The University of Texas is celebrating its 125th birthday, and by most measures of excellence it ranks as a worldwide success in higher education. The competition to enter the University is intense, yet approximately thirty-nine thousand undergraduate students enroll in a given year, with another eleven thousand students enrolling in UT's one hundred seventy graduate programs. The faculty and student body includes winners of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur "genius award," and Rhodes and Marshall scholarships; many have become members of state, national, and foreign learned societies. The athletic programs are thought to be the best overall in the country, and the libraries and archives are lauded in every educated part of the world. Texas alumni have left their marks in law, engineering, geology, business, journalism, and all fields of the sciences, arts, and entertainment.
Yet if one looks back over its history, the institution has frequently not been at this level of prosperity and accomplishment. In fact at some junctures in the past the University's integrity as a center for higher education has been deeply compromised, and more than once its very existence has been seriously threatened.
The University of Texas reflects the state of Texas, and that can be complicated. Texas has always been perceived as a setting for action, not book learning, and a robust frontier spirit of anti-intellectualism has existed since Sam Houston served as president of the republic. On the other hand, no single place in the United States has the richness and diversity of the cultures of the Lone Star State, located as it is as the western-most part of the South, at the bottom of the Midwest, as the gateway to Mexico, and as the place where the West begins. Add to this a certain native competitiveness and ebullience and you have traits that in a university produce excellence not only in sports but also in academic fields as rarefied as classics and biochemistry.
As the University has matured, some of these considerations may seem a bit dated—after all, a century and a quarter after its founding UT receives less than 20 percent of its funding from the legislature, foreign students in Austin number over four thousand and come from a hundred different countries, and Texas high-tech companies are crucial to the U.S. economy. But as one reads through the essays that follow, one theme that emerges is how long it has taken the University to rise to its present position and how hard-earned its status is.
The Texas Book is a selection of essays about the University—some short and personal, some long and historical, and some that together bring to life a handful of notables who have walked the Forty Acres. There are villains, such as Governor Jim (Pa) Ferguson, who tried to destroy the University; heroes, such as UT president Robert Vinson, who fended off Ferguson; and a few visionaries, most notably Harry Ransom. This being the University of Texas we're talking about, on occasion outsized characters loom large. Some are faculty members, including the contrarian English professor J. Frank Dobie, who publicly called the top of the Main Building tower "a Greek outhouse." Some are students, including Willie Morris, who championed freedom of the press during the repressive period when he was editor of the Daily Texan. And one is a regent, Frank C. Erwin Jr., who, though a lightning rod to the student protestors of the sixties, may have been equal parts villain, hero, and visionary.
What The Texas Book is not is a beginning-to-end narrative history. This book is a selection, combining new pieces written for this anthology with chapters that have been previously published. Its three sections—Profiles, History, and Reminiscence—are each arranged in a chronological sequence. The book ends with the words of Barbara Jordan, a black Texan who was denied admittance to the University during the days of "separate but equal"; she became a prominent member of the U.S. Congress and at the end of her life was a distinguished presence teaching at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
In the beginning, the founders of the Republic of Texas wanted there to be a University of Texas. The town of Austin was laid out in 1839 to be the capital of the Republic, and in November of that year the Congress of the Republic met there for the first time. One of their decisions at this initial meeting allocated over two hundred thousand acres of land toward the establishment of two state colleges. But it was not until 1876, after decades marked by Texas' entering the United States, seceding from the Union, losing in the war, and suffering through Reconstruction, that a new state constitution was drafted. It specified that the legislature was to establish, organize, and support a "university of the first class" to be called "The University of Texas" and to be located by popular vote. The state constitution also included a gift of land, a million acres of unsurveyed land in West Texas.
Governor Oran M. Roberts was a strong advocate for the University, and he signed the enabling legislation on March 30, 1881. Austin was chosen as the site for the main campus in September of that year, and Galveston was picked to house a "medical department." The plot of land chosen for the new college, in Austin, was a few blocks north of the new Capitol building, then under construction. It was one-sixteenth of a section—forty acres. This was not a huge allotment when one considers that another important government institution located in Austin, then called the State Lunatic Asylum, had been allotted 380 acres in 1857 prior to its construction in the area of present-day Guadalupe Street between 38th and 45th.
Laying the cornerstone for the first Main Building must have been quite a scene. A procession traveled from the Travis County Courthouse downtown to the uncompleted Capitol, and then up to barren College Hill. A huge crowd of over two thousand made the march; it was a colorful assemblage comprised of University and government officials, Confederate veterans, members of fraternal orders, and several bands.
The principal speaker at the ceremony was thought to be the most learned man in all of Texas—Dr. Ashbel Smith, a medical doctor who held three degrees from Yale University. In earlier decades he had helped fight yellow fever epidemics on the Texas coast and had been Sam Houston's chargé d'affaires to France and England during the era of the Republic of Texas. On this day, November 17, 1882, Dr. Smith was the new president of the University Board of Regents. One sentence in the flowery rhetoric of his speech now sounds prescient, as if he were looking forward forty years: "Smite the rocks with the rod of knowledge, and fountains of unstinted wealth will gush forth."
The West Texas rocks filled with oil were not smitten until the 1920s, but the University made do in its early decades, although the physical plant was a little, shall we say, spotty. Old Main, sitting on the crest of the hill, was not completed until 1899, and everything from classrooms to the library to the president's office was housed there. There were structural problems with the building from the beginning, and its style, a version of American college Gothic, was outdated by the time it was completed. The building that was truly central to the identity of the young university was the men's dormitory, B. Hall, the "B" standing for George Washington Brackenridge, a Texas regent for twenty-five years.
Five of the essays that follow touch on this early period. My essay on "the two George Washingtons," Brackenridge and Littlefield, is political in nature and traces the ups and downs of the University from 1886, the year of G. W. Brackenridge's appointment as regent, to 1920, the year that Brackenridge and his worthy adversary, G. W. Littlefield, both died. David Dettmer's chapter on B. Hall is a deep socioeconomic examination of the class of students who lived in the quarters set aside for the "poor boys." If Texas's evolution from rural to urban is an almost tacit theme in this book, in Dettmer's essay the theme is writ large.
Larry Speck's knowledgeable contribution on the formative period of UT architecture grounds the reader in the modern as well as the original place. We can only imagine what Cass Gilbert, who had just designed the tallest building in the world in New York City (the Woolworth Building), must have thought when he first arrived in Austin on the train and laid eyes on College Hill, empty except for some bluebonnets and a few mismatched buildings. This was in 1910. Gilbert drew the first coherent campus master plan and created the one UT building now generally acknowledged as a masterpiece—then called the University Library, now named Battle Hall.
Meade Griffin's reminiscence of his college days is a rare thing—a modest and articulate presentation of daily life as it was lived close to a hundred years ago. Walter Prescott Webb's "The Search For William E. Hinds" was published in the July 1961 issue of Harper's. When Webb wrote the magazine article he was an acclaimed UT historian, known for two landmark books, The Great Plains and The Great Frontier, but the essay is set in 1904, when Webb was a bookish boy with no prospects, working dawn to dark on a dirt farm outside Ranger, in Eastland County. The story is a mystery that portrays Webb's lifelong search for a generous stranger from Brooklyn who paid his way through the University.
Webb and his friend J. Frank Dobie were both born in 1888, but Dobie made his reputation earlier than Webb, who was awarded a Ph.D. by the University somewhat as a courtesy after he published The Great Plains in 1931. Dobie had joined the faculty in 1914 and left to enlist in World War I. He taught folklore and literature proudly without a doctorate and feuded with his colleagues in the English department, who returned his scorn. Don Graham, who now teaches Dobie's "Life and Literature of the Southwest" class, examines Dobie's extensive library, pointing out that Dobie was the state's only real literary figure for decades, this despite his often hiding behind a cowboy exterior, spinning yarns on the radio, and performing rope tricks.
If the poor boys lived in rough-and-ready B. Hall, the domestic style of the faculty and staff was scarcely more elevated. Another prominent campus figure was John Lomax, who went on to fame as a musicologist for his collections of cowboy songs and his discovery of the blues artist Leadbelly; in the first decade of the twentieth century Lomax was University registrar and secretary of the University Alumni Association. Although university salaries were notoriously low, Lomax and his wife Bess built a fine brick house on West 26th Street a few blocks from campus. Yet to help make ends meet, the couple and their three children kept a milk cow and raised chickens for eggs. On the other hand, during the same era, Walter Webb was known to be wise in the ways of investing in Austin real estate, and J. Frank Dobie and his wife Bertha lived in a pleasant two-story house where Dobie could be found entertaining his friends with a bottle of Jack Daniels in a back yard that sloped down to Waller Creek. The folklorist's fame was such that he sometimes received mail simply addressed to "J. Frank Dobie, Austin, Texas."
Funded for the most part by West Texas oil, the building boom that made the campus what it is today occurred in a remarkable flurry of construction that lasted twelve years. In the portico at the top of the Main Building's front steps there is a plaque that comprehensively documents this building boom. Twenty-four buildings are listed as having been completed between 1925 and 1937. The early ones included Garrison Hall in 1926, and Gregory Gym in 1930. During one of the bleakest years of the Depression, 1933, eight buildings were put up. These included the Texas Union, the Architecture Building (now Goldsmith Hall), the gracious Home Economics Building (now Mary E. Gearing Hall), and the beginning of the new Main Building, which took over three years to complete. By 1936, the year of the Texas Centennial, the Forty Acres was just about filled up and had jumped Speedway Street to the east and 24th Street to the north.
Overseeing this remarkable creation was the new supervising architect, Paul Phillipe Cret, who extended Cass Gilbert's vision of a unified campus. Overseeing the never-ceasing noise and flying dust on campus were the chair of the Building Committee, W. J. Battle, and the University president, H. Y. Benedict. Battle was a distinguished professor of classics who briefly had served as president of the University back in the difficult Pa Ferguson days. Benedict was a much loved salt-of-the-earth administrator from Weatherford, Texas, who spoke to everyone he passed on campus. It was a shock the day in 1937 when he fell to the sidewalk in front of the YMCA building on Guadalupe Street and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. One of the projects that Benedict left behind was an unfinished history of the University.
Joe B. Frantz's profile of Richard Fleming presents us with another Edwardian gentleman, born two years after Dobie and Webb. Fleming was by nature a hell-raiser, as demonstrated by his founding the campus's first underground newspaper, The Blunderbuss, in 1913, his first year in law school. Frantz presents him over fifty years later, having retired from being a wealthy corporate attorney in New York, working on campus for a dollar a year, tending his collection of writings by university students and faculty. Those who knew Mr. Fleming listened closely to his stories of attending regents meetings in the old meeting room on the second floor of the Main Building. When Frank Erwin would propose something that displeased him (this happened frequently), Fleming would strike his handsome walking stick on the marble floor and mutter "scandalous."
If the 1930s were a period of growth and optimism on campus, the early 1940s were just the opposite. Homer Price Rainey's tenure as UT president (1939-1944) was marked almost from the start by conflicts with regents appointed by governors W. Lee (Pappy) O'Daniel and Coke Stevenson. If Governor Ferguson's attempts to defund the University back in the second decade of the nineteenth century was the first attack on the University, in effect this was the next one, but this time it came from the inside. The Handbook of Texas neatly summarizes the situation:
Several on the board pressured Rainey to fire four full professors of economics who espoused New Deal views. In 1942 the regents fired three untenured economics instructors and a fourth who had only a one-year appointment for having attempted to defend federal labor laws at an antiunion meeting in Dallas. Rainey protested in vain. Regent D. F. Strickland wrote Rainey that the president of the University of Texas had no business suggesting anything to the regents and that if the abolition of tenure would make it more difficult to recruit out-of-state professors, Texas would be better off. (Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "Rainey, Homer Price")
The last straw was the regents' ham-handed attempt to fire an English professor for assigning John Dos Passos's novel U.S.A. in a sophomore reading list. After Rainey expressed his grievances to a general faculty meeting in October 1944, the regents quickly fired him, giving no cause. The resulting protests were large and loud and divisive—twenty-five years later the Rainey demonstrations were viewed as precursors to student protests over the Vietnam War. In educative terms, the University had a black mark against it when the American Association of University Professors censured the institution. The term of this academic quarantine was nine years.
Michael Gillette elaborates on this particular group of close-minded regents in his survey of UT's struggles to desegregate itself in the 1940s and 1950s. Gillette quotes Regent Orville Bullington, a UT graduate who practiced law in Wichita Falls: "There is not the slightest danger of any negro attending the University of Texas, regardless of what Franklin D. or Eleanor [Roosevelt] or the Supreme Court says, so long as you have a Board of Regents with as much intestinal fortitude as this one has." This stark pronouncement, made in 1944, is a reminder that not only have the state of Texas and the University traveled a long social distance, but that they also started a long way back. Sweatt v. Painter was neither the beginning nor the end of this struggle.
Three other chapters deal with race and the University, each one differently. Bobby Hawthorne's essay on the University Interscholastic League traces the uneasy relationship that the League had with the University, and specifically brings up one example of a failure to integrate a high school basketball game that speaks volumes about the racial politics of Texas in the early sixties. Julius Whittier was UT's first black football scholarship recipient who lettered—he played the 1970 through 1972 seasons. His reminiscence comes from the other side, i.e., as one of the first African-Americans to be recruited to play sports at the University. Douglas Laycock, while professor of constitutional law at the UT Law School, was deeply involved in the University's legal struggles to create more diversity in the student body. His essay clearly presents the court challenges to UT's entrance requirement formulas over the last two decades, and is a ringing endorsement for a future campus that truly represents the state's population.
Chad Oliver came to the University in 1946 as a bright young man wearing a Crystal City (Texas) High School football letter jacket. Oliver's reminiscence is the first sighting of Harry Ransom in our chapters, and it is an apt introduction. Oliver went on to obtain two degrees from UT and a Ph.D. from UCLA. He returned to Austin, where he eventually chaired the Anthropology Department and became a productive science fiction novelist.
Willie Morris' chapter is taken from his classic memoir North Toward Home, published in 1967. His account of coming to Austin from Yazoo City, Mississippi, reminds us that by the early fifties, the University of Texas had a reputation that traveled beyond the confines of state borders. Willie (everyone seemed to call him that) had an illustrious career at Texas, editing the Daily Texan during a politically repressive period. His penchant for practical jokes made him a natural to live with the subversive wild men who inhabited the new Brackenridge Dormitory. When he was a senior in 1956, Morris became the University's fifteenth Rhodes Scholar. (Since Morris, there have been twelve more Texas students so honored, five of them since 1990.)
Returning from his studies at Oxford University, Willie returned to Austin to edit the liberal political fortnightly, the Texas Observer. Then he moved to New York where he transformed venerable Harper's magazine into a platform for the best of the 1960s New Journalism. John Schwartz is another Austin to New York success story. Now reporting for the New York Times, Schwartz was the 1980-81 Daily Texan editor. His chapter focuses on the symbolic power of the UT Tower, discussing how his generation of students missed seeing the view from the top after its closing in 1974. For Schwartz, the Tower's closely supervised reopening becomes a cause for celebration and optimism.
Willie Morris was not the only student journalist who ran into censorship at the hands of the Texas Student Publications Committee. Leading the way was the smart and funny and dirty-minded staff of the Texas Ranger magazine. The impulse to shock appears to be a natural part of college life, but the "Rangeroos" at their best did it with first-class humor and artistry. The chapter that interviews two Ranger editors reminds us of the tremendous creative talent on campus during the heyday of the magazine in the fifties and sixties. Two characters who emerge in the interviews went on to become heroes of the counter-culture: cartoonist Gilbert Shelton and singer Janis Joplin.
Harry Huntt Ransom first came to Texas as an instructor in 1935 and during the next forty years left an indelible mark on the campus. By the time Willie Morris was fighting for campus freedom of the press, Ransom had risen to be dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. During the next ten years (1956-1965), Ransom became president and soon chancellor of the University, and the fine arts and liberal arts were transformed and began to receive worldwide notice. Ransom's drive to excellence manifested itself in the building of a great library. Some would say there was already a pretty good library in place, but Ransom went world class. Two chapters deal directly with Ransom's most creative period: Harold Billings's atmospheric study of Ransom's office in the Main Building and its second-most important occupant, Frances Hudspeth; and Richard Oram's compelling tale of Ransom's landmark library acquisition, the Hanley Collection, that has its own atmosphere when it brings in the collector's wife, Tullah Hanley, a beautiful exotic dancer.
If you were lucky enough to be on the Texas campus during Ransom's salad days, the cultural opportunities that were available seem almost unbelievable in retrospect. The same year that Texas novelist Katherine Anne Porter appeared on campus for a reading wearing an evening gown and opera-length gloves, poet T. S. Eliot read in Gregory Gym, and appeared to be delighted when he was presented with a big Stetson hat. The author of Brave New World, novelist Aldous Huxley, lectured in Batts Hall auditorium—the rumor was that he visited campus to get longevity advice from the eminent UT biochemist Roger Williams. The two big venues were the Texas Union ballroom and homely old Gregory Gym, where one might variously see Arturo Toscanini conduct the NBC Symphony and Louis Armstrong play "The Bucket's Got a Hole in It." The most elegant presentation I personally witnessed was a concert by the tuxedoed Modern Jazz Quartet, set up in the round in the middle of the gym's hardwood floor.
Three chapters are by students from this era: William Hauptmann, who went on to the Yale Drama School and to success on the stage in New York when he won a Tony Award for his book for the musical "Big River"; Betty Sue Flowers, who has had a notable publishing and administrative career and is currently director of the LBJ Library and Museum; and South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, who was at UT on a Fulbright Scholarship in the middle sixties. In 2003 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Bill Hauptmann majored in drama and profiles the distinguished Shakespeare director B. Iden Payne. Betty Sue Flowers re-creates a pivotal era during which she transformed herself from a freshman living a sheltered existence in Scottish Rite Dormitory in 1965 to a witness of some of Frank Erwin's strong-arm tactics in the Texas Union Chuck Wagon four years later. John Coetzee's brief reminiscence talks about the unexpectedness of being free to roam the rare literary treasures that Ransom's library provided him, particularly the manuscript notebooks for Samuel Beckett's novel Watt. Coetzee links the terror of Charles Whitman's shooting spree from the top of the Tower in August 1966 with his feelings about the Vietnam War.
From the outset, as editor of this collection of essays, I knew I had to deal in some fashion with Board of Regents' chairman Frank C. Erwin Jr. It was a problem because of Chairman Frank's very nature: big, boisterous, larger than life, he was a man as intensely loved by his friends, who were many, as he was intensely disliked by those he pushed around, who were legion. So I drew the short straw and came up with an essay about a man whose life deserves a sizable book. The final result is a kaleidoscopic piece that examines multiple aspects of the Chairman's colorful life. The title is borrowed from Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Blackbird."
The final profiles are of two important campus personages who died in the late 1990s: Américo Paredes and James Michener. Both figures represent the outsider to campus who became an important part of its culture—Paredes as a Mexican-American intellectual, and Michener as a globe-trotting celebrity writer who decided to settle in Austin. English professor José Limón studied under Paredes, who almost singlehandedly created the field of Mexican-American folklore. Jim Magnuson is the director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers (located in Dobie's old house above Waller Creek) and well aware of the importance of Michener's personal contact with the students his generosity attracted.
The last words are delivered in the unmistakable voice of Barbara Jordan, the congresswoman from Houston who became a Richard Nixon nemesis during Watergate. Her 1986 commencement address, delivered in front of architect Paul Cret's tower, is a call for kindness and mercy, but not weak versions of either. Testifying before the state legislature in 1987 in favor of increased funding for UT, she alludes to the University's segregated past by saying that for a long time she "couldn't come here . . . but I can now." She closes with a clarion call to "retain the greatness of this institution."
A good time to walk on campus these days is the weekend following commencement in the spring. The parents in their SUVs have moved the computers, clothes, and DVDs out of Jester and Kinsolving dormitories, the sorority and fraternity houses are on schedule for their summer repairs, the enormous sets of bleachers set up for commencement in front of the Main Building are being dismantled. As likely as not, the Longhorn baseball team is getting fine-tuned for another appearance at the College World Series. There is a brief interim before the Boys State delegates arrive and the summer sports and music camps commence. Even parking is a little relaxed. There is the feeling that a large and important enterprise is pausing to take a breath.
So what do we see on the walk? A handsome, packed, urban landscape, many buildings being buffed for the next round of academic endeavors. Some of the newest buildings on the north periphery of campus have an old look, with overhung roofs made of Mediterranean-style red tile. The buildings that really are old, like beautiful Battle Hall and the oldest structure on the original Forty Acres, the Gebauer Building, give off an undeniable impression of solidity and tradition.
But the pause is only momentary. Construction crews appear to have been waiting until the minute graduation was over to start knocking something down or building something new. The year of this walk (2005), it's the old Student Health Center building on Dean Keeton Street (a.k.a. 26th) that is going down and the new women's dorm going up on Whitis across the street from All Saints Church. Over behind Gregory Gym it's the new outdoor lap pool, lined on two sides with date palms, a hint of a luxurious oasis just off 21st Street. Just when you think every square inch has been filled up, there's one more thing.
Without all the people, the walker starts to notice how many big trees there are, how the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. is placed so that it has a nice view of the LBJ fountain, and how the Ransom Center has transformed itself into an inviting oasis of its own—on a hot day you can walk right through the cool, dimly lit lobby and look at pages of the Gutenberg Bible.
The University estimates that there are about four hundred fifty thousand living alumnae, and by September it feels like all of them are between you and where you're headed. As developed as the physical campus is, it is not really transformed into itself until it is full of people. On a normal Tuesday or Wednesday in October or April there are thought to be something over seventy thousand students, faculty, and staff on the campus. Let's make it seventy-five thousand, to include the many visitors here for meetings, tours, or just to look around.
A good spot to survey this fast-moving scene is up on the portico of the Main Building. From there you can imagine Cass Gilbert and Paul Cret drawing sketches for their master plans, Battle and Benedict overseeing construction, Frank Erwin glowering over his reading glasses at a crowd of hostile students, or Barbara Jordan, preaching a message of love and mercy in front of the slogan carved into stone that so impressed the young Willie Morris: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."