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Political Intelligence

Embarrassment of Riches
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Hogs at the Trough

The Ivory Tower is indeed gilded for the chiefs of American universities and colleges. Like their corporate counterparts, they are making more money than ever, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s annual survey. The survey found Mark Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas System, at the top of the heap in Texas. In 2006-2007, Yudof pulled in $742,209, making him the fifth-highest paid public university leader in the nation. After a $50,000 raise in August, Yudof is earning 122 percent more in inflation-adjusted terms than the UT chancellor did just a decade ago. Yudof also finds time to sit on the board of HealthTronics Inc., an Austin-based medical services and products company. From that gig in 2006, he earned another $153,921.

Reflecting the creeping privatization of higher education, only $70,231 of Yudof’s UT compensation comes from state tax dollars. Just as lobbyists subsidize the lifestyles of poorly paid state lawmakers through campaign contributions, Yudof gets around the cap instituted in 1951 by taking contributions from wealthy donors. Perhaps not coincidently, Yudof is an advocate of involving the public university system in more private ventures.

Yudof’s Aggie counterpart, Chancellor Michael McKinney, fell short of the Longhorn grade, with only $638,200 in compensation, plus an expense account and club dues. Jay Gogue, who retired from the University of Houston System in June, enjoyed $591,823, plus the free use of a car and home provided by the school. The presidents of the state’s two flagship campuses, UT-Austin and A&M-College Station, did quite nicely as well, making $599,780 and $437,000, respectively, about double a decade ago. In all, 21 leaders of Texas public universities and colleges took home more than $250,000 last year.

“How can anyone not be appalled?” asks Mark Winkel, an associate professor of psychology at UT-Pan American in Edinburg and president of the campus chapter of the Texas Faculty Association. “This is so in keeping with this corporate model of education. And education is the antithesis of that.”

The economic prospects of students and workers are not nearly as rosy as those of administrators. The surge in executive salaries has happened alongside a general stagnation in the wages of faculty and university workers, and double-digit tuition increases. “Since 2001 inflation is up 17 percent,” says Will Rogers of the Texas State Employees Union. “[Workers’] pay hasn’t kept up with that. Benefits certainly haven’t improved.”

The UT System has the third-most employees in the state with children on the government-funded Childrenís Health Insurance Program, behind Wal-Mart and the Houston Independent School District, according to 2005 data compiled by the progressive Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Matt Flores, a UT System spokesman, said a large salary is necessary to attract talent capable of managing a $10.7 billion, 15-campus enterprise.

Christmas Mountains Cartoon

BARACK AND THE BIG MONEY

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama sounded downright populist when he swung through Austin for a speech and fundraiser on November 17.

“I’m in this race to tell the lobbyists and the big fat cats that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over,” the Democratic presidential candidate told an estimated crowd of 3,500. People had shelled out $25 each and waited in light rain to hear Obama at The Backyard, the outdoor music venue west of Austin. “I’ve done more than any candidate in this race to take on the corporate lobbyists. They have not funded my campaign, they will not work in my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I’m president.”

Obama has employed this kind of anti-Washington, anti-fat cat rhetoric in recent weeks to not-so-implicitly criticize Hillary Clinton, New York’s junior senator, who leads Obama by double digits in national polls. Media reports have noted that Obama has positioned himself as the anti-Washington candidate. What most stories haven’t noted is that the numbers back him up.

More than any other Democratic or Republican candidate, big business money has flowed to Clinton’s campaign. Obama has received hardly any contributions from big business political action committees-he’s raised just $6,000 from PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ninety-nine percent of his $79 million has come from individual contributions. Clinton, by contrast, has received nearly $700,000 in PAC money. Only Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona ($458,000) and Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut ($563,000) come anywhere close to Clinton’s PAC contributions.

As Obama spoke in Austin, just 45 days remained before the start of voting in the Democratic presidential primaries.

Texans won’t vote until March 4, by which time someone will almost surely have the nomination locked up. Some pundits even contend the race could be decided at the Iowa caucuses on January 3.

So Obama’s Texas visit wasn’t intended to woo voters, but to vacuum up campaign cash. That he would take time to visit Texas so close to the primaries shows just how fertile the state has become for fundraising. Texas ranks third, behind New York and California, in campaign contributions this presidential cycle.

Obama held fundraisers in Houston and Austin before delivering his speech at The Backyard. It was a version of his new stump speech, offered in a near-constant shout. Great oratory it wasn’t. But compared with Obama’s last speech in Austin-a flat, 40-minute soliloquy on February 23 about his background and beliefs before a crowd of 20,000-this rated as a scorcher.

“The old textbook Washington campaign just won’t do,” he told the Backyard crowd. “Telling people what we think they want to hear instead of what they need to hear just won’t do. Not answering tough questions because we’re afraid they won’t be popular just won’t do. Triangulating and poll-testing positions because we’re afraid what [GOP candidates] Mitt [Romney] and Rudy [Giuliani] might say about us just won’t do. Not this time. Not now. Not in this election.”

Baptist Censureship

Never tell a Southern Baptist how to be a Baptist-not to his face, anyway. That’s what trustees of the International Mission Board did on November 6, when they voted to censure fellow trustee Wade Burleson, a pastor in Enid, Oklahoma, for violations of a trustee code of conduct. The board runs the Southern Baptist Conventionís missionary programs. The Observer reflected on Burleson’s outspoken role in Southern Baptist politics in a July feature, “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Burleson says he was censured because he criticized mission board policies in public. “I am being censured for my public dissent,” he recently wrote on his blog, “Grace and Truth to You,” at kerussocharis.blogspot.com. This is the blog that earned him notoriety among Southern Baptists (and caught the Observer‘s eye). Since late 2005, Burleson has blogged, vigorously but politely, against new mission board policies that he says improperly restrict what Baptists can believe. One issue is baptism; another is whether the Bible supports speaking in tongues in private prayer. He’s also called for more openness in Southern Baptist affairs.

In a censure resolution, Burleson’s own blog posts were cited as evidence of his infractions. He has “repeatedly used his blog to share private communications with fellow trustees,” “spoken in disparaging terms about fellow trustees,” and “spoken in terms that are not positive and supportive of the Board when interpreting and reporting on actions by the Board.” Other trustees met with Burleson twice on November 5 to get an apology, which Burleson refused to give, citing a Baptist tradition of dissent. “They said the only way to avoid the censure was to apologize, and I told them that I’m a Baptist,” Burleson said in a telephone interview, “and I’m not going to apologize for the very thing that says I must dissent.”

Being so vocal has made him many new friends and enemies, but Burleson says he doesn’t like the attention. He doesn’t even particularly like blogging. So he made a counteroffer: Stop the censure proceedings, and he would resign as a trustee, quit blogging, and apologize to anyone he’d personally offended. “If they would just focus on missions [at] this meeting and not make me an issue, by the next meeting I would be gone,” Burleson says. They refused his offer and pressed ahead with the censure, which passed by a voice vote on November 6. John Floyd, chairman of the mission board trustees, declined to comment on Burleson’s offer.

Burleson now has the dubious distinction of being the first mission board trustee in its 162-year history to be censured, which means he’s barred from active participation in trustee meetings and won’t have his travel expenses reimbursed. “I like being first,” Burleson says. “But I would rather these be things I was last in.”

Musharraf cartoon

Papering Over the Wall

The federal government’s 538-page draft assessment of the potential environmental problems that might spring from building 70 miles of fence along the border in South Texas is not very encouraging, say critics. Released in November, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement makes only slight concessions to environmental concerns.

The draft dismisses locally preferred alternatives to the border wall, like using technology to detect border-crossers or building reservoirs near Brownsville that would provide drinking water and make illegal entry more difficult. Instead, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security explores three alternative routes for its fence, all literally filled with holes.

The three routes consist of 21 fence segments ranging from 1 mile to 13 miles long each, from Roma to Brownsville. Miles-wide gaps stand between each segment. “I really suspect this is just a down payment,” said Scott Nicol, a member of the grassroots No Border Wall coalition. “They’re going to build this and say, ‘Look at all the people crossing in the gaps, so we need to fill in the gaps.'”

The feds’ “preferred” route, according to the draft, would follow the levee system along the Rio Grande, be 60 feet wide, and consume over 500 acres of land. Under this scenario, about 90 secure gates would be built so landowners could access land that winds up on the wrong side of the barrier.

Unchanged from previous iterations, the route would slice through critical wildlife corridors and leave the Sabal Palm Audubon Center, near Brownsville, and the 240-year-old town of Granjeno, where some residents have refused to budge, stranded between the wall and the river.

Homeland Security plans two public meetings to present the draft environmental statement in December. Nicol says that’s not good enough. “The biggest environmental impacts listed-where the most species will be lost, the most habitat-that will all be in Starr County, and there aren’t going to be any meetings there.” The draft statement, Nicol says, is perfunctory, and the minimum Homeland Security needs to cover its butt in court.

Members of the public have until December 31 to submit comments. Homeland Security hopes to have the fence completed by the end of 2008.

While underwhelmed by the draft, Nicol nonetheless says it’s better than what other border communities have received. “The only reason that we’re getting anything … is because we’ve been kicking and screaming.”

For now, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff has chosen not to invoke the nuclear option in South Texas: the power granted him by the Real ID Act to overturn laws that stand in the way of a border fence. Chertoff has used this authority three times, most recently in southeastern Arizona, where he suspended 19 laws in October to get a 2-mile section of fence moving.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government has released its own 208-page environmental assessment that blasts the wall, comparing it to the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China. The Mexican assessment warns of dire consequences for plants and animals, including black bears, the jaguarundi, and Mexican gray wolves.

Better Late Than Never?

It’s taken more than two and a half years, but the Texas Forensic Science Commission-the state agency that’s supposed to investigate mistakes by the state’s crime labs-has finally begun work. Mind you, by work we mean the commission held its first meeting of 2007 and may soon set up a Web site. Meanwhile, innocent people likely are still sitting in Texas prisons thanks to poor forensic evidence. But given the sorry history of the commission, even a Web site rates as serious progress.

The Texas Legislature established the Forensic Science Commission in 2005 after a string of high-profile debacles at crime labs around the state. The notorious failures at the Houston Police Departmentís Crime Lab, which made headlines nationally, corrupted possibly hundreds of cases. The latest victim of incompetence by the HPD crime lab was Ronald Taylor, who was released from prison on October 9 after serving 14 years for a rape he didn’t commit [see “Willful Injustice,” October 19, 2007].

The New York-based Innocence Project, which has freed dozens of wrongly convicted men from Texas prisons, pushed hard for the creation of the commission. But work remained stalled for most of 2005 and 2006 for lack of funding, and because Gov. Rick Perry took nearly eight months to appoint his share of the nine-member commission [see “The Price of Innocence,” January 26, 2007].

In 2007, the commission finally received funding from the Legislature to begin investigating claims of innocence. Before the commission could even think about spending its operating funds, over the summer the chairman resigned, and three other commissioners appointed by Perry saw 18-month terms expire-though they hadn’t done a thing.

On October 29, the commission convened in Austin. It was the commission’s third meeting ever and its first in a year. Four spots remain vacant, and Perry’s office said the governor has no immediate plans to fill them.
Still, the five active commissioners
ade plans to hire a staffer, set up offices at Sam Houston State University, and launch a Web site so prisoners and their families can submit accusations of botched forensics for investigation. The commission plans to meet again on December 7 in Houston.

“We’re working hard. We’re on board. We have our funding, finally,” said acting commission Chair Samuel Bassett, an Austin defense attorney. He said he hopes the commission will begin investigating claims of innocence as early as February.