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Tangling with Frank Erwin

By Ronnie Dugger
by Published on
Photo by Ike Baruch/Briscoe Center for American History
Frank Erwin

This is a continuation of Dugger’s piece The Business of Education,” a review of Kenneth Ashworth’s Horns of A Dilemma. The book chronicles Ashworth’s relationship with the powerful chair of the UT Board of Regents, Frank Erwin, who reigned from 1966 to 1975.

Frank Erwin’s stagy demonstrations of politics and commerce dominating public higher education climaxed in his attempted dismemberment of the University of Texas College of Arts and Sciences and his firing of its dean, John Silber.

Silber was a charismatic professor of philosophy who sent his students out to interview slumlords, headed the Texas society for the abolition of capital punishment and combatively supported racial integration. He challenged Erwin on a number of counts, probably worst of all in Erwin’s craw by reaching out for alumni support to become the president of the university. Silber’s eloquence, passions, hot temper, cutting one-liners, confident opinions, and political ambition made him Erwin’s unmistakable rival for running the place, not to mention for the governorship of the whole state—for which honor Erwin had already designated Ben Barnes.

To cut Silber down, Erwin promoted with transparent malice a proposal to “divide” the College of Arts and Sciences into three colleges and a division, each with a new dean. The president in place, Norman Hackerman, who had stretched protocol to make Silber the dean, simply refused to obey Erwin’s and his regents’ demands that the college be split up.  That put Hackerman in Erwin’s gunsights, too–one day, Ashworth writes, “I had heard him talking openly about firing Hackerman.

Later the same day, Ashworth writes that Erwin told him, “I just had a most interesting conversation with John Silber.” Tracking Silber down in Michigan, Erwin said he had told Silber that the regents “may have to fire Hackerman….I told him Hackerman is still refusing to do what we told him to do about dividing the College of Arts and Sciences…..You know what Silber told me?  He said I didn’t have to take on that burden.  I didn’t have to fire Hackerman.  He would destroy him for me.”

Reporting this, Ashworth asks nine questions about what Silber’s motives could be saying that, and then: “Was it even true?   I was to come to learn that Erwin was not above mythologizing.”  Explaining why Silber would gut Hackerman for him, Erwin said the dean had boasted that his college taught two thirds of the credit hours in the university and had half the students, budget, and graduates, that he had appointed 23 of the 27 department chairmen, “and he said they will do what he tells them to.”  Hard to believe he’d said that, Ashworth quotes himself.  “Erwin nodded and said, ‘He may oppose us breaking up his college, but if he could be president….”

Hackerman resigned to become the president at Rice and his vice president, Bryce Jordan, became the interim president at UT.  Erwin and his regents then fired Ransom, the venerable UT System Chancellor, and replaced him with Erwin’s man, Mickey LeMaistre. Silber led the faculty of his college to a nearly unanimous vote to limit the enrollment on the Austin campus to an extraordinary 35,000 students, but Erwin was determined that there be no such limit.

Ashworth, just a month into his high office and still in his late twenties, apparently bought most of what Erwin had told him and decided that Erwin should fire Silber.  On his own Ashworth wrote and showed Erwin his one-page draft of a letter, shown as to be signed by Bryce Jordan, firing the dean for insubordination for opposing the division of his college into quarters.  “Why do you have Bryce signing it?” Erwin asked him.   “Because Silber doesn’t work for you…..He works for Bryce,” Ashworth replied.  Erwin nodded, gave the letter back, and told him not to show or tell anyone about it.

Without the Ashworth book we would never know it, but a week later, late on the afternoon of July 24, 1970, the bold new vice chancellor for academic affairs was called over to the Chancellor’s Office and there then ensued what must be one of the most astonishing and shameless scenes in the history of higher education in the United States.

Ashworth writes that Erwin met with his new Chancellor LeMaistre, President Jordan, and Lemaistre’s deputy, chief of staff, and assistant.  “No one was saying anything,” Ashworth reports.  “But it was clear they were expecting Erwin to explain why he had called them together in LeMaistre’s office.

“When I entered, Erwin said, ‘Go get that letter and put today’s date on it.’

“No one saw that as remarkable.  Everyone did what Erwin told them.

“When I came back with the letter he took it from me and walked over to LeMaistre’s desk and laid it in front of the president.

“He said, ‘Sign that letter, Bryce.  You just fired John Silber.’

“Jordan signed the letter with alacrity, and Erwin sat down and began to describe the meeting he had just had with Silber.”

The meeting had occurred at 4 p.m. the same afternoon in the office of Professor Donald Weismann, who had also been present.  Before Erwin came in, Weismann told Ashworth, Silber had told him, “Frank is coming to tell me I’m going to be the next president of UT.”  Instead of that, as Erwin was soon to regale the group in LeMaistre’s office, he told Silber, “John, I am going to make you famous today.  I am going to fire you.” And so he did.

Kenneth Ashworth was Erwin’s Boswell, but there is a problem—he doubted some of what Erwin told him and condemned one tale Erwin had spun out (that in the 1940’s he himself had led a student march against the regents’ firing of liberal UT President Homer P. Rainey) as “demonstrably false.” Silber’s second career as President of Boston University, which included his almost successful campaign for governor of Massacusetts, has been an often melodramatic saga as bizarrely hellzapoppin’ as UT 1969-1973. For the ensuing four decades Silber was a phone call, a letter, or an email, at worst an airplane away from Ashworth.   The first that Silber knew Ashworth was quoting what Erwin said Silber said to Erwin during the historic UT dust-up was last April when Silber received from Ashworth, as I had, an early copy of The Horns of a Dilemma.

Last April 12 Silber wrote Ashworth that his account of what Erwin told him about Silber saying he would help him fire President Hackerman was “both false and defamatory” and “seriously damages my reputation.”

Silber’s memory of his conversation from Michgan with Erwin is, he wrote, “etched in my brain.   Erwin began by saying, “ ‘John….I’m going to fire Norman Hackerman, and I want to know what you’re going to do about it.’

“I immediately replied, ‘I will publicly denounce you as the worst and most irresponsible regent in the history of the University… And I believe you will create a firestorm you can’t control.’”  He had added, he said, that Erwin had better go through a faculty committee and the regents or “you’ll have a disaster.’ “

Silber wrote that Erwin’s statement to Ashworth on his position had been “a blatant lie,” and that his saying that Silber said his deans would obey him was “ridiculous.” He says that he was loyal to Hackerman for appointing him dean and, being then 14 years younger than Hackerman, that he was in no competition with him and wasn’t ready for the presidency.  Either Ashworth should withhold publication and make corrections in his book, Silber said, or a permanent errata sheet should be attached to it.

In a second letter to Ashworth three days later Silber recalled that after the faculty in his college had favored limiting the UT Austin enrollment, Erwin had told him, “when a dean calls a faculty meeting to decide to limit the size of the university to 35,000, it’s time to break up that college and get rid of that dean.”

Silber retorted: “The regents should be concerned about the quality of education at UT.  At 35,000 we are bursting at the seams, but we still manage to have dialogue between professors in different classes so that students are excited to hear the joined debate between professors….If the university gets much larger, there is no possibility of such interchange.

“ ‘Then again,’ with candor, I added, ‘you and your political and business associates will all prosper by pushing the size of the University of Texas at Austin rather than create other branches.  As high-rise condominiums and apartments are built all around the university, the profit is assured by increasing the enrollment.  Isn’t that a serious conflict of interest?’

“Erwin looked over his half-glasses and said, shaking his head,

‘Silber, you’ll never learn.  Where there is no conflict, there is no interest.’”

In 1969, Silber now related, he had spoken at a dinner at a Dallas country club attended “by a crowd of heavyweights, including businessmen and regents.  Much to my surprise, Erwin and Ben Barnes appeared.  I asked Ben why they bothered to come. … He said, ‘Because this is the heaviest crowd that was ever gathered on behalf of the University of Texas.’ By heavy, he meant richest, I suppose the members of that audience were worth several billion dollars.”

Soon after, Silber continued, UT regent Rabbi Olan of Dallas flew to Austin to tell him that after he had finished his speech, for which he received a standing ovation, Erwin had said to Olan, “I’m going to fire John Silber at the earliest opportunity.”

The ensuing spring, Silber’s letter continued, a black waiter at the local Headliners Club who had served at a dinner party said that on that occasion he heard Erwin announce that by the ensuing fall, “I’m going to get rid of Harry Ransom, John Silber, Norman Hackerman, and Dean Keeton.” (Keeton being the widely-respected liberal dean of the UT law school for whom a street near the campus is now named.)

During the same spring, Silber continued, the college under his deanship was awarded a $250,000 grant from the Ford Foundation for innovation, only to be told that the university would not accept the money. Silber asked Chancellor LeMaistre why, and he said LeMaistre replied, “’Because, John, I don’t think you’re going to be here.  We’re going to name you the new president of the University of Texas at San Antonio.’  I knew by then that Erwin planned to fire me.”

Silber then told Ashworth, in this second letter, one more story that has not before seen the black and white of print:

Later that spring “Erwin called me to his office to tell me that I was to be indicted by the [state] attorney general… ‘for extorting money from your employees.’”  At a meeting of his college’s faculty, Silber expatiated,

he had told them that a federal scholarship program would triple-match

a university’s fund to support the enrollment of minority and disadvantaged students “and that if we could raise $100,000 at the University of Texas, we could have $400,000 to use, and with our low tuition this would carry us a long way.

“Erwin said when I asked for money from employees, I was in violation of state law.  I said, ‘Frank, I don’t believe it.  Do you realize that I arranged contributions so that I could not know who gave and who did not give?  I built a Chinese wall….I could not reward or punish any faculty member for contributing or failing to do so.  But Frank, I hope you go ahead with this indictment because I like what I foresee.  It will gain national

recognition.  The headlines:  ‘The University of Texas is so opposed to offering any support to minority students that the Regents have asked the Attorney General to indict an individual who went out of his way to secure the funds to make this possible.’  Frank, you’ll just make me a hero and you’re going to lose the case.’

“Erwin told me that [a third party whom he named] came up with this idea.  Then Erwin got on the phone to Hackerman, “Norm, forget about that lawsuit against Silber.  It won’t fly.’”

Silber also added, for Ashworth, recollections of piquant moments during his meeting with Erwin in Weismann’s office that afternoon of July 24th.

“After Erwin informed me that the war was over and I was fired,”

Silber wrote Ashworth, “he recognized that I had tenure as a professor and he offered to continue my dean’s salary and perks if I would resign.  I told him I could not resign.  He said then, ‘I have to fire you.’

“I said, ‘Frank, I’m paying a pretty heavy tuition.  Don’t you think I ought to learn something?’

“Frank smiled and said, ‘That’s a fair request.  Don’t ever take a number two job.  You are so naïve.  You believe that when you help the top man he loves you for it.  As a matter of fact, he hates your guts because you demonstrate a greater ability to do your job than he has.  So next time, just take the top job and you won’t have any trouble.’

“The record shows I took Frank’s advice,” Silber wrote.

Ashworth wrote back to Silber last April 25, “The recollections and views you describe were relevant and intriguing, but they are your recollections and opinions, not mine—and therefore not appropriate for my memoir.  I set out only to describe what I had observed, what had been said to me and, as well as I could, how I understood what I saw and heard and participated in….

“Where I reported statements said to have been made by you, I think I made clear the possibility that you may never have said what was attributed to you, and that, even if you had, these statements were subject to a variety of interpretations and possible motives, not all negative.  While there surely have been, and often are, errors in anyone’s account of recalled conversations, I went to some length to acknowledge this, particularly in reference to you.  I think it is clear that my descriptions were not set forth as a ‘true account’ of what you actually may have said, instead, they are an account only of what had been said to me.  Consequently, I do not agree that my account defames you.  Certainly nothing in my account was intended to do so.”[2]

Erwin loved the University of Texas and stage-played the state legislature to win hugely beneficial sums of money for his place.  The Austin campus sprouted like fields of gigantic erector sets and enrollment became irrationally bloated.  Erwin’s dictatorship caused some of the best professors, attracted to Austin by Ransom and Silber, to move to freer climes and hurt faculty recruitment for years.  He personified the marauder in the university. He was an arrogant and ruthless, although also sardonic and self-parodying dominator in the Ancient Order of Jungle and Brutality, and he loved every minute of the terrors he inflicted.  His chosen role was to spot the timorousness in the academics and the administrators and to move shrewdly in many scenes to consolidate Establishment control. By his rages, his rhetoric, his certain decision to dominate, and his actions, he parodied but identified himself as one of the most cynical demagogues in the history of higher education.

And now?  Suffice, perhaps, to quote Paul Burka from Texas Monthly for last April that our state’s Tea Party Republican Governor, Rick Perry, who wants to take the power to choose U.S. senators away from the people and give it back to the state legislatures, has now thoroughly stacked the governing boards of both the University of Texas and the Texas A&M systems with regents “who appear to be willing to do his bidding.”

Beyond just now, too, there is a question what and, if presumably some, how much autonomy in a culture a university, and especially a public one, can have.  In his classic, Ancient Education, William Smith wrote that in the nature of things schools are bowls into which the cultures of societies are poured.  To occur intellectual, creative, even destructive originality may need, even require, a duration of solitude.  Perhaps it was Frank Erwin’s loneliness without his wife, the love of his life, that gave to his zenith at the University of Texas its loud colors, comedy, and ironic melancholy.

Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of the Observer, has written several books, including Our Invaded Universities.

SOME NOTES ON THIS PIECE:


[1] Silber is a lifelong friend of mine, in fact I am now reading slowly his at-last completed magnus opus on Immanuel Kant, so I have no way to avoid a conflict of interest here  concerning Silber’s adversarial relationships with Erwin and Ashworth, but I have done my best to be fair.

[2] On May 9th Silber in a third letter to him  alluded to Ashworth’s “utter cynicism,” rebuked him for not having checked with him, and repeated his allegation of defamation.  By email to Beijing where Ashworth is at present I invited him to proffer additional remarks, but, I then being right at my deadline for turning in this report, he said “nothing I might add at this late date would be of use.”