Storming the Ivory Tower

Tuition is skyrocketing. Enrollments are exploding. And the street value of a college degree is up for debate. Don’t look now, but a pitched battle is under way over the future of higher education in Texas. Ground zero is UT and Texas A&M, where a powerful group of reformers backed by Rick Perry is trying to rethink the way universities work—over the screams and howls of the faculty and staff. Will they destroy the university in order to save it? Or will they actually save it?
Storming the Ivory Tower
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

Last August, on the first day of classes for the fall 2011 semester at the University of Texas at Austin, I stood on a pebbled apron of the UT Tower in a patch of shade and took in a timeless scene. A parade of youth passed before me, their backs bent to accommodate the weight of their packs. Guys in baseball caps and baggy shorts sailed a Frisbee across a parched lawn beneath a flagpole. Girls with ponytails and jogging shorts screamed with delight when they spotted a familiar face.

The setting was at once uplifting and reassuring. In any year, on any campus, the first day of class is a moment, like the first day of spring training, when all things are still possible, when everything seems poised to turn out exactly as we want it. The entire world is nothing but promise. Looking out at the students’ faces, I recalled the days four decades ago when I was the one walking across this very campus as a law student. I remembered something Paul Woodruff, the dean of undergraduate studies, had once told me: “ UT,” he said, “is the largest concentration of smart young people in the world.” 

Behind me loomed the Main Building and the Tower, the symbol of the pride and power and prestige of the university (notwithstanding the damning description by the late folklorist and UT professor J. Frank Dobie, who once said its top resembled a “Greek outhouse”). Occasionally students would glance up at the arcade that shades the entrance to the Tower, above which an inscription from John 8:32 reads, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” It is a noble sentiment that is at the core of any liberal arts education, yet from where I stood, it was freighted with irony: though they gazed upon this line of scripture, few of the students crossing before me knew the truth about what was happening inside the citadel

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