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On December 4, 1984 Peter Flawn announced that he would resign as president of the University of Texas the following August. Flawn’s imminent departure sent shock waves through the university community. The changing of presidents at UT is always a significant event, mainly because the position has traditionally been filled—and vacated—for reasons that have more to do with politics than academics. But because Flawn had been the strongest, most effective president since Harry Ransom in the early sixties, the choice of his successor promised to be even more significant.
Amid much fanfare, Flawn had declared war on mediocrity, and if mediocrity had not exactly sued for peace, well, it had lost a few skirmishes. Flawn had raised money and academic standards. He had recruited star professors and students. He had persuaded the state’s political and business elite that the future of Texas just might depend upon whether UT achieved the high standard set for it in the state constitution: a university of the first class. Now he was leaving, and everything depended on whom the regents picked to succeed him. Was UT ready to leave petty politics behind and join the academic big leagues at last?
In a word, no. After eight months of searching, after examining 141 candidates for the job, the regents settled on a man with neither a scholarly reputation nor high-level administrative experience. Their nationwide quest stopped roughly five hundred yards from the president’s elegantly appointed chambers in the UT Tower—at the university’s own business school, where William Hughes Cunningham had been dean for three years.
Appointed at 41, Cunningham is the youngest UT president since 1924. His Ph.D. is in marketing; he is a scholar of sales. At the universities with which UT would like to be associated, the presidency is almost always occupied by someone whose academic background is in the sciences or liberal arts. Many of the nation’s elite universities regard Cunningham’s field as an unfit subject for undergraduate education.
While Cunningham may turn out to be a great president who leads UT to the stature it covets, his very selection will make the task more difficult. Academic rankings can be arbitrary, subjective, and provincial. But, like it or not, that’s the game UT has chosen to play and wants desperately to win. By appointing Cunningham, UT at the least missed an opportunity for a masterstroke that would have elevated its reputation. But it might have done far worse.
The selection of Bill Cunningham illustrates how heavily the University of Texas, for all its talk of greatness, is still burdened by its mediocre past. The days of overt political meddling, when president Homer Rainey was fired for defending academic freedom in 1944, are past. But the days when presidents are picked first and foremost to protect UT’s political flanks are not.
Cunningham’s appointment—so peculiar, even radical, when measured by the traditions of the academic establishment—makes sense only when seen in the light of the historical concerns of the UT Board of Regents. The regents have always cared deeply about the university’s relationship with the Texas business community; Cunningham had cultivated those contacts for years. The regents fret about the university’s standing with the Legislature and its public image; Cunningham was a politically safe choice, a student of public relations. The regents feel that the university must tap large sums of money from wealthy private donors; Cunningham had proved himself to be brilliant at that. When all was said and done, the regents selected William Cunningham because they believe that it is not ideas but money that stands between the University of Texas and greatness.
Bill Cunningham wears the executive uniform, but upon meeting him, the sense of greeting a youth is inescapable. His countenance is that of a boy; he is all big ears, soft round cheeks, high forehead, and full lips. The impression is reinforced when he laughs, emitting an undignified high-pitched giggle, and when he moves in a six-foot-four-inch rush of gangling arms and legs.
Cunningham grew up in Michigan, and there is much of the wholesome Middle American in him. He doesn’t smoke and rarely drinks. He is studiously earnest; when we first met, he pumped my hand and looked me in the eye for an awkwardly long time. He disdains the scholarly airs of many academics in favor of an open we-can-do-business charm.
Even before his elevation to the presidency, Cunningham’s life more closely resembled that of an executive than an academic. As dean of the nation’s largest business school, he traveled out of town two, sometimes three, days a week. He belonged to several of Austin’s best private clubs, sat on corporate boards, and counted business executives among his best friends. His UT salary, textbook royalties, and consulting work earned him a six-figure income, part of which he invested in railroad tank cars. Cunningham and his wife, Isabella, a UT advertising professor, enrolled their son, John, at an exclusive private school. A year ago they moved into a new 4260-square-foot home designed by prominent Austin architect Roland G. Roessner and located in West Lake Hills, a high-income enclave on the edge of Austin. According to county tax records, the house and property are appraised at $465,959. As UT president, Cunningham receives a $130,000 salary, paid club memberships, a $600 monthly car allowance, and—until a $1 million renovation of the university president’s mansion is completed—a $5500 monthly housing allowance.
Cunningham is neither ideologue nor visionary. He has no concerns about the university’s excessive size, no plans to reshape the place. Indeed, he comes to the job with no platform of his own. He is instead a consensus-builder, a synthesizer of the ideas of others. His notion of UT’s role in society—often the rub in relations between the academic and business worlds—is sharply limited. “It’s unrealistic to expect the university to change people’s social and moral values,” says Cunningham. “That’s not the role of the university.” This is a man who was unaffected by the social sea change that swept through American universities while he was a student in the sixties.
Now, as president, Cunningham will carry to the corporate world UT’s pitch that a great university can be the savior of the Texas economy. Translation: the business of the university is business.
The Search Begins
Three days after Flawn announced his resignation, the Board of Regents created the Advisory Committee for the Selection of a President. The key word was “advisory.” As the twenty members of the group knew when they gathered for the first time, their charge was merely to submit a list of three to five candidates to the Board of Regents. The board would not be obliged to stick to that slate. But the presence on the committee of three regents—including chairman Jess Hay—made it likely that the panel’s recommendations would be taken seriously. James Duncan, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs of the UT System and the immediate superior of the UT-Austin president, chaired the committee, whose makeup was determined by UT rules and precedent. The committee included system chancellor Hans Mark; the presidents of three other schools in the system; one representative from the Ex-Students’ Association; and the senior dean, five faculty members, and two students from the Austin campus. Everyone had been appointed, except for the representatives of the faculty, the student body, and the deans, who had been chosen by their peers; psychology professor Ira Iscoe had even campaigned for the job. The Board of Regents also appointed three members of UT’s Centennial Commission to the panel. One of them, Wales H. Madden, Jr., of Amarillo, would have much influence on the decisions to come.
From the beginning the committee faced a single critical issue: inside versus outside. Was the new president already on the UT campus or somewhere in the world beyond? The faculty members were predisposed toward a candidate from outside, preferably from the liberal arts. They were eager to see UT reach out into the academic big leagues for a nationally known figure. But history suggested that that wouldn’t happen. After all, six of the seven UT presidents since 1960 had come from Texas.
Chairman Duncan, a likable, unassertive man who had worked in the UT System for fifteen years, gave the committee its charge. The regents wanted the list of candidates by June so that a president could be in place by the time Flawn departed. All deliberations were to remain confidential. The committee engaged a Dallas headhunting firm, Ward Howell International, for a $25,000 fee plus expenses, and Duncan sent out letters and placed advertisements inviting nominations. The deadline for nominations was February 28.
It appeared that UT was proceeding in an orderly and businesslike fashion until one considers the sort of president it wanted and the way in which other universities conduct their searches. Anyone capable of increasing UT’s prestige would be at the top of his field, would need to be sought out and wooed. When Rice University began its search for a new president, the members of its committee traveled to the universities with which Rice wanted to be associated and solicited advice and nominations from the presidents of those schools. By comparison, UT was conducting a cattle call.
Flawn addressed the committee at its second meeting, on February 27, 1985, presenting a lengthy discourse on the qualities to seek in a president. Do not weigh charisma too highly, Flawn warned, and regard experience at the vice-presidential level or above as a necessity. The panel started reviewing credentials the next week. Duncan split the group into three subcommittees, which were to divide their nominee files into three piles: “keep,” “hold for more information,” and “reject.” Then the entire group would review the subcommittees’ decisions. Weeks later, the full committee would go back through the whole candidate pool once more, interview the most serious prospects, and come up with a final list. An exception to the procedure was made for candidates from within the university. To avoid the embarrassment of sending them early rejection letters, internal candidates rejected by a subcommittee would be placed on “hold” almost until the end. This was only one instance of how the process favored insiders.
In that group there was a clear front-runner: Gerhard J. Fonken. A native of Germany, Gerry Fonken had joined the UT faculty in 1959 after getting his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. But he had spent much of his university life shuffling papers, not mixing chemicals. Fonken had worked in the UT academic bureaucracy for fifteen years, most of the time at the president’s elbow. Now, as vice president for academic affairs and research, he was Flawn’s right-hand man, running the university while the president busied himself with speechmaking and fundraising. The faculty on the search committee admired Fonken. He had high standards, understood their problems, and knew how to get things done. Moreover, he was a workaholic, thoroughly dedicated to the university. Fonken could be found in his office seven days a week.
The problem was Fonken’s style, which could be gruff and abrasive. The chemist’s physical appearance strengthened that impression; short and stocky, he had a stem face dominated by an extraordinary pair of bushy black eyebrows. His relations with student leaders were particularly rocky. Mitch Kreindler, a UT law student from Dallas who had served as student body president while an undergraduate, was one of two students on the search committee. When the search began, he says, “my sole goal was to keep Gerry Fonken from being president.”
Fonken seemed ill-suited for the public relations aspect of the presidency. He gave unspectacular speeches, cared little for football, and participated infrequently in the nonstop UT social circuit. Nonetheless, Fonken, as Flawn’s right-hand man, was the candidate to beat. The committee’s faculty members were fond of him (Fonken regularly shared morning coffee with Professor William Wade and other members of the chemistry department), and there seemed to be no other qualified campus candidates.
The incoming nominations included distressingly few topflight academics. There were, however, politicians—Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, former United Nations envoy Jeane Kirkpatrick, Navy Secretary John Lehman, Jr., former Texas congressman Bob Krueger—and several candidates who were not to be taken seriously: a UT library assistant and a teacher in the New York City public school system. The committee also received an application from E. J. Knox, “medical-dental researchist” from Shamokin, Pennsylvania, who wrote, “I simply know more important things than any U.S. citizen. . . . If [you put me] at the helm, all U.S. education will be reformed from Texas. Do you folks want to be No. 1?” The applicant enclosed portraits of himself and his “better half” and signed off with the phrase, “an Alamo Aloha.”
Wales Madden was displeased. The 58-year-old Amarillo lawyer, appointed to the search committee after presiding over the Centennial Commission, was as loyal an alumnus as one could imagine. At 31, Madden had been one of the youngest UT regents ever. He had gone on to serve as president of the alumni association and chairman of the university development board. Madden took pride in attending home football games, dressed in burnt-orange and accompanied by two of his college roommates. His season tickets were on the fifty-yard line. A business associate of T. Boone Pickens’, Madden possessed deep convictions of his own about how institutions should be run. He was certain that UT needed a president who knew Texas. The university’s most recent troubles with the Legislature reinforced that notion. UT had been shaken by Legislative Budget Board recommendations to slash higher education funding by 26 per cent. The university ended up with about the same money, but only after the sort of stiff fight that had never been necessary in the past. That Chancellor Hans Mark—brought in from NASA—had proven ineffectual in the fight convinced Madden and many others that the university could not afford another outsider. Madden also knew that public relations was not Gerry Fonken’s strength.
On April 10, Madden wrote Duncan that he wanted to nominate a new candidate: business school dean Bill Cunningham. Through his son, Wales III, a student in the business school, Madden had become acquainted years earlier with Cunningham’s ability to cut through red tape. When the son of one of Madden’s friends was told that it was too late to transfer into the UT business school, Madden called Bill Cunningham, then an associate dean. Later that day, Cunningham called back to say that he had arranged the transfer. “Like other members of the committee, I am concerned about the dearth of applications from exceptionally qualified candidates,” wrote Madden. “I believe it would be a gross oversight were we to neglect inviting an outstanding person from our campus like Dr. Cunningham to permit us to consider him.”
Because the February 28 deadline for nominations had long since passed, Duncan needed the committee’s permission to add Cunningham’s name to the list. The committee consented. But later Cunningham did not fare well with the subcommittee run by Waneen Spirduso, chairman of the physical and health education department. The committee members agreed that Cunningham had done good work at UT, but they thought his business background wrong for a job that was usually held by someone from the sciences or the humanities. More important, Cunningham was too young and inexperienced. Says Duncan, “There was a sense that maybe he was a candidate for a future generation.” Cunningham’s name was put on the “hold” list, along with other UT candidates who did not merit serious consideration.
The Climb to Power
The life of Bill Cunningham is a riches-to-riches story. His parents were Anna Welch and Earl William Cunningham. Earl trained as an engineer, then joined General Electric, where he spent the next 45 years rising into the executive ranks. Bill, an only child, was born in Detroit. By the time he turned twelve, the Cunninghams had moved eighteen miles northwest to Bloomfield Hills, one of the wealthiest communities in America. Today, it is a haven to four thousand souls, the families of top executives in the auto and auto-service industries; its residents include Lee Iacocca and George Romney. The average family income there in 1980 was more than $120,000.
Cunningham grew up in a house near a lake, where he whiled away his time sailing his own boat and riding the family horses. For a future university president, he was remarkably unstudious. He recalls flunking several exams in high school. “I never studied,” he says. “I got lots of C’s.” So dismal was Cunningham’s intellectual promise that his high school guidance counselor advised his parents to buy him a gas station.
He went to college instead. While more scholarly classmates went off to private Eastern schools or the University of Michigan, Cunningham enrolled at Michigan State as a business major. There he underwent a transformation. He decided he wanted to join a corporate consulting firm. To do that, he would get a Ph.D. But the turnaround required additional motivation. Cunningham’s third quarter yielded three C’s and two B’s—his best academic performance since ninth grade. His parents were so pleased they offered the sort of incentive an aspiring capitalist understood: half the cost of a new Chevrolet Super Sport.
Cunningham remained at Michigan State for eight years, earning his Ph.D. and graduating with highest honors. His specialty was marketing administration; his dissertation investigated whether distinct markets existed for small foreign economy cars and the Ford Maverick. In 1970, persuaded by a Michigan professor that he could do his consulting from the academic world, Cunningham rejected several corporate offers for a job as assistant professor of business at the University of Texas, at a salary of $13,000. The university’s newest faculty member arrived in Austin in January 1971, accompanied by his new wife.
Cunningham had met Isabella Mantovani in finance class at Michigan State while they were both doctoral students. Two years older than he, Isabella was the daughter of an Italian industrialist who had moved to Brazil, where he owned three factories. After the Cunninghams arrived in Texas, she took a job as assistant marketing professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin.
An ambitious young academic can make his mark at a university in three ways: teaching, publishing, and administration. Cunningham excelled at all three. His natural gift was for teaching. Often instructing massive introductory sections, he earned extraordinarily high ratings from his students and teaching awards from the faculty. His publication record also was notable, but more for quantity than for quality. Cunningham churned out a constant stream of journal articles, most involving glorified number-crunching. The work betrayed little sense of innovation or values. His titles included “A Marketing-Plan Checklist,” “Monitoring Markets for Profitable Growth,” and “Sociopsychological Characteristics of Undergraduate Marijuana Users” (he found them more liberal and less conformist than nonusers). But in a business school where some professors rarely published, Cunningham stood out for his productivity. He quickly drew the attention of the business school’s towering figure, Dean George Kozmetsky.
A cofounder of Teledyne, Kozmetsky has often been described as the richest man in Austin; Forbes magazine recently estimated his fortune at $175 million. His influence on the business school was pervasive, through both his wealth—he donated millions—and the force of his personality.
Kozmetsky had ambitions for the business school much like those of the university; he wanted national recognition, and he saw Cunningham’s frequent publications as a step in the right direction. He rewarded the young academic with raises and responsibility. Cunningham became one of a handful of faculty known within the school as a FOG—Friend of George. In 1973, after less than three years, Cunningham was promoted to associate professor at the age of 29.
Though recognized for its accounting program, the business school retained too many vestiges of the old-style school of commerce, such as courses in typing and secretarial skills. Kozmetsky knew that business schools built reputations with graduate programs, so in 1976 he went looking for an associate dean for graduate programs. When the marketing department chairman refused his offer, Kozmetsky asked Bill Cunningham.
Cunningham says he never wanted a career in administration, but that was where he was destined to make his mark. As associate dean, he established a special M.B.A. program that allowed midcareer executives to get a degree in two years by attending classes on weekends and during vacations. Regular M.B.A.’s argued that it cheapened the degree, but each student brought the school $5000 a year. The students also provided Cunningham with valuable contacts among executives.
The only major setback in Cunningham’s steady climb came in 1977, when he was held back for promotion to full professor. He had been turned down the previous year, but he recognized that the marketing department had tried to promote him prematurely. Now, at 34, he wasn’t interested in waiting. When President Lorene Rogers again denied the promotion, Cunningham interviewed for jobs at Arizona State and Michigan State. But the loyal streak that kept his father at General Electric for almost half a century also ran in the son. Cunningham decided to stay, and the promotion came through the next year. Now a full professor, Cunningham gained additional visibility as the editor of the Journal of Marketing. In the fall of 1982 Kozmetsky announced that he was resigning, and Cunningham became acting dean.
If he had once been a reluctant administrator, Cunningham was no longer. He plainly wanted the dean’s job; prominent friends like Harte-Hanks Communications chief Bob Marbut wrote the search committee urging his appointment. Kozmetsky, in a move that produced much awkwardness, took a place on the committee himself. Cunningham had served Kozmetsky loyally, handling the unpleasant daily chores while the dean traveled about the country. But now Kozmetsky seemed unenthusiastic about the prospect of Cunningham’s succeeding him. Observers of the search say Kozmetsky thought only a man of national stature—someone like Lee Iacocca—could fill his shoes. He appeared to have higher regard for Isabella Cunningham, who had become his frequent research collaborator. Faculty members recall Kozmetsky’s gibes—“she’s smarter than he is”—and say it was obvious he was not entirely joking.
Although Kozmetsky was unenthusiastic about Cunningham, the faculty was not. In commenting on the finalists, the search committee chairman reported in a confidential note to President Flawn that the business faculty would be pleased with Cunningham’s appointment. On May 20, 1983, Flawn offered Cunningham the deanship, at a salary of $85,000.
The Power Couple
There once was a rose garden between the business-economics building and the old business-economics office building. In its place today stands the faculty honors hall, which is more a shrine to corporate donors and wealthy benefactors than to professors. Above terrazzo floors, long rows of bronze plaques memorialize gifts to the business school of at least $100,000. This is Bill Cunningham’s place.
When Cunningham became acting dean, the business school’s endowment was $12 million. The school had 7 faculty chairs (each endowed at $500,000 or more) and 37 professorships ($100,000 or more). When he departed for the president’s office three years later, the endowment was more than $32 million, including 19 chairs and 71 professorships.
Today Cunningham’s fundraising ability is visible everywhere. Overlooking the atrium is Classroom 2000, a room with two giant video screens and 58 work stations, each with its own computer. The room was built with a $2.8 million grant from IBM. Just inside the present entrance to the graduate school, marked by a single newspaper rack for the Wall Street Journal, are more plaques, these celebrating members of the Business Hall of Fame, established by Cunningham. Down the hall is the 86-seat Dan C. Williams amphitheater, named for the former regents chairman and vice chairman of the Southland Financial Corporation in acknowledgment of a $75,000 gift. The room contains the biggest bronze plaque of all. Six feet high and three feet wide, it is so heavy that a wall had to be rebuilt to hold it.
Conscious of Kozmetsky’s shadow, Cunningham took office intent on proving that even if he did not possess immense wealth, he knew where to find it. He immediately launched a fundraising blitzkrieg. Using the regents’ temporary commitment to match private gifts with state funds as an incentive, he barnstormed Texas, devoting two days a week to fundraising. He was good at it. After a day trip to North Texas, Cunningham returned to Austin with pledges of nearly $1 million.
The new dean was more successful at raising money for faculty positions than at filling them. When Cunningham left the business school, 8 chairs were vacant; in filling 9 others, he revealed a tendency toward cronyism. Though the positions had often been described as a draw to attract superstars to the university, Cunningham filled seven of the slots by promoting UT professors.
But the business school’s faculty was happy with the new dean. Kozmetsky had rarely seemed interested in the advice of others; Cunningham sought it. Shortly after taking office, Cunningham took 22 key faculty members on a three-day retreat; the session led to a five-year strategic plan for the business school. When Cunningham discovered he had a free lunch hour, he often directed his secretary to round up a handful of students to talk to him. “He loves to get out there and press the flesh,” said one faculty member. Cunningham’s most dramatic move was to streamline the confusing array of undergraduate degree paths. In his typically cautious style, he acted only after weighing recommendations from a faculty committee. Cunningham could make a tough decision, but he rarely did so without touching all the right bases.
Isabella Cunningham, who also had risen into administration at the University of Texas, lacked such a delicate touch. With Kozmetsky’s help, she had left St. Edward’s for a temporary appointment at the UT business school, then moved to the advertising department. There, despite having no formal training in the field, she became a full professor and department chairman. She too took on a staggering load of commitments, but she had trouble juggling it all. Her teaching evaluations were unexceptional, and on committees she often seemed poorly prepared and rushed. Friends found her vivacious and charming; those who opposed her found her formidable. When wielding power, she was unabashedly willful. When Isabella joined a committee, her insistence on getting her way turned it into a battleground. “She just seems to thrive on controversy,” says a senior faculty member. “And if there isn’t any, she creates some.” Within the department her heavy lobbying to block or push promotions struck colleagues as unseemly. One professor was so angered by a summer appointment she had made that he briefly tendered his resignation.
Her tenure as department chairman ended in 1985, when an endowed chair was offered to John Leckenby, a prominent Illinois advertising professor who wanted to become department chairman as well. Isabella was persuaded to vacate the spot two years before her term was to expire.
Nonetheless, the Cunninghams were the most powerful couple on the UT campus. They were a hot item on the Austin social circuit, socializing with corporate executives and regents. One of Isabella’s doctoral students was Judy Newton, wife of former regents chairman Jon Newton. The Cunninghams were young, attractive—and obviously ambitious.
Narrowing the Field
As the search committee winnowed the list of candidates, it became apparent that no messiah was at hand. The process was moving slowly. It was already April. The June deadline for submitting a slate to the regents seemed beyond reach. Ward Howell International, the headhunting firm, was directed to come up with fresh names from outside the university. Meanwhile, individual committee members had begun to plot their own strategy.
In a Dear Colleague letter marked “personal and confidential,” psychology professor Ira Iscoe suggested that the five faculty representatives caucus before the April 24 meeting. Iscoe, the most vocal member of the pro-Fonken faction, realized that the lack of outstanding outsiders favored his man. No other insider—including Cunningham—was being taken seriously, but Iscoe worried that dissatisfaction with the candidate pool might prompt the committee to take some unexpected turn. His premonition was correct.
When the subcommittees’ scrutiny of the resumes was completed, the full panel met on May 20 to go over the entire list of candidates. This was the crunch, the final decision on whom to keep and whom to eliminate. For the most part, the subcommittee decisions were quickly affirmed. But as Wales Madden watched the names of outsiders accumulate, he grew increasingly annoyed. Finally he spoke his piece. “Bill Cunningham is as good as those guys,” he declared. If the regents were going to choose an insider—as they usually did—they deserved at least one alternative to Fonken, Madden argued. As things stood, no other campus candidate would make it to the next round. The committee members had been reluctant to voice overt criticism of campus candidates—after all, they might have to work for one of them—but Wade and Iscoe were outraged that anyone would consider Cunningham. He was not only a business professor but he also was just too young. “Hell,” retorted Madden, “if we’d waited until Darrell Royal was forty-one, he’d have been coaching football at the University of Oklahoma.” With that, Bill Cunningham’s name was resurrected.
Eight days later the committee met to decide which candidates to interview. Its members spent hours chewing over the names. At last Jess Hay, conspicuously quiet since the committee’s first meeting, spoke up. To get things rolling, Hay suggested, he would propose ten names for discussion. Although he invited disagreement, there was none. Hay had set the top ten. They included only two men from inside the university: Gerry Fonken and Bill Cunningham.
A few days later Mitch Kreindler, one of the students on the committee, received a phone call from Bob Krueger, who asked if he could visit with him. No rejection letters had been sent out, but according to committee members, someone had leaked the information to Krueger that he had not made the cut. Now he was campaigning for the UT presidency as though it were a congressional seat. Krueger was calling committee members, seeking individual audiences over lunch or in their offices. An annoyed faculty member alerted Duncan. Krueger told Duncan that he felt his credentials had not been fairly evaluated and wanted to take his case to the faculty on the committee. When Krueger pressed the point, Duncan agreed to his request. (Krueger denies knowledge of his rejection and says he did not insist on a meeting.)
Krueger addressed the faculty members for an hour. The professors, irked by Krueger’s audacity, were unmoved. “How am I going to tell people we appointed a two-time political loser as president?” a faculty member demanded. When Krueger left, they quickly agreed that there was no reason to consider his candidacy further.
Having decided on its candidates, the committee had trouble setting up interviews; four outside candidates declined and were replaced with alternates. Duncan arranged three 2-day excursions in mid-June for committee delegations to meet the prospects. One group flew to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and interviewed Hunter College president Donna Shalala, University of Maryland chancellor John Brooks Slaughter, and Middlebury College president Olin Robison. A second group went to Chicago to talk to former Duke chancellor August Pye and University of Illinois System vice president Morton W. Weir. A third chartered a private jet for sessions in Burlington, Vermont, with University of Vermont president Lattie Coor, Jr., and in Iowa City with University of Iowa president James O. Freedman. The last three candidates were interviewed in Austin: Trinity president Ronald Calgaard, Gerry Fonken, and Bill Cunningham.
Madden, ever the shrewd student of UT politics, knew that the Austin interviews were likely to matter most. He called Duncan and invited himself to those sessions. Held in the Regents’ Room at Ashbel Smith Hall in downtown Austin, each interview was to last about three hours. When Fonken went in, he was dressed in his everyday attire: tweed jacket, tie, and slacks. As usual, he smoked throughout the meeting and slouched in his chair. The panel asked Fonken about his reputation for being abrasive. “Some people think I am,” he said drolly. “Some people think I’m not. People who get to know me aren’t concerned with external appearances.” Could he work with Bill Cunningham? Fonken said he would do whatever he could for the university. “I could be just as happy,” he replied, “as a full professor of chemistry.”
In his charcoal-gray suit, red tie, and white shirt, Cunningham offered a striking contrast to Fonken’s informality. The business dean perched on the edge of his chair throughout the meeting, and his hand trembled slightly when he lifted it from the table. Cunningham had prepared extensively for the session, reading back issues of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Beyond the Ivory Tower, Harvard president Derek Bok’s book. He had studied UT’s centennial report and written out questions he was likely to be asked and the answers he would give. Unlike Fonken, Cunningham was perceptibly eager to have the job. He conveyed a sense of energy, optimism, and self-confidence. And he shamelessly pledged his Longhorn fealty. “This is going to sound corny,” Cunningham declared, “but I really do love this university.” It was the sort of thing Fonken clearly felt also, but would never say. Calgaard was interviewed too but withdrew from the running a few days later.
The ninth and final committee meeting was set for June 29 in the Regents’ Room. The group was to determine the slate of candidates to submit to the Board of Regents. Hay and a faculty member had commitments that forced them to miss the meeting. Duncan made arrangements to take their votes by telephone, but when the time came, Hay did not vote.
The committee reviewed the evaluation sheets filled out by those who had conducted the out-of-town interviews. The Baltimore delegation was most impressed with Maryland chancellor Slaughter, a Ph.D. in engineering who had served as director of the National Science Foundation. There was one major question to consider, raised by Slaughter during his interview: was the University of Texas ready for a black president? The Chicago group had liked Illinois vice president Weir, a capable academic bureaucrat who had received his Ph.D. in psychology at UT. But the most attractive outside candidate was Iowa president Freedman. Here was a man a world-class university truly would be glad to have. A graduate of Harvard and the Yale law school, Freedman had clerked for federal judge Thurgood Marshall before moving to the University of Pennsylvania. There he had been a law professor, associate provost, and finally dean of the law school. He had three years’ experience as president at Iowa, where he had won large increases in state funding despite Iowa’s economic problems. His Texas interviewers had found him bright, likable, and eloquent. “He had a very logical approach, more like a scientist than a lawyer,” said Dr. Charles Sprague, president of Southwestern Medical School. “Everybody said, ‘What a helluva guy.’ ”
Finally the group was ready to act. The committee members were to vote on whether to keep or reject each of the ten candidates. Duncan tallied the secret ballots. Four leaders were clear: Freedman, Coor, Fonken, and Cunningham. The next two had tied: Slaughter and Weir. The committee considered taking another ballot, then decided not to do so. All six names—four outsiders and two insiders—would be forwarded to the Board of Regents.
Cutting the Deal
With the matter turned over to the regents, the shape of the playing field suddenly changed. The regents cared little about finding a national figure, a scholar in the arts or sciences. Their perspective was that of the corporate world. They held the distinctly Texan notion that their state and university were different from anyplace else, that anyone from outside, no matter how talented, would have difficulty understanding it. Hans Mark had seemed evidence of that. The final round of the selection process began with the deck stacked against the non-Texans.
At the beginning of July the four outsiders were invited to Austin to visit the campus. Slaughter balked. He wanted to know more about the position and especially about his prospects; he knew that pursuing another job—and not getting it—would not help his situation in Maryland. On July 4 Duncan flew to Baltimore to meet with Slaughter. Realizing that he was a long shot, the Maryland president pulled out a few days later. The list was down to five.
Each of the remaining outside candidates flew to Austin for three or four days during the last half of July. They toured the campus and the city and met with vice presidents, deans, faculty, and students. They were accompanied by their wives, who were under scrutiny as well. UT retained the quaint notion that the president’s wife should be a “helpmate,” an unpaid social ambassador for the university; Pris Flawn devoted herself full-time to the task. “You want two for one,” explained a regent.
Though the campus groups were as dazzled by Freedman as the committee members who had interviewed him in Iowa, there was concern about his wife. Sheba Freedman had made it obvious that she wanted to be sold on moving to Texas, an attitude that offended those who thought she should feel privileged to do so. She was completing her Ph.D. in psychology and wanted to know what opportunities she would have in Austin. Several UT representatives felt that she was too worried about what was in it for her, that she might not do. The committee made discreet inquiries in Iowa about her performance as a helpmate and received laudatory reviews that muffled the concerns.
Iscoe, meanwhile, was afraid that the regents’ history would prejudice them toward Cunningham. He knew the matter was out of the committee’s control, so he arranged for four of the five faculty committee members to meet with Jess Hay in a private room at the Headliners Club. They urged Hay to make sure that the board consulted the university deans.
But the deans did not need to be asked for their opinion. On July 31, one day after meeting with the last of the outside candidates, the deans gathered for an eight o’clock breakfast in the restaurant of the Villa Capri, a dowdy motel on the eastern edge of the campus. Duncan had told the deans that the regents would like their views but didn’t need a straw vote. The deans decided to take one anyway.
The deans knew both insiders well. They had worked with Fonken for years. And they had served with Cunningham on the Deans’ Council, which met every month for lunch before a session with the president. They liked Cunningham; he was fine for the business school. But they considered him unsuitable for the presidency, a bit of a lightweight and gladhander, too ambitious and too eager to please. He was the only dean who did not address Flawn as “Pete”; he called him Dr. Flawn instead.
Ten deans were present. They agreed that each would write his first and second choices for the presidency on a piece of paper. Fonken got ten first- or second-place votes—one from every dean. Freedman got a few first-place votes and several seconds, seven mentions total. Weir had a few seconds. Cunningham and Coor received no votes. The deans conveyed the results of their balloting to the Board of Regents. Nonetheless, they sensed the inevitability of a Cunningham presidency. Everyone was aware that the regents viewed things quite differently from the faculty. At least one dean received a call from a faculty member urging a last-minute “Stop Cunningham” campaign.
Bob Krueger, meanwhile, continued his own campaign. After being rejected by the search committee, he lobbied the regents. Krueger spoke to several, including Austin lawyer Shannon Ratliff. Ratliff liked Krueger but told him the days when the board would casually overturn a search committee’s recommendations were gone. Krueger had a friend in Chairman Hay. But Hay, who had scrupulously avoided appearing to promote Krueger in the search committee, again refused to meddle. He was no Frank Erwin.
Most of the nine regents, one or two or three at a time, had interviewed Fonken and Cunningham during late July. Their sessions with the three off-campus candidates were set to begin on August 5 at the Loews Anatole Hotel in Dallas, just four days before the meeting to make the final decision. Though Cunningham and Fonken were still the front-runners, interest in Freedman was growing. He was the one outside candidate who seemed good enough to challenge Fonken and Cunningham, and all the regents were eager to meet him.
They did not get the chance. Word of Freedman’s candidacy had reached Iowa, and Freedman came under heavy pressure to stay put. When Duncan called to arrange the final interview with the regents, he told Freedman he should be prepared to tell the board whether he would accept the job. Freedman called back to say that he couldn’t do that; he would have to withdraw. Duncan pushed Freedman back onto the fence, where he sat for several days. Finally, on Friday, August 2—three days before the regents’ interviews were to begin —Freedman called again to say that he would not be coming to Dallas. Then he told reporters he was remaining in Iowa.
The regents were deeply disappointed. Several arrived in Dallas on Sunday still expecting to meet Freedman; instead there were only two candidates. After lengthy sessions with Coor and Weir, their mood had shifted to puzzlement. The two men were fine but uninspiring. “We didn’t see anybody that we just thought we would die if we couldn’t have,” says Ratliff. One regent asked Duncan if Freedman could be persuaded to reconsider, and there was talk of starting the whole process over. Duncan said it would merely make things tougher. “It just seems to me,” said one regent who had yet to interview the inside candidates, “that we could do better than this.” But the idea of starting over would go no further. The goal of finding an exceptional candidate was being compromised for the calendar. The train had to arrive on time; finding the right passenger had become almost secondary.
The next Thursday afternoon in Austin, the board began deliberations behind closed doors. Jess Hay went around the room, asking each regent to offer his thoughts. The group quickly agreed to eliminate the outside candidates. “The consensus of the board was that there would have to be a very distinct difference in quality to overcome the obvious advantage of knowing the system,” says Hay.
It was down to Cunningham and Fonken. The regents talked about the candidates’ strengths. Fonken was the consummate academic administrator. Cunningham was the consummate PR man. The nine-member board was split. Both Fonken and Cunningham seemed to have two or three votes, but everyone was guarding his hand. “It looked pretty much like a dead heat,” said Ratliff. The decision came down to a referendum on what the board considered UT’s most pressing problem—ensuring that the university was well run or maintaining the flow of money from the Legislature, alumni, and the business community. The answer was obvious. The regents’ first concern was money. In picking the man to take charge of the university, they cared most about those outside the university.
Still, they hesitated. Cunningham was so inexperienced; the regents doubted that he could run the place without help. Where would he be if Fonken left? Would he keep Fonken on? During a break, Hay left the room to call Cunningham. “If you were made president,” Hay asked, “what would you do with Gerry Fonken?” Cunningham paused. It was a critical moment. “I would make him executive vice president,” said Cunningham.
The solution was at hand. Make Cunningham president, and he could handle the public relations aspects of the job. Make Fonken his number two man, and let him run the place internally. With that, a Cunningham majority quickly fell into line. Ironically, Fonken’s reassuring presence made possible the appointment of his rival. No vote was taken. Hay said he would meet with both men and sound them out on the arrangement.
The next morning Hay summoned Cunningham and Fonken to a seven-fifteen breakfast at the Driskill Hotel. Cunningham ordered a glass of milk and some toast. Hay bluntly laid out the plan: the regents planned to make Cunningham president and promote Fonken to executive vice president and provost. What did they think? Cunningham was ecstatic. Fonken, who would receive a $32,000 raise, agreed that the arrangement would be satisfactory. Hay left for the regents meeting, and the board, without a dissenting vote, ratified the deal. The new president and provost were presented to the world at the conclusion of the meeting.
The board was delighted with its elegant compromise. Said Houston oilman Jack Blanton: “We’ve got a guy that relates beautifully with the students, beautifully with the public, and works like hell. Fonken is well respected by the faculty. If it works, we’ve got the best of both worlds.” Others were less sanguine about the outcome of UT’s nationwide quest for a world-class president. “It was not an ideal solution,” sighed a senior member of the search committee. “But under the circumstances, it’s as well as we could do.”
It is too early to say how the presidency of William Cunningham will affect the University of Texas. Aware that his background made traditional elements of the faculty nervous, Cunningham quickly mended fences. A calculated move reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s visit to Red China, his first call was on Robert King, dean of liberal arts. In the eight months since, Cunningham has engaged in a flurry of meetings with deans, faculty, alumni, students, minority groups, and media, displaying the energy that is his trademark. He has forcefully backed up his anti-hazing policy by handing one fraternity a three-year suspension. Cunningham, mindful of UT’s need to boost its endowment for the humanities, has set his sights on acquiring major financial gifts for the liberal arts.
Nonetheless, there is much about Cunningham’s appointment that does not bode well. The most obvious problem is that the Board of Regents persists in thinking that money will ensure greatness—a puzzling supposition, given that UT is one of the richest universities in the nation and has never risen above its second-rate status. What is less obvious is the degree to which UT, albeit more subtly, remains a creature of state politics. In the past, UT presidents came under fire from the Legislature. Now the fix is in in advance; the president is selected to please the Legislature.
There is nothing wrong with a university’s worrying about money. Quality exacts a price, most obviously in dollars. But money alone is not enough. Greatness is not something that can be bought. It comes from having standards of excellence, from one man with a vision that can inspire and motivate others, regardless of the obstacles. It is such vision, not money, that UT lacks.
The University of Texas has long been handcuffed by its image as a place obsessed with politics, corporate interests, and money. Peter Flawn’s resignation offered an opportunity to change all that; UT could have reached out to the academic world for a powerful new leader whose very presence would have hung a challenge in the air. Instead, it reached inward, for a man who personifies the very obsessions UT needs to overcome. Bill Cunningham may yet demonstrate that he possesses the vision UT needs. But as a signal of the university’s intentions, Cunningham, for this university, for this time, was the worst possible choice. His selection was a statement that UT, rather than working to rise above the status quo, continues to embrace it.
Cunningham was chosen to ensure prosperity, but it appears he will preside over a period of austerity. On February 18 Governor Mark White, facing a billion-dollar state budget deficit, ordered thirteen state agencies—including UT—to make deep spending cuts. The action, forced by plummeting oil prices, instantly dashed UT’s strategy for greatness. The era in which UT can outbid the world for talent is past. The era of constrained resources has begun.
Are there lessons to be learned? Perhaps. Several weeks after Bill Cunningham’s appointment the UT Board of Regents voted to change the rules for the selection of university presidents. They felt that several excellent candidates had pulled out of the recent search because the process was too passive. Under the new rules, the regents enter the process earlier, asking the committee for between five and ten of the best candidates, including even those who profess no interest in the job. From that point on, the regents say, they will take matters into their own hands to make sure that in future searches UT’s appointments match its ambitions.
UT Versus A&M
Forget everything you’ve heard about football, school spirit, Aggie jokes, and bellowing Bevo. Beneath the bravado, which school is really better?
These are critical times for higher education in Texas. The ambitions of the state’s two giant public universities have never been grander, the ability of the state to pay for them never more constrained. But the stakes are also high. In the post-oil era the University of Texas and Texas A&M will serve as the state’s most vital assets. They can spark the state’s economy and fire its minds. At their best, state universities are a beacon of excellence and enlightened thought. At their worst, they provide an endorsement of ignorance and mediocrity. UT and A&M will do as much to shape Texas’ future as Spindletop did to shape its past.
With that in mind, we consider the question: Which is better—UT or A&M? For the first century of their existence, the schools’ qualities were regularly compared only on the gridiron. Now we place the UT-A&M rivalry where it belongs: in the classroom. Here is the most momentous clash of the two universities ever, a battle for egghead bragging rights. You can almost hear the chants of the crowd: “Go, Engineering! Gig ’em, Aggies!” and from the other side of the field: “Hold those admissions standards! Hook ’em, Horns!”
Our overarching measure for this comparison is the quality of undergraduate education. We have broken the contest into five crucial parts: admissions, curriculum, faculty, teaching, and campus atmosphere. Does the university shape malleable youths into literate, productive citizens? Does it prepare them for life? Or does it merely prepare them for a vocation, which may suddenly disappear, just as thousands of jobs in the oil industry have melted away? The ultimate question is this: after four years at the University of Texas or Texas A&M, what does a student know and how well does he think?
Both universities, of course, do many things besides educating undergraduates. They have extensive graduate programs and engage in research and scholarship. Much of that work is important. But it is hard to imagine that anything will affect Texas more than the 170,000 graduates UT and A&M will unleash between now and the year 2000. Those graduates are the future leading citizens of our state. If they can’t figure things out, we’ll all be in trouble.
The Fence That’s Too Low
High admissions standards do two things. First, they control enrollment by screening out students who don’t belong in a quality university, allowing teaching at a higher level. Second, high standards yield a group of undergraduates diverse enough and smart enough to create a stimulating environment in and out of the classroom.
There’s good news and bad news about admissions at UT and A&M. The problem is that the sunshine is not as bright as they’d have us believe, and the gloom is worse than it looks.
The cause for optimism is that both schools have begun recruiting smart kids the way they recruit football players, offering cash for brains (albeit not nearly as much as for brawn). In recent years both UT and A&M have regularly ranked among the top five universities in the country in attracting National Merit scholars, ahead of such blue bloods as Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. That’s good. Both schools have done much crowing about their rank, suggesting that they lure as many smart kids as the nation’s most prestigious institutions. In fact, that claim is a sham.
A fixed percentage of high schoolers taking the multiple-choice National Merit exam automatically become eligible for scholarships in each state. That means that not all Merit scholars are created equal. Because Texans’ average scores are lower than those in twenty other states, the qualifying mark is lower in Texas than on the East and West coasts, from which the Yales and Stanfords draw most of their students. Texas’ Merit scholars, on average, did not perform as well as those in, say, Connecticut.
UT and A&M fight it out in the classroom, where the contest that really counts is undergraduate education.
More important, most Merit scholarships aren’t awarded purely on merit. Here’s the trick: One out of three Merit scholars attains that status because he had the highest grades and test scores among the 13,500 finalists. The other two become Merit scholars simply because they accept a grant from a corporation or a university. Unlike most top universities, UT and A&M offer such grants to any finalist who will enroll. Any finalist who accepts one of them instantly becomes a Merit scholar. That is how UT and A&M can boast of large numbers of Merit scholars. In the fall 1985 freshman class, 221 of UT’s 271 Merit scholars attained that status through such grants from the university, and 123 of A&M’s 167. Such institutions as Yale and Princeton, which don’t offer academic scholarships to Merit finalists, actually have more students who earned high scores on the qualifying exam. Those students just aren’t called Merit scholars.
So much for the good news. The general admission standards at UT and A&M are so loose that they amount essentially to open admissions. UT admits any Texas high school graduate who ranked in the top quarter of his class, no matter how low his Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores or how poor the quality of his high school education. Any other state resident with verbal and math SAT scores totaling above 1100 can also get in (400 is zero; 1600 is perfect). A&M is a bit tougher. It ignores SAT scores only for applicants who rank in the top 10 per cent of their class; those who have lower class rank must meet SAT minimums beginning at 800. Such barriers to admission are so low that only one of three Texas applicants cannot clear them.
For the ones who can’t make it, there are holes in the fence. Anyone failing to meet the regular admissions standards may enter UT or A&M as a provisional student in the summer and gain regular admission by earning a C average in a handful of basic courses. The provisional programs, like the lax admissions standards, are a testament to the mistaken populist notion that Texas is best served by keeping its top public universities open even to the academically incompetent. Some also argue that abolition of provisional programs would cripple the universities’ efforts to recruit minorities. Not so. The overwhelming majority of provisional students are not black or Hispanic but white. At UT 83 per cent of the 929 provisional admittees last summer were white. “It’s the way rich white kids who don’t quite cut it get into the university,” says UT liberal arts dean Robert King.
Then there are the athletes. At UT and A&M, jocks on scholarship are exempt from all admissions requirements except the minimal ones imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Though the practice is common among athletic powers, it is a disgrace; admissions standards serve the student as well as the institution by keeping out those who have little hope of making it academically. No wonder so few jocks ever graduate.
These policies admit far too many—let’s be frank—dumb kids. In 1985 UT admitted 195 students with SAT verbal scores below 300 (you get 200 for signing your name; an 800 is perfect). One in six UT freshmen—1266 total—scored below 400. And most of those low scorers were admitted not through the provisional program but under the regular fall admissions policies. A&M has a smaller percentage of students at the top end but also a smaller percentage at the bottom. Altogether, there is only an 8-point difference in the average SAT scores of the two schools’ 1985 freshmen.
Both UT and A&M have a disturbingly uniform student body; more than four out of five students are Texans, and almost all of them are white. The lack of diversity results from an admissions process that is strictly by the numbers: standardized-test scores and rank in class. Neither school conducts interviews, requests a writing sample, or wants teacher recommendations. Extracurricular activities and personal qualities are not considered. UT has even eliminated the admissions application form. Everything is done by computer; push a button and—zap!—the machine makes the admissions decision. “It’s wonderful,” says UT admissions director Shirley Binder. “The computer even signs my signature on the acceptance letter.”
At the Mercy of the Catalogs
A university’s curriculum gives structure to its educational program. The curriculum establishes what courses—if any—all students must take, what they can avoid, and when they must commit themselves to a major. A good curriculum encourages students to explore many fields, forces them to develop basic skills such as writing and reasoning, and exposes them to the liberal arts and sciences, even if they’re majoring in business. It leads students to knowledge that the university considers essential, rather than assuming that they have the motivation and skill to seek it out.
Former Berkeley chancellor Clark Kerr once described a university as a series of departments connected by a central heating system. Substitute the word “colleges“ for “departments,” and you have an accurate description of UT. So balkanized is the place that no comprehensive undergraduate catalog exists. Instead, each of the eleven undergraduate colleges —such as business, engineering, and liberal arts—has its own.
UT’s decentralization into fiefdoms ruled by powerful deans is the heart of the undergraduate program’s troubles. The problem starts before classes do, since UT requires incoming freshmen to declare a major. Few eighteen-year-olds have any idea what they want to do with their lives, and most of those who do have made up their minds too soon. Students have some time to change their major, but in many UT colleges not much. Most of the professional schools dictate a complete undergraduate curriculum. The students who do not hop on the train immediately cannot hope to graduate on time. Those who do hop on have little exposure to the humanities and few electives. The result is a program that narrows the student’s focus instead of broadening it.
UT’s core curriculum, proposed in 1980, was supposed to ensure grounding in the basics, but even its modest requirements have been diluted. The political clout of the colleges made university-wide requirements impossible; UT’s president had to negotiate with each dean individually. Even after reaching agreements, the administration could not put the new requirements into effect. That had to await the publication of the colleges’ new catalogs. Because most catalogs go to press only every two years and because UT students are governed by the catalog that is current when they enroll, the class of 1987 will be the first to have followed the core curriculum. It is a large tail indeed that wags the Longhorn.
Aghast at discovering that a student could graduate “without ever facing a significant writing assignment,” the core committee had made writing the centerpiece of the new program. Three writing-intensive English courses were required: a freshman composition course, a sophomore literature course, and an upper-level writing course. The upper-level course was suspended before it could have any effect. Under UT’s lax credit-by-exam policy, many students also duck freshman English. Two out of five students pass out of the freshman writing course by taking a two-hour multiple-choice exam. UT not only gives students credit hours for the test but also offers them a grade. Score 610 on your English Composition Test—a solid but unspectacular mark—and your transcript will show an A in English 306, as though you had aced a semester-long course. Those who score well on an advanced placement exam may skip sophomore literature too and graduate from UT without taking a single English course.
Students in other departments do little writing because of the university’s size. Classes are so large that faculty are unwilling to grade papers or essay exams; they give multiple-choice tests instead. Some classes are so overcrowded that students sit in the aisles of lecture halls.
Liberal arts dean King regularly circulates his Unrequired Reading List of masterworks—Homer’s Odyssey, Melville’s Moby Dick, Plato’s Republic, Milton’s Paradise Lost—that UT allows its students to ignore. English department chairman William Sutherland has so little faith in UT’s undergraduate program that he sent his own children to small liberal arts schools. “College graduates ought to know who William Faulkner is,” says Sutherland. “They ought to know something about Freud, for God’s sake. They ought to understand the major intellectual movements of their time.” Do UT graduates? Sutherland pauses and shakes his head. “I don’t think so. The idea is to get an education for living. A lot of students are getting an education for a living.”
A&M has similar problems—powerful professional schools, inadequate emphasis on the basics, the straitjacketing requirement to declare a major on arrival—with one critical difference. A&M still has a chance to make amends.
The Aggies are five years behind UT in developing a core curriculum; a faculty curriculum report emerged last November. The group’s proposal is promising; if it is adopted, A&M will have more-extensive humanities requirements than UT does. Once the curriculum is in place, A&M would be hard-pressed to botch things as badly. Approval remains uncertain; the professional schools have already mounted their attack. But the Aggie military tradition gives A&M’s president more authority, and top Aggie Frank Vandiver, a historian, is foursquare behind the idea. “The university must see that education isn’t lost in vocationalism,” says Vandiver. If A&M passes the plan, the requirements will go into effect promptly, since A&M publishes a single undergraduate catalog every year.
A&M has stiffer requirements than UT for quizzing out of courses. A 590 on the English Composition Test, enough to make a B in freshman writing at UT, merely makes Aggies eligible for a departmental screening exam. It takes a 600 to place out of freshman English, and A&M never awards a course grade to those who earn credit hours by exam.
The Empty Chair
The quality of the faculty determines an institution’s national reputation. In this world it is not teaching but scholarship and research—pure brainpower—that counts. Internally, the faculty is vital because it traditionally dominates a university. More than any other group, professors set academic standards.
Faculty is the reason that UT is considered among the nation’s top dozen public universities and A&M is not. Here UT wins hands down. A national poll of academics ranked eight UT departments among the ten best in their field; no A&M department made the top ten. Only one UT department—economics—ranked below its A&M counterpart.
UT’s faculty, however, is stronger in specialized fields than in the basics. UT’s top-ten departments were botany, linguistics, classics, zoology, Spanish, German, civil engineering, and computer sciences. Its English, math, history, economics, government, and physics departments didn’t even rank in the top twenty.
UT has sought to build its faculty in consummately Texan fashion: by buying superstars. The university now has 143 endowed faculty chairs, the income from which augments professors’ salaries. Though UT’s chairmania has yielded results—including the importation of two Nobel laureates in physics —it has also produced problems. The best professors are usually happy where they are, and UT is not the only institution dangling such carrots. As a result, filling the chairs has been unexpectedly difficult; 79 are still vacant. A star system also creates dissension among those who do not receive such treatment; a large disparity in salaries, which are public record, inevitably hurts morale.
While expanding the sciences, business, and engineering, UT has neglected the liberal arts, the foundation of any great university. For lack of space, professors in the Spanish and Portuguese departments double up in offices. In the German department, full professors are in one building, and everyone else is in a second. Many liberal arts faculty members, short of secretarial help, must type their own correspondence.
A&M started the race impossibly behind, but the transformation of its faculty in the past decade is extraordinary. For most of its history A&M was an inbred, teaching institution. It employed more of its own graduates than any university in the country—a good university rarely hires its own—and few professors conducted research. Relatively large numbers of faculty had no Ph.D.’s. The liberal arts college was a service program; it taught rudimentary English, history, and government courses to engineers but had few majors of its own. In the military-school atmosphere, free speech and diversity were not prized.
Today, under Dean Daniel Fallon, hired from the University of Colorado, liberal arts is the fastest-growing college at A&M. The university now gets assistant professors from top national institutions. An experiment in democracy was begun three years ago when Vandiver established a faculty senate, a fixture at most universities for decades. An untenured history professor tested the boundaries of A&M’s newfound tolerance by telling the student paper he didn’t believe in God or marriage; the alumni howled, but he received tenure anyway. A&M is still full of professors who don’t belong at a good university; it will take another decade to change that. But faculty members no longer get tenure or more than token pay raises without conducting research. Even assistant professors have started to complain, as they do at all good universities, about the pressure to publish or perish.
Another good sign: A&M isn’t run just by Aggies anymore. Vandiver and provost Gordon Eaton were outsiders. So was engineering dean Herbert Richardson, lured from an associate deanship at MIT with a pledge of seventy new faculty positions. Richardson is reshaping the nation’s largest engineering school; he is cutting the unmanageably large number of undergraduates from 10,000 to 8000 and doubling the number of graduate students from 1000 to 2000.
A&M has a sprinkling of superstars, including three Nobel prize winners who spend at least part of their time in College Station (all three did their prizewinning work elsewhere). Chemistry professor F. Albert Cotton is considered a serious candidate to give A&M a Nobel of its own. But overall, A&M has far fewer faculty members with national reputations. Recognizing that deficiency but lacking UT’s largesse, A&M has chosen a shrewd course: instead of chasing stars, the university is trying to groom its own young talent.
The Unwanted Burden
There is a delicate balance between teaching and scholarship. In theory, the fine scholar is the best instructor; a professor current in his field and excited about his own research has more to offer undergraduates than one who dusts off outdated notes before every lecture. In practice, things often do not work that way. Top scholars frequently regard undergraduate instruction as a chore, and students learn almost nothing from a professor too busy with his own research to teach.
The University of Texas has a split personality. At the undergraduate level it is a nonselective state university. At the graduate level it is an elitist university. One side of the soul must win out, and at UT there is no doubt about the outcome. Scholarship and graduate programs, the paths to national acclaim, have become UT’s obsession. Undergraduate instruction has become a stepchild.
This is the flip side of UT’s march to glory. UT’s faculty members are far superior to those of A&M, but its undergraduates are less likely to see them. According to College Coordinating Board data, UT devotes an average of 1 full-time faculty member to the instruction of every 28 full-time undergraduates; A&M devotes 1 to every 21. Graduate students and faculty members below the assistant professor level teach most sections in many freshman courses at both universities. Those with at least assistant professor rank taught 20 of 115 sections of introductory English at A&M last fall; at UT, they taught 15 of 84. There is one advantage to UT’s high-powered graduate programs: the graduate students who teach undergraduates are better than A&M’s.
Incentives at both institutions favor graduate programs. In some disciplines, teaching a Ph.D. student earns the universities nine times as much state funding as teaching the same subject to an undergraduate. Under state rules, every faculty member must meet a work quota according to a formula that assigns a value to most of the different things professors do. At UT, teaching two graduate courses counts as much as teaching three undergraduate courses.
UT’s antipathy for teaching undergraduates seems likely to grow. Star faculty members often regard teaching—especially undergraduate teaching—as a distraction. In 1984 physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg declared that UT “cannot compete for the brightest young researchers, at least in the sciences, if as a general rule we are going to ask them to teach more than one course per term.”
A&M also has problems, but a pleasant vestige of its tradition as a teaching institution is an emphasis on undergraduate instruction. Undergraduates are obviously the focus of the place. The faculty and administrators at A&M talk more about them and seem to think more about them. Assistant, associate, and full professors teach six out of ten freshmen and sophomore credit hours at A&M; they teach five out of ten at UT. This, however, may change. To give professors time to conduct research, the A&M administration is lightening their course loads. That means larger classes. A&M also wants to boost its graduate student enrollment substantially, from 18.5 per cent to about 25 per cent. In the long run, A&M will become more and more like UT. The trick will be striking that magic balance between scholarship and instruction.
A university should possess a sense of coherence. For its students there should be a unifying force besides the football team, an element of common experience. Students should feel a sense of participation within a single place.
Aggies and Longhorns are discernibly different—partly because that’s how they start out—and their years on campus ensure that they remain that way. UT has a sizable student underground; it is a relatively cosmopolitan, freewheeling place, where punks coexist with frat rats. There are ambitious quality programs in art, dance, music, and film, as well as an excellent library.
A major problem, however, is that UT students have a fractured experience. The campus is a large, anonymous place full of bureaucratic traps. It is common for students to have to wait in line for four or even eight hours to drop or add a single course. Undergraduates identify with a college, an extracurricular organization, or a fraternity as much as with the university because there is little at UT that binds them together. One in seven undergraduates is part-time; this limits participation in university life. Only one in seven lives in a dorm, and many live a mile or more from campus.
At A&M only 7 per cent of the undergraduates are part-time; a third live in dorms. The students are uniformly conservative; in 1984 the student precinct voted 91 per cent for Ronald Reagan (at UT it was 63 per cent). A&M has fewer students from private schools but fewer students on financial aid.
A&M students lack the veneer of sophistication and affluence that is evident at UT. They seem more pleasant and friendly; they are more likely to hold a door open for whoever follows, quicker to ask a lost visitor if he needs help. The campus, otherwise one of the ugliest in America, is free of litter and graffiti. Students are well groomed. They use the paved walks. And they respect traditional institutions; campus turnout for the 1984 presidential election was 74 per cent. Says provost Gordon Eaton: “They’re just kind of square all the way around—and not at all ashamed of it.”
That lack of diversity can be stultifying. A&M is a cultural outpost with neither a fine arts college nor an art museum of its own. Though free speech has recently been instituted at A&M, there is almost no campus underground, no College Station “drag” bustling with hustlers and freaks. Neither school does well in recruiting minority students and faculty, but A&M’s record is horrible. Among the 1106 tenured professors, 10 are Hispanics and 4 are black. At UT, 1 in 8 students is black or Hispanic; at A&M, 1 in 14. A modest consolation is that A&M is better at keeping minority students in school.
In fact, A&M is better than any university in the state at keeping its students in the fold. A&M graduates 65 per cent of its freshman class in four years. About a third of UT students finish in four years; less than 60 per cent ever graduate. And after they leave, Aggies are extraordinarily loyal. One in three gave money to A&M in 1985.
Chalk it up to the Aggie mystique, which is decidedly alive in College Station. A&M fosters tremendous student involvement. It begins before freshman registration, when half the entering class attends Fish Camp, an optional four-day program that teaches them how to be Aggies. Perhaps more remarkable, 2500 undergraduates apply each year for 150 unpaid jobs as counselors in the program. Most stupid Aggie traditions have been eliminated (the forest-consuming pre-UT-game bonfire is a notable exception), and some elegant ones remain: Silver Taps, in which the entire campus is dimmed in honor of a student who has died, and the Big Event, in which more than a thousand students spend a weekend doing repairs and cleaning up in the community. Can you imagine UT students doing that?
Well, we’ve done it. We’ve presented our report card on the universities. Total up the grades, and UT wins, but with a C to A&M’s C-. The biggest surprise is that it’s a close contest. The lesson here is that UT suffers from having bungled the tough educational decisions. With 48,000 students, it will be hard put to go back and do it all over. It is telling that Texas’ traditional liberal arts university is now run by a business school dean, while the president of the state’s trade school comes from the liberal arts. Strange as it seems, the Aggies, for being so far behind for so long, now have the potential to get it all right.
UT Versus the Superstars
Why Texas universities don’t measure up to the country’s best.
How do you regard Berkeley?” Texas A&M president Frank Vandiver was asked. “Wistfully,” he responded. For years UT and A&M presidents have looked upon the nation’s educational meccas with wonder, as though the reasons for their success were elusive. In fact, the way to academic greatness, both in reputation and in reality, is not so mysterious at all. The public universities that rated highest as undergraduate schools in a recent poll of college presidents—Berkeley, North Carolina, Michigan, and Virginia—offer a clear road map to excellence. What separates the great state schools from ours? More than money—mostly a willingness to make tough educational decisions. How do we reach the top? By heeding the lessons of the best public universities. We must remember: elitism in the name of quality is no vice, populism in the service of mediocrity is no virtue.
Limit enrollment. Great universities can’t serve everyone—and they don’t try. Berkeley’s enrollment is 32,000. Michigan has 34,300 students, North Carolina, 22,000, and Virginia 16,900. UT, at 48,000 students, is too big to be great. Its student-faculty ratio is 21 to 1. Ratios at the four top-rated schools are no higher than 16 to 1 and as low as 10 to 1.
Raise admissions standards. In California only the top 12.5 per cent of high school graduates are eligible to attend the University of California schools, such as Berkeley. There are other state universities and community colleges for everyone else. The result? Berkeley’s average SAT scores are 100 points higher than those of UT. Michigan admits only 1 in 4 applicants; UT more than 3 in 5. UT can begin by eliminating provisional admissions; let those who don’t measure up go elsewhere.
Admit students, not numbers. At Michigan and Virginia, people—not computers—decide whom to admit. Each case is handled individually. Unlike UT, which looks only at transcripts and test scores, those universities consider high school recommendations and extracurricular activities. Virginia requests a student essay to evaluate writing ability.
Emphasize the liberal arts. At North Carolina, students put in two years of intensive liberal arts study before declaring a major. All undergraduates must pass at least two writing courses (poor writers must take three), three courses in literature and fine arts, three in history, two in philosophy, and several more in science and math. Placing out of requirements isn’t easy, and students don’t get a grade for a course they’ve passed only by exam. What an institution stresses is evident in its students’ selection of majors. At the top schools two years ago, at least half of the most popular majors were in the arts and sciences; at UT, 9 of 10 were in professional programs. Students need to learn to think before they begin running the world; in college they should study Shakespeare, not Megatrends. Unfortunately, the undergraduate business degree is in Texas to stay. That doesn’t mean it should dictate a four-year course of study.
Make students write. Few undergraduates are so talented that they should be able to dodge freshman writing courses. At Michigan, even though students are stronger than their Texas counterparts, 94 per cent of the entering freshmen take freshman English. Too often, UT evaluates its students with computer-graded multiple-choice exams, the bane of modern education.
Avoid duplication. North Carolina, the second-ranked public institution in the nation, doesn’t have an engineering school. Why not? Because North Carolina State has a perfectly good one. UT and A&M both have huge engineering programs, and it’s a bit late to do away with either one. But must we keep making the same mistake? In 1977 A&M opened a new medical school, even though the UT System already had four. A&M now wants to build a law school. Does anyone think Texas needs more lawyers?
End political meddling. In the last 57 years the University of Michigan has had five presidents. During the same period, UT has had fourteen. The UT presidency has been such a hot seat that no administrator has been able to develop the clout to do what needs to be done. In Texas, the Legislature dictates almost a full semester of a UT undergraduate’s academic schedule, requiring four outdated courses in government and history.
Get serious. Does UT really need an undergraduate major in kindergarten teaching? In textiles and clothing? How can UT expect respect when it gives academic credit for Bible classes taught by off-campus preachers?