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

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