A little history goes a long way in explaining why the University of Texas at Austin may be the biggest, but not the best.
As Commencement 2001 got underway on the University of Texas’ main mall last spring, the proceedings had the hopped-up feel of an MTV production. But anyone who thought the headline speaker would echo the high spirits had another thing coming. Instead, Nobel physicist and UT professor Steven Weinberg gave the new graduates chapter and verse on their school’s failure to break into the ranks of the nation’s great research universities, and their own responsibility as educated citizens to do something about it. Judging from their glum response, that was more reality programming than they had in mind.
For those with longer memories of events on this campus, this astonishing speech recalled other chapters, other verses. “Ye Shall Know The Truth And The Truth Shall Make You Free,” proclaimed the Biblical dictum on the Main Building above Weinberg’s head, and the truth is that the story of UT’s failed promise is an old one. From my perch in the commencement bleachers you could find pieces of the narrative all around us. There was the old Music Building, belatedly renamed for the martyred president Homer Rainey a half-century after his firing thrust the campus into a dark age of censure. There was the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, conceived by the president who led UT’s all too short-lived renaissance. Few buildings are named for scholars anymore, which says as much about the soul of a university as anything. For evidence of who is being immortalized in the halls of learning, there was the Red McCombs School of Business, its new appellation the result of a $50 million gift from the billionaire San Antonio car dealer.
Bequests from rich people and private corporations are increasingly underwriting the future of public universities everywhere, but especially at UT-Austin, which is hard-pressed to meet the basic needs of 50,000 students. Weinberg noted that UT’s funding, including income from the state’s Permanent University Fund, is half that of UCLA or Berkeley, and he assailed the Texas Legislature for its neglect–some say hostility–toward the state’s flagship university. That treatment stems in part from the widely held perception that UT has long comported itself in Medici fashion and deserves to be taken down a notch or two. If it must now scrounge for appropriations, beg for alms from the rich, and divvy up its constitutional birthright with a host of lesser, needier institutions–so what? “The University,” as it insists on calling itself, will always find someone to write the checks.
Thinking about the checks reminded me of another building, several miles west of campus on a quiet street in Tarrytown. The Bauer House became the official chancellor’s residence 30 years ago in a tempest of controversy roiled, in part, by a single check. Few of the graduates of 2001 knew or cared about that, just as they little cared about the problems of the institution they were exiting. But it might have helped put Weinberg’s polemic in perspective. History repeats itself here, in a spiral of cautionary tales around familiar themes. Money. Hubris. Poisonous politics. To understand why things are the way they are at UT, you don’t need the whole history book; just a few stories will do.
In a funny way, the Bauer House is one of those stories.
In the spring of 1970, University of Texas Chancellor Harry Ransom and his wife showed up regularly at a construction site in West Austin to check on the progress of the chancellor’s new official residence. The university was sparing no expense on the Bauer House, and Hazel Ransom already thought of it as her own home. When the contractor kidded that they were “only going to cut down a few” of the lovely oaks on the three-acre estate, she nearly threw a fit. That was the end of his jokes with the chancellor’s wife.
If anyone deserved a mansion, Harry Huntt Ransom did. The silver-tongued Ransom had lured respected professors to UT and cleansed it of the stain that had besmirched the university ever since the 1940s, when president Homer Rainey stood up for academic freedom and got himself fired. Ransom had acquired a stupendous number of rare books and manuscripts that became the envy of elite libraries worldwide, and he pushed the graduate schools toward excellence. Nor were the lowly masses of undergraduate students forgotten: Ransom built them a spacious library, raised faculty salaries, and created new honors programs for the best and brightest. Where there had been no endowed chairs, he brought forth dozens. The academic reputation of the University of Texas rose in happy tandem with its nationally ranked football teams.
But Harry had a secret that spring, one that meant he and Hazel would never move to the Bauer House. The secret was linked with another imposing edifice nearing completion on the UT campus. The Humanities Research Center, known today as the Harry Ransom HRC, was designed as a state-of-the-art repository for the 20th-century literary collections Ransom was hauling to town by the truckload. It was a spectacular achievement. Behind his Buddy Holly hornrims, only Ransom had the vision–and, oddly, the charisma–to convince the dullest regents they could create an Alexandria on the Colorado.
But Ransom was an abysmal administrator, overwhelmed by the demands of the UT system, which had metastasized from three to eleven campuses during his tenure. He had already yielded day-to-day operations to others. He was weary of the politics, the conflicts with the bombastic regents’ chairman, Frank Erwin. He was weary of everything–except the HRC. Secretly, he cut a deal with Erwin that would allow him to step down as chancellor but retain financial control over all of UT’s libraries and special collections. The unusual arrangement was announced in May of 1970, along with the name of the new chancellor to be ensconced in the Bauer House, Dr. Charles “Mickey” LeMaistre. Ransom would live out his days at his home on Meadowbrook, recusing himself from certain matters that would once again compromise the university’s standing in the academic world.
The university was at a crossroads in 1970, and the Bauer House and the Humanities Research Center stood metaphorically on the corners. Thanks to royalties and investments from West Texas lands set aside by the constitution of 1876, UT was the richest public university in the country; except for Harvard, it was the richest, period. (Today its endowment is third behind Yale.) The quality of its faculty, particularly in the humanities, was rapidly improving. Anthony Hobson of Sotheby’s, one of the world’s leading rare-book authorities, rated the holdings of the HRC among the greatest libraries in the world, putting it in company with Harvard, Yale, and the Huntington Library in California. The Ransom era would be remembered for its hallucinatory belief that all things were possible, including greatness, even at a provincial institution with a history of political interference and botched opportunities.
“The Ransom university was a kind of shadow university,” explains Harold Billings, UT’s director of libraries. “It was different from the one we spent our days in.”
Then it ended. Within a year after Ransom’s announcement, the real university was in an uproar. John Silber, the ambitious dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was banished and his college disassembled; some of the faculty’s brightest stars (“Harry’s Boys,” they were called) gone to other firmaments. A scandal was brewing over the Bauer House, reportedly the most expensive residence in Austin. Seemingly energized by controversy, Erwin overreached everywhere: turning the university’s massive building program into a patronage operation; ignoring calls for limits on soaring enrollment; interfering not only in academic affairs but picayune student matters as well, as when he tried to strangle the Daily Texan. It was said there was a time when Ransom might have stopped him, but didn’t; that Harry had sold his soul for a blank check. Indeed, while he poured untold millions into his pet collections at the HRC–a dizzying assortment of materials that is still not fully catalogued–the neglected main library went begging for money, books and staff.
There were four beleaguered presidents at UT in just five years. During these troubles, Ransom was silent as a sphinx, his temple to bibliopoly intact but his dream of a great university in tatters. Occasionally I spotted him on campus, slipping like a gray ghost along the edge of things, keeping to the shadows. By the time a heart attack felled him in 1976, he had already faded away.
At his memorial service in the LBJ Auditorium, Erwin gave the final eulogy to the man he said “symbolized all that is good and true and beautiful about the University of Texas.” Erwin cut an imposing figure; his wavy crown of silver hair and florid face–sign of the drink that would hasten him to his own grave–burned bright beneath the lights that blazed upon the podium. In his high-pitched, croaking voice, he quoted Tennyson, whose verse he had learned as a student in Dr. Ransom’s literature class in the halcyon days before World War II. He lay his former teacher to rest with a benediction that acknowledged the question on everyone’s mind: “It is my opinion that following his retirement, Harry was at peace with himself… He was well aware of his already considerable accomplishments and was quite content to be judged by them.”
Though circumstances made him its chief apologist, the Bauer House extravaganza wasn’t Erwin’s idea. But it fell to him to defend the unauthorized expenditure of nearly $1 million on what amounted to a huge party house. It was a silly episode that focused an unflattering spotlight on the UT system’s propensity for arrogance, secrecy and, yes, Medici excess.
It all started with a $119,000 donation from former regent W.H. Bauer and his wife to buy a colonial-style home on a three-acre estate at 2801 Gilbert Street. The regents intended to renovate the house into a plush residence for the chancellor, with large rooms and facilities for entertaining important benefactors. Everything would project wealth and prestige. The irony of “development,” otherwise known as fundraising, is that people with money to give are attracted not to the institutions which need their help most, but to those, which are, like themselves, already demonstrably rich. “We had so much money at the University of Texas!” Silber, now chancellor at Boston University, recalled in a 1993 interview. “Because people don’t give to a place that needs it–they give when the place doesn’t need it.”
When remodeling bids came in too high, the regents decided to tear the house down and start from scratch. It turned into a nightmare project, as change orders from the architects piled up. The mansion was two-thirds finished when Ransom announced his resignation, and the roof was torn off to add more bedrooms to accommodate LeMaistre’s large family. Then the architects wanted a guest house… and a greenhouse, since Joyce LeMaistre liked to garden. The LeMaistres were swimmers, so the poolhouse needed re-doing. The entire estate was landscaped, lighted, walled and terraced within an inch of its life. With the project $600,000 over budget, Erwin began looking for some rich UT donors to pick up the bill. A group of Ralph Nader-inspired law students got wind of the fancy doings on Gilbert Street, and they tattled to the Daily Texan. And then the real trouble started.
On March 3, 1971, the scowling regents’ chairman was called before a senate subcommittee to answer for the Bauer House debacle. Conspicuously missing from his testimony were important facts about a mysterious $600,000 check supposedly donated by an “anonymous foundation” four days earlier to pay for the cost overruns. Erwin insisted that under terms of the gift, the donor’s name could not be revealed.
That implausible account drove the news media wild. Reporters hounded UT officials for the name (LBJ was a popular rumor) and chased down tips that led nowhere. Three weeks later, under pressure from the Legislature to make the name public, the regents returned the gift and used public funds to pay for the Bauer House. The law students declared a victory. As in so many of the battles that characterized the Erwin years, it was difficult to tell who had really won, and at what cost. Had it not been for the pesky critics, Erwin snapped, “the state and the university would have acquired an important new resource without cost to the state or the university, and without the damaging publicity we have had.”
And so the furor subsided. Erwin lost his seat on the Board of Regents in January of 1975, and began to come undone. A widowed attorney with a fondness for opera and Scotch, he had nothing to take the place of his consuming obsession, the University of Texas. “That was the hardest pill he ever had to swallow, when they forced him out,” said the waspish Edward Clark, a regent and old LBJ crony who had chafed under Erwin’s dominance. Former governor Allan Shivers, whose blood ran as cold as Erwin’s ran hot, became the new chairman, and the Erwin reign was over. Despite many friends in high places, he was a lonely man. He clung tightly to the bottle, even after several DWI arrests.
During those sad years, we sometimes talked. I was a reporter covering the UT beat and in those days–perhaps in all its days–the university resembled a foreign capital consumed with intrigue, where things were never quite what they seemed. Erwin proved to be an impeccable source, whose spies were everywhere. Though not above shading the truth when it suited him, he prided himself on a certain pragmatic candor and I never caught him in a lie.
One day I asked him about the Bauer House. The name of the alleged donor had never been revealed; in fact, most people believed Erwin had made the whole story up. “We had the money,” Erwin assured me. “It was a check for $600,000. We burned it in an ashtray one night at the Quorum Club.” Or maybe it was the Forty Acres Club, or some other watering hole where Erwin could be found most nights. I no longer recall that detail, because my attention was riveted to a more important piece of news.
“Eugene McDermott wrote the check,” said Erwin. The late McDermott was a founder of Texas Instruments; he and his wife formed a charitable foundation in Dallas which has given a fortune to the university over the years. “We had to keep it secret because he didn’t want his wife to know. So when they tried to get us to make it public, we destroyed the check.”
Who else knew? I asked.
“A few people. I don’t know if his wife ever found out,” Erwin said.
It was typical of Erwin to hand me a juicy piece of information I couldn’t use. The seminal events of 1970 and 1971–the Silber firing, the dissolution of the College of Arts and Sciences, the co-opting of Ransom, the Bauer House controversy–were old news, faded clippings. So was Erwin himself. By the time I taught journalism at UT in 1980, my students had never heard of Chairman Frank, and when I assigned his obituary for homework, they had to troop over to the library to find out who he was. The obits they turned in were unique in that each fabricated the same cause of death–a sudden heart attack–in the first paragraph.
Something about this struck me as amusing, and I decided to call up Erwin and share the joke. When he answered the phone, I realized my error in judgment, but it was too late. He wasn’t amused by my students’ prediction but didn’t seem particularly offended, either. Though I’d meant to ask him to lunch, the timing didn’t seem right, and we soon said goodbye. What I didn’t know was that Erwin was already sick and on his way to Galveston for a checkup at the medical school. Hours later he died there, of a massive heart attack. He was 60 years old.
In a city where nouveaux riches chateaux now pimple the landscape, the
commotion over a
measly million-dollar house seems quaint. So does the lingering mystery about the source of the $600,000 check. Several years after Erwin’s death, I tried to confirm the erstwhile donor’s name, with little success. Dallas heiress Mary McDermott Cook, who manages the charitable foundation created by her parents, told me she had been out of the country during the Bauer House episode and knew nothing about it. LeMaistre, who by then had been deposed as chancellor, never returned my calls. I paid a visit to his successor–E. Don Walker, who owed his entire career to Erwin–to ask if McDermott had written the check.
Walker was a big man, with the deceptively sleepy demeanor of a hound dog. After hearing my question, he leaned back in his leather chair, fingered a cigar the size of a small baton and said nothing. “I heard that story,” Walker finally replied. “I heard a lot of stories. I have no personal knowledge if it was true. That was all so long ago that I’ve just tried to put all that behind me.”
Both Walker and his wife are dead now. Among the living I was able to find only one person who confirmed Erwin’s account–sort of. As a state senator from Lufkin, Charlie Wilson was Erwin’s most persistent interlocutor in the Bauer House investigation; he alone acknowledged that Erwin had told the subcommittee who the donor was. “It’s always been interesting to me that I’m the only one who will admit he told us,” mused Wilson, who has since served in Congress and is now a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Did Erwin mention Eugene McDermott’s name? “I think that’s what he said,” Wilson told me. “But, you know, does it matter? Who really gives a rat’s ass?”
Thus the curious provenance of the Bauer House slipped into obscurity, along with other burning questions of a former era. What was the true nature of the bargain struck between Frank and Harry, and what did the University of Texas gain or lose? Did Harry die a broken man, or simply a wiser one? What if Erwin had done things differently? What if he had tolerated real leadership at UT, an exchange of ideas, wills that did not bend to his own? Or simply used his enormous influence to begin limiting enrollment at Austin decades ago? Instead he laid the groundwork for a horrid megalopolis-campus choked by overwhelming numbers. It is by far the biggest school in the country–a title no other decent university wants.
“My work for the university has been a labor of love,” Erwin said, but it was a dangerous kind of love. In Our Invaded Universities, Ronnie Dugger vilified Erwin as “the devil in the life of the mind, the marauder in the university. His role was to see the vulnerabilities of the academics and the administrators and to move shrewdly in many scenes to consolidate the politicians’ control.” Silber was kinder in his assessment: “Frank Erwin wanted to create a great university,” he recalled in 1993. “And he didn’t know how. He wrecked the damn place, in certain respects, but he kept it rich, and bigger, and bigger… There was a kind of mindlessness in it which makes you wonder, in the final analysis, was he just trying to fill a void in his life instead of thinking things through?”
The newest tenants of the Bauer House are former Getty Oil Co. executive Dan Burck and his wife. Burck is the third UT chancellor without a Ph.D. (the first two were LeMaistre and Walker), and his portfolio pales beside that of his peers at other major university systems–including, it goes without saying, UC Berkeley chancellor and former UT president Robert Berdahl. Even in the current age of corporatization of American higher education, the regents’ appointment of a chancellor with no record of scholarly achievement is mystifying. There has been no one of vision in that position for decades and no prospect of a leader whose words and ideas excite and inspire, as Ransom’s once did. It is impossible to imagine someone here again like Homer Rainey, who went down fighting for academic freedom and continued to earn great respect as an educator after leaving Texas.
The college of liberal arts never recovered from the mauling it suffered at Erwin’s hands. Though 27 new academic chairs and professorships have been created since 1997, most are in more lucrative fields–business, natural sciences, engineering. While UT athletes enjoy world-class workout facilities, graduate programs in the liberal arts have lost ground. The vaunted library system has had its ups and downs. Harry must be rolling over in his grave.
Meanwhile life goes on at the Bauer House much as before. (“Like living in a goldfish bowl,” LeMaistre once grumbled, a reference to the constant stream of guests at the chancellor’s residence.) If anything, the partying has increased as UT reaches out to a wider variety of folks than in the past. Some recent plebian events on the Bauer House calendar, such as a reception for the new Austin police chief, would never have happened in the old days. The UT system needs all the friends it can get, as it fends off jealous raids by other schools on the Permanent University Fund, now approaching $8 billion. That’s a big sum, but it’s shared by 13 institutions and 130,555 students. (Harvard’s $19 billion endowment serves fewer than 20,000 students.) The UT system spends $16 million per day and the pursuit of money never ceases. At UT-Austin a $1 billion-fundraising effort is underway, only a decade after the last successful campaign. Unlike exclusive private institutions such as Harvard, which floats on a sea of alumni beneficence, UT raises nearly half its private funds from non-alumni who must be assiduously wooed and stroked. Much of this courtship is conducted on campus, but the Bauer House has provided a luxe backdrop for countless such gatherings. A veteran of these affairs once described the attendees this way: “They get a pleasant feeling there of mixing with their own kind. It convinces them they’re with winners.” As we have seen, this conceit is crucial to the axiom that money begets, if not quality of the sort Harry’s boys dreamed of, at least some more money. But the 125-year-old constitutional mandate for “a university of the first class” remains, for so many reasons, unreachable.
Twenty-five years before Weinberg addressed the hopeful graduates of the new millenium, Harry Ransom was buried. Long before then, before he turned his face to the wall, he delivered his last address to the UT faculty. Ransom reminded them that “true eminence” is a constantly receding goal for every university, and spoke guardedly of the challenges ahead. “When the University of Texas is assured, within itself, that it can address old problems in future terms and face the hardest, the unknown adventures of the intellect with confidence, it need not resort to quoting the constitution.”
He concluded: “I have no quotation with which to close.” Neither, after much thought, do I.
Brenda Bell is now a freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest. She graduated from UT during the Erwin Era.