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Kenneth Ashworth: The TT Interview

The former vice chancellor at the University of Texas and former commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on his new book, how the tensions of the 1970s are echoed in today's battles between politicians and academicians at the state's major universities, and on what he thinks is at stake.

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It was the early 1970s, and there was tension at the University of Texas at Austin, where the faculty and students found themselves publicly at odds with the intrusion of the University of Texas System Board of Regents.

Kenneth Ashworth was the vice chancellor for academic affairs at the UT System. In that position, Ashworth, who later served as a commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, had a front row seat to the era of Frank Erwin, the strong-willed, well-connected chairman of the board of regents, who controversially implemented his own vision for the university — the results of which can be seen today — by tearing down anyone standing in his way.

In his new book, Horns of a Dilemma: Coping with Politics at the University of Texas, Ashworth chronicles that time, and he sees echoes of it today.

The current UT System board of regents appears to be in the process of positioning itself to implement reforms pushed by Gov. Rick Perry and his allies that have academics, alumni, and students rallying in opposition. Similar reforms already being implemented at Texas A&M University drew a scathing critique from outgoing president of the prestigious Association of American Universities, Robert Berdahl, a former UT president and also the author of the foreward in Ashworth's book.

Ashworth says the days of Erwin and the current activities under new chairman Gene Powell are similar, but different. In Erwin’s day, the politics of the governor and the regents were not so intertwined.Frank Erwin and Preston Smith could not have been more at odds,” he says. “They were both Democrats, but if not enemies, they were at least opponents.”

In an interview with the Tribune about his new book, Ashworth discussed the Erwin era and why he believes the current controversy could have an even greater impact on the future of the university. You can listen to the audio here; an edited transcript follows.

Audio: Kenneth Ashworth

TT: Take us back that period from 1969-1973, a very tumultuous time in the university. What were the issues and where were you positioned in all of this?

Ashworth: Well, it was a time of turmoil on the campus: students faculty, politics, economics, social change, civil rights, big war going on, a lot of activity, a lot of dissent, a lot of demonstrations on the campuses.

I had just received my doctorate degree from the University of Texas in the history and philosophy of education when Harry Ransom asked that I be hired into the system administration. After a year, I was surprisingly appointed to become vice chancellor of academic affairs.  So, I was working with the administration and the board of regents and of course at the center of all of it was Frank Erwin, the chairman of the board of regents at that time.

TT: What were the biggest forks in the road and changes during that time, and what are the results that we still see today?

Ashworth: Well, Frank Erwin interjected himself very much into the politics and the administration of the campus.  Because of demonstrations, the insistence, for example, of students that there be a moratorium in sympathy with other campuses around the country to oppose the war in Vietnam, to support civil rights movements, and other activities, Erwin was absolutely convinced that unlike hundreds of other campuses around the country, these campuses were not going to be closed under any circumstances by the students.  So, he took a very forthright view on this.

One episode that really put him crossways with the students was the expansion of the stadium to the west, which required a relocation of the street and the cutting down of numerous cypress trees along Waller Creek. That resulted in student demonstrations. He insisted that trees be cut down. Police had to remove students from the trees. They had climbed into the trees to try to protect them, so they brought in fire trucks. Police and firemen removed the students. They were arrested, taken down to city hall and booked. Erwin refused to withdraw charges against the students.

Both the young Democrats and young Republicans called for his resignation. He had a vote of no confidence from the faculty. It was a time of real turmoil and upset and a lot of concern that the regents were far too involved in the activities of the university.  They felt that Erwin and the regents were politicking to try to get their person appointed to be president of the University of Texas after Norman Hackerman left to go to Rice University. 

They felt he was far too much involved in policies.  He was proposing things like a rule that would exclude non-students from the use of any facilities on the campus, which resulted in arrests the use of tear gas and other abuses of the students. 

He was just in the midst of everything.  There was an off-campus newspaper called The Rag, and he tried to prohibit that from being sold on campus. It went all the way into the courts, the courts overruled the board of regents and said The Rag could be sold on campus. It was just one constant issue after another.

Probably the largest issue that arose was the firing of Dean John Silber as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in connection with the regential directive that the College of Arts and Sciences, which was very large at that time, be divided into three or four other colleges.

So, it was just a lot of what the students and faculty and even some of the administrators saw as constant political intrusion by the board of regents and principally by Frank Erwin into the administration and policymaking at the university.

TT: Maybe we don’t have students in the trees, but there certainly seems to be, in the last couple months, tension between students and alumni and the board of regents. Do you see any echoes of that era in the current situation the board of regents finds itself?

Ashworth: There are echoes. But, the situation is different.  The difference is this: Frank Erwin never set out, in anything that he did, to hurt the University of Texas. He thought that everything that he did was for the good of the university, for the protection of the university, and the enhancement of the school.

He never denigrated research. He gloried in the successes and recognition of the university for research results, technology transfer. He never made such ridiculous proposals such as basic research should be disincentivized and that we ought to be putting our money solely behind applied research, practical research, technology transfer, and teaching. He recognized very fully that the fundamental purpose and function of a university is not only to teach, it would have nothing to teach if it didn’t continue to accumulate and extend the frontier of knowledge.

Erwin was fully behind that, in contrast to the kinds of things that are going on now. He had his problems with the faculty, yeah. He fought constantly with individual faculty members, but it was with individuals who disagreed with him and fought him on things he wanted to do. But he never attacked the whole faculty as being incompetent in directing the future of the University of Texas.

That’s the big difference that I see.  The current efforts for political intrusion into the University of Texas, I see those efforts as an outright effort try to change the functions and purpose of the University of Texas, which is part of the 800-year-old institution of higher learning in human civilization. So, I see a big difference. There are echoes, but a huge difference between those times and the dangerous political intrusion I see now.

TT: It sounds like you are saying the current situation could have more significant ramifications depending on how it plays out. Is that a fair read?

Ashworth: There could be very deleterious effects on higher education in the two principle institutions of higher learning, A&M and UT. Already, steps have been taken to elevate University of Houston and perhaps even Texas Tech University, University of Texas at Dallas and others into the first tier. But, if we have politicians in the state of Texas saying basic research is unimportant because we can’t see how it’s going to have important results in our society, then it’s going to change and damage the reputation of the University of Texas.

Rankings of universities are based basically on reputation on how universities are seen by other people in education. With the kind of uninformed redirection that appears to be underway for higher education in Texas right now with the political intrusion, that can be damaging to the university’s rankings nationally and internationally. That would be very unfortunate.

TT: Your book is coming out at a particularly interesting time for this topic. What do you hope people learn from reading it and what do you hope they take away?

Ashworth: Well, I hope this. It’s my sort of memoir of the three years that I spent with the University of Texas, but it’s much more than that. I tried to put those critical years when Frank Erwin was driving the university into a broader historical context.

The University of Texas, when I first started there in 1950 as a student, was just beginning to move away from its image of being a college on the prairie to make its mark. When I came back almost 20 years later as an employee of the University of Texas, it was making its move toward national and international rankings and recognition.

So, the University of Texas should not be treated as though it’s a tool for the manipulation or an instrument for use by politicians. It is no longer a college on the prairie. It is a major internationally recognized university and needs to be protected and preserved.  I hope that’s the message that comes across just coincidentally with the issuance of my book. As you put it, there are some echoes — that’s coincidental with the publication of the book. I think there are some messages here about the damage that can be done by excesses or inappropriate political intervention in higher education.

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