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 institutions in their systems—and the number keeps growing. It is currently seventeen, among them UT-Arlington, Prairie View A&M, and several medical schools. These outposts of the UT and A&M systems have their own ambitions and needs, and they frequently regard the flagship university as a rival, not a parent. So diluted is the income from the PUF, and so huge are the enrollments at the Austin and College Station campuses, that the per-student payout from the PUF is less than one tenth the amount per student that Rice University receives from its endowment.

If it is any consolation, the problem facing flagships is not unique to Texas. “Is the Public Research University Dead?” asks the headline of a January article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The author characterizes the flagships’ predicament as a “purgatory of insufficient resources and declining competitiveness” with private universities. He identifies the political problem as America’s aging population, which is more interested in health care and public safety than higher education—and state budgets are reflecting their priorities. The name of the author? Mark Yudof.

When I asked Yudof in a telephone interview what he planned to do, he talked first about management: “got to get the maximum bang for the buck” and “add strength in the areas of performance and accountability.” His choice of priorities seemed a little small-picture for someone who has always been regarded as a big-picture person, until I remembered that before Yudof left for Minnesota, he had a reputation as the rare academic with political skills, whether he was wooing well-heeled donors or talking policy with legislators. In those days the Legislature was run by Democrats; in 2003 it will probably be run by Republicans. Maybe he was just practicing his lines; after all, some Republican bigwigs reportedly had opposed his return because they regarded him as too liberal. I asked him what he thought the chancellor’s mission was, and he set the bar for himself: “To build a constituency for higher education. If people could only see it as a good thing statewide. When El Paso succeeds, that’s good for the state as a whole.” To build that constituency, Texas is going to have to have a statewide debate over higher education, just as it had a statewide debate over public education in 1984, led by Ross Perot. The higher ed debate is going to have to address three issues:

Access. In all the talk about flagships, don’t forget the entry level. What is going to happen when the current group of students in elementary school, so many of them Hispanic and black, reaches college age? Will they be prepared for college? Will the state’s colleges be prepared for them? Texas needs to emphasize teaching in addition to research, particularly for the universities along and south of Interstate 10.

Flagships. How many do we need? How many can we afford? California has nine, though with a much larger population. In time, Texas should have six—in addition to UT-Austin and A&M, one in the Dallas area, one in San Antonio, one in Houston, one in Lubbock—but not all at once; they should be put on a track to reach flagship status over a period of years.

Funding. The big one. If the Legislature is not going to support excellence with tax dollars (and it isn’t), the only way to fund the existing flagships (not to mention the new ones) is one a lot people aren’t going to like: deregulate tuition. The Legislature should continue to set tuition for entry-level universities, keeping it a bargain, but allow the flagships to set their own tuition rates and keep the revenue, earmarking a portion of tuition money for financial aid for students from low- and middle-income families. There aren’t that many of them at UT-Austin anyway: A 1999 report by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities indicated that the median family income is $80,000. If Mark Yudof can accomplish this, maybe someday UT can be number one in more than football.