The Business of Education

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photo by Ike Baruch/Prints and Photographs Collection/Briscoe Center for American History
Frank Erwin in 1971

In the early 1970s, Frank Erwin dominated higher education in the public University of Texas System of colleges and universities. He was a key player for Gov. John Connally and a drinking buddy of state senators, corporate executives and President Lyndon Johnson. Behind the scenes, this deeply conservative, dictatorial, lonely and strangely forlorn man befriended a hidden liberal high in the university system, Kenneth Ashworth, and embosomed him with tales of his tyranny as if Ashworth were his Boswell. The result four decades later, Ashworth’s Horns of a Dilemma, flourishes a set of revelations as to how this bull of a man ran higher education in about 20 Texas colleges and universities with 75,000 students, for a little better and for a lot worse. It’s as if he set out to prove that raw political power trumps higher learning in Texas.

Erwin was chairman of the UT System Board of Regents for nine years, 1966 to 1975. A powerfully connected politician, corporate lawyer, lion of the Legislature and bête noire of the left, Erwin dramatized and embodied the power of politics and business in higher education then and now.

I wrote a good deal about Erwin in my 1974 book, Our Invaded Universities. I argued that the universities, which I consider crucibles for the conscience of our culture, were failing, and failing in too many ways. The university has become the students’ orphanage and the youngest faculty’s sweatshop, reshaped by the interests and forces that are rich and coarse enough to buy its people, prestige and purposes. Like our business-dominated “regulatory agencies,” elections and political parties, this most important institution has been penetrated and overwhelmed by the money culture.

These grim conditions have worsened in the past 40 years. Ashworth, who, after the chilling adventures of Erwin’s period, became a commissioner of the Coordinating Board for Higher Education in Texas, wrote me as he sent me his book, “Much of what I tell corroborates your findings and charges in Our Invaded Universities. If there was a threat of corporate takeover of universities in those days you wrote about … it is here in spades today.”

During the principal events at UT that I wrote about, Ashworth was on the inside. During Erwin’s period as UT’s enforcer of student and faculty conformity, the young Ashworth, one year past his Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of education, had been appointed the UT System’s  vice chancellor for academic affairs. He got this august job at the insistence of a top Democratic party leader in San Antonio, John Peace, who, it was understood, had been made a regent by Connally to reward him for turning out the Hispanic vote for the governor. “I had taught one course at the university,” Ashworth writes. “What qualifications did I have for the position other than having been assistant drum major in my high school band?”

Nevertheless, he became Erwin’s confidant, and four decades later he provides ringside witness of the dictator’s rampages. In Erwin’s excesses, we see again, and most clearly, the often-obscured weaknesses in public higher education today. Even as Erwin caricatured himself, he showed the lengths, blatant or subtle, to which political and business control of a huge state university can go. He loved the University of Texas and stage-played the Legislature to win hugely beneficial sums of money for his place. But his business friends profited as the Austin campus sprouted like fields of gigantic erector sets, and enrollment became irrationally bloated. A number of the best professors moved away to freer climes, and word of this spread nationally and hurt faculty recruitment.

In his heyday Erwin spun around the campus in his Cadillac painted the school colors of orange and white, wore a raw silk orange blazer at parties before the big football games, ordered his fellow administrators around like schoolboys, drank and cursed heavily—lord, what a fellow! Understood to be lonely after the death of his wife, he liked the company of students and wanted them to admire him. When a large crowd gathered in a side auditorium at Scholz Garten in Austin at a party for my book, in which I did Erwin no favors, there he was ensconced at a table, signing copies of my book himself with rueful good humor. I greeted him and invited him to join us, but he stayed alone.

Former UT President Robert Berdahl writes in this book’s foreword that Erwin “ran the campus. He set up his office in the main building and roamed the campus as his domain, making his wishes known to compliant administrators. He held late-night drinking soirees with students, favored faculty and select administrators. He despised liberal faculty and believed (they) damaged the university ….”

“Few,” Ashworth adds, “could keep up with his drinking,” often into the early hours (often also with fellow Kappa Sigs). “His evening repast,” recounts his self-described Boswell ad interim, “often consisted of the popcorn and bar nuts served with his drinks.”

Tattling on his mentor, Ashworth quotes, in self-defense, Truman Capote’s question concerning Capote’s own ratting on friends and benefactors: “Did they think I was not taking notes?” Ashworth was never certain “how skewed” the stories Erwin told him might be. “But certainly not all his tales could be said to be self-serving. Some of them showed him petulant or vindictive or just plain mean. But he would tell them to me anyway.”

Erwin reveled in the devilment of enraging protesting students at the height of their revolt against the Vietnam War. He conducted a campaign to curb, by administrative changes, the editorial freedom of the student newspaper, The Daily Texan. A young instructor who was a socialist became one of his obsessive targets.

His regents (for they were certainly his) decided to expand by 15,000 seats the football stadium of the Texas Longhorns, and Erwin took direct personal charge of sawing down a number of large trees to make room for the new seating. Trying to save the trees, students climbed into them and perched there; Erwin called the cops, and (as it were) ordered them, “Arrest all the people you have to. Once the trees are down, there won’t be anything to protest.” The police arrested 27 youngsters, hauling some of them to the ground, and for the cameras Erwin applauded as the trees smashed down.

Ashworth exposes how Erwin zestily intimidated and bullied people to do his bidding or risk humiliation. The governor at that time, Preston Smith of Lubbock, appointed a Dallas lawyer named DeBusk who wanted to cut legislative funding for the universities, as chairman of the state’s new Coordinating Board for Higher Education. “I made up my mind we were going to have to bust that dipshit,” Erwin told Ashworth, and “here is how we busted that dumb ass.” Ben Barnes, the state House speaker and later lieutenant governor, was Erwin’s protégé, and “I went to Barnes and told him it was time …” Erwin and his guys busted dipshit twice at once, with a vote against DeBusk in the state Senate and then another in the Coordinating Board itself, thus maximizing the governor’s humiliation. 

Erwin was savvy in dealing with his enemies. He told his hidden liberal that he agreed to let Gov. Smith “have his medical school for Lubbock,” provided the governor in return would support “our [UT’s] new medical school in Houston.”

“But you’ve always despised Preston Smith,” Ashworth said.

“Look, in politics,” Erwin explained, “… if you’re above dealing with your enemies, you’ve just eliminated a big bunch of people. You’re going to miss lots of opportunities.”

Wanting UT’s money from the Legislature to be spent mainly for new buildings, which of course bestowed lucrative contracts on his business friends, Erwin, playing the philistine, joked wanly that Harry Ransom, the visionary creator of the now nationally respected Ransom Center literary and manuscript collections, spent too much money on “used books.” Erwin saw to it that policy changes were announced at the best times of day and week “to generate the least reaction from faculty and students.” Ashworth says the boss roamed the halls “giving direction to everyone … Authority rested with him if he chose to interfere.” One of Erwin’s favorite phrases, Ashworth said, was, “I have his balls in the palm of my hand.” After a year in his job Ashworth wanted to get out because Erwin kept trying to get him to report what his own two bosses were up to.

Erwin worked to undermine anyone who caught his roving eye as too liberal. The dean at the LBJ School hired liberal state Sen. Don Kennard of Fort Worth as an adjunct professor. Erwin exclaimed to Ashworth, “Well, God just delivered another one of my enemies into my hands. I just went over to see [the dean] and put an end to that.” As for a second bombastic liberal in the Senate, A.R. (Babe) Schwartz of Galveston, Erwin said, “God has delivered all my enemies into my hands except that son of a bitch Babe Schwartz. And his time will come.”

Another day, reveling in his power over the UT System’s six universities and dozen other institutions, Erwin told Ashworth, “Do you realize I have replaced or moved every president in the UT System since I’ve been on this board? Except Blocker at Galveston and Sprague, that son of a bitch, and I should have gotten him, too. He wouldn’t carry out orders.”

Erwin’s demonstrations of politics and commerce dominating public higher education climaxed in his attempted dismemberment of the College of Arts and Sciences at UT-Austin, along with his firing of its dean, the charismatic professor of philosophy, John Silber, who had his eye on the presidency of the university. To cut Silber down, Erwin promoted with transparent malice a proposal to “divide” the college into three much smaller colleges and a division, each with a new dean. It was the classic Erwin strategy. 

Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of the Observer and its publisher until 1994, has written several books, including Our Invaded Universities.  His email is
[email protected].