jealous tribes. Here, each tribe wants the prize of a flagship university in its territory. Watch out for those warlords from Texas Tech, who teamed up with their counterparts from the University of Houston to raid the state treasury in the 2001 legislative session; their objective was to seize some flagship turf of their own. UT was able to fend them off, thanks to joining up with Dallas business interests, who wanted to make sure that universities in their area didn’t get shortchanged. But loyalties are short-lived in this theater, and now those Dallas warlords are talking about forging a Northern Alliance made up of the University of North Texas and three schools that would break away from the UT System (Southwestern Medical School, UT-Dallas, and UT-Arlington) to form a new flagship.
But how would the state pay for these new flagships? A major research university requires top faculty. Without top faculty, it can’t get the research grants; without the research grants, high salaries, and good students, it can’t attract the faculty. What UT and A&M have always had that the other universities in the state lack is an endowment, known as the Permanent University Fund (usually identified by its acronym, pronounced “Puff”). Early state constitutions set aside public lands as an endowment for a future University of Texas, which would not open its doors until 1883. The endowment, which for years consisted mainly of revenue from grazing leases, turned into a bonanza when oil was discovered on university lands in the twenties. Today the Permanent University Fund is worth more than $7 billion. Under an agreement worked out decades ago, UT gets two thirds of the annual income, A&M the remaining third. Both flagships have had to share the PUF pot with other