An Inquiry at UT-El Paso El Paso, Austin A case of potentially grave import for a sociology professor and the University of Texas system has become public knowledge. The issues are academic freedom and responsibility on the one hand and the role of partisan politics in Texas higher education on the other. The dispute is already festering in public; whether it will infect the blood stream of the state’s university system is now being settled behind the closed doors and edgy, careful statements of the principals. The faculty member is Dr. Clark Knowlton of the University of Texas at El Paso. An inquiry about him has proceeded on the initiative of the two top officials of the UT system at Austin, Frank Erwin, chairman of the board of regents and the Democratic national committeeman for Texas, and Harry Ransom, who is the chancellor of the university system, although he recently ceased to be president of the main university. However, at Observer presstime, there was no reason to suspect that Knowlton would come under formal investigation or disciplinary action of any kind. The political colorations of the matter streak its surface and can readily be sketched. Erwin is a friend of President Johnson’s and Gov. John Connally’s. Traditionally the Democratic national committeeman from Texas is chosen by the governor in about the same way a Presidential nominee usually selects his own vicepresidential running-mate. Erwin therefore wears two hats, one political, the other academic; he owes not just one, but both of them to Connally, who appointed him to the regents. Erwin is aware this makes him vulnerable to purely political suspicions. For instance, in the matter of the Johnsonoriented library and school being erected now at the University of Texas at Austin, Erwin remarked to an interviewer that he had had to proceed with great care because of this consideration. On the other hand, during the sensationally publicized disputes over Students for a Democratic Society and Vietnam demonstrations of the last academic year, Erwin personally played an active role hostile toward anti-war demonstrators, on one occasion addressing a rally oncampus. Connally recently addressed a conference on Mexican-American problems at El Paso and was booed. Knowlton, who was present, was then widely quoted in the press as stating, “I would say that Gov. John Connally is one politician who is persona non grata to the Mexicans. On the other hand, [ Sen. Ralph] Yarborough is their hero.” Knowlton, who is chairman of the so 6 The Texas Observer ciology department of U.T.E.P., was called into the office of the president of that school, Joseph M. Ray, and asked for a detailed report on his contacts with the Alianza Federal de Mercedes in New Mexico, a group that seeks the compensation of Spanish-Americans for land spirited away from them by Anglos in the last century. Ray has called the inquiry, initiated from Austin, “unique in my experience as a college administrator,” but, in consultation with Knowlton, he has made a report to Ransom. PRECISELY AS in the SDS controversy, a question has arisen whether Erwin or Ransom is the principal instigator of the UT system’s activity. In the SDS matter, questions were asked why Ransom issued’ a statement prohibiting a certain Sunday meeting in advance of it; in effect this constituted the question, was this Erwin or Ransom? Ransom’ took full responsibility. Erwin has told reporters he asked for the Knowlton investigation. Ransom said he requested the report. These statements could appear to conflict but probably do not. Erwin could have asked for the investigation; Ransom, for the written report. The answer to the question, who started it, would not inhere necessarily in such an explanation, but ordinarily the first step as between these two would be a request for an investigation. Actually, this question may have been specifically settled by a statement made by Dr. Ray on Nov. 29. “I have known since I first met Dr. Knowlton of his interest in the affairs of Spanish-Americans in northern New Mexico,” the UTEP president said. “He has conducted extensive research and has many publications in this field. “His writings are widely respected both in the University System and outside. “The first notice I had of complaints being made against Dr. Knowlton came from Chairman Frank C. Erwin Jr. of our board of regents. “Shortly thereafter Chancellor Harry H. Ransom requested of me a report on the situation and_ the report was submitted. No processes will be started among the faculty here , concerning Dr. Knowlton, except on direction of the Chancellor or the Board of Regents.” Thus Erwin initiated the matter with . Ray, at any rate; and Ray says action will not start concerning Knowlton unless Ransom or the board \(not Erwin “I am not sure why the request was made,” Knowlton said in a statement the same day, “but I have complete confidence in. Dr. Ray and Dr. Ransom.” Considering the situation, this was a rather pointed remark. “I am sure,” Knowlton said, “that the principles of academic freedom and the right of a professor to engage in research and in political activities of his own choosing, as long as they are not subversive, will be upheld.” An even more puzzling conflict in public statements has appeared. “I received an inquiry a couple of weeks ago from the attorney general of New Mexico, and I have asked for the’ information necessary to reply to him,” Erwin was quoted by the UPI on Nov. 30. The wire service asked New Mexico Atty. Gen. Boston Witt and reported he said he made no such inquiry to Erwin or anyone else in Texas. “I haven’t requested anything on Knowlton,” Witt said. UPI naturally went back to Erwin with this, and he said, “Well, that’s his business. I stand on what I said.” UPI asked him if Witt’s request was in writing, and Erwin declined to say. Erwin also said he gave Ransom a request for a report. “I don’t know whether I asked him for a report or whether I just gave it to him, but I’m sure he didn’t think I gave it to him just for him to frame it and hang it on his wall. It looks to me,” Erwin told UPI, “like somebody’s trying to make something out of nothing. If anybody ever recommends any action, that would be a good time to look into it.” \(Somebody indeed was trying to “make something” out of the case, whether it was “nothing” or not. The El Paso Herald-Post, for instance, had run a black eight-column page-one headline, “PROBE Ransom said Ray in El Paso “volunteered the first comment and I asked him to fill it in. I asked for it because of widespread comment in the press . . . and the fact that I thought the central administration and the regents should be informed.” Why so much dispute over who started it? Because Erwin’s political connections make the university community sensitive to the imputation that Erwin is initiating inquiries of a potentially punitive kind against political critics of Erwin’s allies in politics. “Let me make it clear, as I have repeatedly tried to do with varying degrees of success,” Ransom told the Observer, “that Knowlton is not being charged with anything, nor is he on trial, nor is he being investigated. We are simply asking for a report.” The chancellor said he had insisted to Ray that Knowlton be kept advised of the contents and purpose of the report.’ Ransom said that Knowlton volunteered copies of his academic papers, “which,” Ransom said, “are pretty highly praised by the social scientists, not just by people interested in the causes themselves.” Ransom said that he, Ransom, initiated the matter “to the extent I initiated
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