The Unmaking of a President

The firing of Stephen Spurr proves that in political football The University of Texas is still Number One. 
UT’s revolving door: LeMaistre ousts Spurr, exposing himself to the intrigues of Regent Frank Erwin.
Illustration by Mark Stinson

On Tuesday, September 24, about 1:45 pm, Arthur H. Dilly was admitted to the home of Ste­phen H. Spurr at 2101 Meadowbrook in Austin. Both men knew it was no ordinary visit. Dilly, executive assistant to University of Texas Chan­cellor Charles A. LeMaistre, had tele­phoned Dr. Robert D. Mettlen, assistant to UT-Austin President Spurr, a short time earlier with an ominous message.

The message: LeMaistre had a letter he wanted delivered immediately to Spurr. Mettlen, who anticipated what the letter would say, told Dilly to send it out to him and he would deliver it to Spurr at his home. “That probably would not be appropriate,” said Dilly. “It probably should be delivered directly to the president.”

“Good. Come on out,” said Mettlen. Spurr accepted the letter from Dilly at 1:47 pm, saying “Thanks, Art.” The chancellor’s representative left im­mediately.

LeMaistre’s letter contained two terse paragraphs. The first that Spurr had been relieved of his administrative responsibilities as president of The Uni­versity of Texas at Austin, effective immediately. The second advised him that LeMaistre’s action in no way altered Spurr’s academic status as a tenured professor in the Department of Botany and at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Spurr’s summary dismissal became an instant cause célebre in Texas edu­cational and political circles, and was front-page news for the state’s major dailies. The firing even set off minor shock waves throughout the national academic community, plunging the University of Texas into its deepest crisis in 30 years—since the last time UT’s top administrative official was abruptly terminated. The victim in 1944 was Homer Rainey, fired by the Board of Regents for challenging regental inter­ference with his administration. Five thousand students, including an out­spoken young man named Frank Erwin, Jr., had marched on the Capitol pro­testing Rainey’s firing. The American Association of University Professors re­acted by placing UT on its blacklist and formally censured the school; many top instructors left and others never came. The university didn’t really recover academically until the late 1950s and it was not long afterwards that Governor John Connally named an older, wiser Frank Erwin to the Board of Regents.

Erwin, by then was National Demo­cratic Committeeman from Texas, a powerful political figure in his own right, and soon became embroiled in a series of controversies with administra­tors, faculty, and students. LeMaistre took over as chancellor in 1970; and the exodus began soon thereafter. UT-Austin President Norman Hackerman, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences John Silber, and perhaps a dozen lesser luminaries of the UT-Austin administration, and faculty de­parted because of differences with Le­Maistre and Erwin over how the uni­versity should be run—and by whom. Silber was fired; the rest resigned, some on their own initiative, others by request. Spurr’s dismissal culminated a four-year period during which UT lost some of its finest academic minds, but the university never fell into academic disrepute comparable to the post-Rainey period. What effect Spurr’s firing will have, however, remains to be seen.

The firing came 36 hours after Le­Maistre (with deputy chancellor E. D. “Don” Walker on hand as a witness) confronted Spurr with a demand that he sign a suggested letter of resignation or face dismissal that very day. It was a tactic that LeMaistre had used from the very outset of his administration. Spurr was stunned by LeMaistre’s rapid recital of allegations and by the demand for his immediate resignation. He was not given the opportunity to respond to the charges—LeMaistre had already made up his mind—and the chancellor’s sole concession was to give Spurr time to discuss the terms of his resignation.

Spurr had underestimated both the growing discontent of several regents with his administration and LeMaistre’s increasing determination that he had to go. Spurr had long suspected that Erwin wanted him out, and he knew that he had irritated regents Ed Clark of Austin and Jenkins Garrett of Fort Worth. If Spurr needed further evi­dence that he was on shaky ground, he needed only to recall an incident that took place during the summer. An Austin regent, probably former Texas governor Allan Shivers, warned Spurr that LeMaistre would ask the UT-Aus­tin president for a medical certificate to determine whether Spurr had suffi­ciently recovered from open-heart sur­gery to perform his duties. This seemed odd to Spurr, because LeMaistre is a medical doctor who was completely informed about Spurr’s medical condi­tion. Sure enough, LeMaistre insisted on the certificate, but the matter was dropped when Spurr passed the evalua­tion with flying colors.

At first, Spurr was inclined to resign. He says he intended to step down anyway after January 10, 1975—the date Erwin’s term as regent expires. He asked LeMaistre for contractual assur­ance that he would receive a year’s leave of absence at his full professor’s pay of $38,000, three-fourths of what he received as president. He requested approval to continue living rent-free in the president’s home, with utilities and household help paid by the university, for one year. He also wanted continued free use of a university-leased car for a year. Finally, he desired a $10,000 annual research grant, renewable on a year-to-year basis, to hire a research assistant and meet nonsalaried research expenses. The financial difference be­tween resigning and being fired totaled more than $50,000.

LeMaistre, a cold, humorless man whose distrust of academicians as ad­ministrators has been manifest from the first days of his chancellorship, agreed to go along with Spurr’s terms, subject to regent approval. Others who involun­tarily resigned from administrative posi­tions to devote full time to teaching and research had received similar bene­fits.

Despite these initial negotiations, Spurr had reservations about resigning. He asked LeMaistre whether the chan­cellor had issued the resign-or-be-fired ultimatum at the request or with the approval of the Board of Regents. “He told me that he had the unanimous backing of the board to take whatever administrative action he wished in the matter,” Spurr said shortly after his dis­missal. Later, when asked by philosophy Professor Edmund L. Pincoffs, chair­man of the select faculty committee in­vestigating the firing, to specify exactly

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