Governor Active in University Matters? Shock!

June 17, 2009

Yesterday’s  Austin American-Statesman has a headline revealing that “Governor in the loop on changes at A&M”. (meaning Rick Perry relating to the “resignation” of Aggie President Elsa Murano).  (A Stateman blogger posted her resignation letter if you are interested).

Duh. It hardly is breaking news that governors care about who runs state universities on their watch. Preferably people who share their philosophy,vision and/or agenda.

I remember sitting in the office of Governor John B. Connally in 1966 as he placed a playful call to longtime supporter and friend Frank C. Erwin Jr. as he considered who could carry out his mission of upgrading higher education in Texas that has been the battle cry of his election. He already had made the top priority of his administration a study of Education Beyond the High School by a blue ribbon panel of the state’s top leadership, chaired by legendary San Antonio industrialist H.B. Zachry. And that study led to creation of the Coordinating Board for Higher Education, a new body to bring order to the jumbled crazy-quilt growth of institutions.

“What are you doing, Frank?” Connally teased. “Just sitting here waiting for your call, Governor” Erwin responded. “Well, do you have time to come down and visit for  a few minutes?’, knowing  that he lived only minutes away away in nearby Pemberton Heights.

“Frank, I want to appoint your Chairman of the Board of Regents (of  UT),” Connally said, or words to that effect (he had been a Regent since 1963  but not in  control).  For Erwin, whose passion for their joint alma mater approached fundamentalist religion, that honor was the equivalent of knighthood. He did not have to be told of the Governor’s objective; he knew that Connally wanted UT to become THE University.

Thus began an historic period that formed the foundation for Texas to become a top-tier University, along with its enormous influence on the state’s growth into a world class economic powerhouse. Erwin’s autocratic leadership style was sometimes controversial (he once personally directed a bulldozer to uproot trees on the campus for expansion of the football stadium while students were chained to their trunks)  But thanks to his dogged drive and patient cultivation of a stingy legislature, he increased state appropriations from $40.4 million in 1963-64 to $349.7 million in 1975-76. Tales of his late night beverage-oiled courting of some lawmakers at the old 40 Acres Club are legendary.

The fact is, the full story will never be told of the long-term impact on the University  and  Texas of the once-in-a-lifetime nexus of Erwin’s bold and sometimes Machiavellian leadership and the simultaneous power of two close friends–Texas Governor John Connally and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. See for a fuller summary of his stewardship.

–Julian Read

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