A new internet video sponsored by three prominent University of Texas at Austin alumni accuses Gov. Rick Perry and some University of Texas System regents of being "intent on tearing down" the constitutional mandate to maintain UT-Austin as an institution "of the first class."
All three are members of a group that opposes certain higher education reform proposals made by Perry, but they say this video is part of a separate effort to raise awareness about ongoing tension between UT-Austin and the UT System board, all the members of which were appointed by the governor.
To underscore their point, the video includes a couple of lines from Texas A&M University's traditional Aggie War Hymn delivered in a Leonard Cohen-like growl: "Goodbye to Texas University. So long to the orange and white." Perry, of course, is an A&M graduate.
"Wake up Longhorn Nation," the video warns, "or we will end up singing Rick Perry's song."
The video's message was not warmly received in Perry's inner circle. "A strong UT is crucial to a strong Texas, and Gov. Perry has worked hard to strengthen the University of Texas and improve the status, infrastructure and impact of the school," Perry spokesman Josh Havens said.
Ray Sullivan, Perry's former chief of staff, said in an email: "I've long thought that the small but vocal status quo/anti-reform forces at UT-Austin were motivated by profound elitism and deep paranoia and hatred of Aggies. Especially against the state's top elected Aggie who has worked hard to improve the infrastructure, effectiveness and economic impact of UT. This proves it."
The video and an associated website, WakeUpLonghorns.com, did not make immediately clear who was behind the campaign. The only hint on the website is a link to Push Digital, a conservative marketing group based in South Carolina.
"This is not our video," said Jenifer Sarver, spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group that has opposed Perry-backed reforms. "Certainly the concerns outlined in it are reflective of some of our group’s opinions, but it is definitely not something we produced."
It's little wonder that the views would align; the financial backers of "Wake Up Longhorns" — Charles Tate, Joe Jamail and Julius Glickman — are also members of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.
All three are also high-profile Longhorns. Glickman and Jamail are prominent Houston attorneys. Tate, the chairman and founder of Houston-based private equity firm Capital Royalty, LP, is also a board member of the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.
Tate told the Tribune that "Wake Up Longhorns" is separate from the trio's involvement in any other group.
"This has nothing to do with the coalition," Tate told the Tribune, adding that the outside effort did not indicate any discontent with that group. "Everything we do in life is not through the coalition."
Tate said there was nothing else planned for the "Wake Up Longhorn" initiative beyond the video and the website directing people to contact legislators to express concerns regarding University of Texas System regents. Tate accused the regents of using their positions to "try out some very unproven theories about higher education" and "threatening to undo what has taken 130 years to build."
The UT regents have been subjected to a rare level of scrutiny by lawmakers during the current legislative session. A special joint oversight committee was formed early on to investigate their management of the system, and its flagship in particular. That committee has only met once, but other legislative initiatives to curtail the regents' authority and funding have moved forward.
Rather than being motivated by a distaste for Aggies or an attachment to the status quo, Tate indicated that a significant element of his disagreement with some of the University of Texas System regents is process-based.
"They don't take all of the relevant constituencies along with them as they try to influence change," Tate said. "Another mistake is they assume that none of us recognize the need for change as much as they do."
Suggesting that there is broad support for lowering the cost of education and boosting accountability and transparency at public institutions, Tate said efforts to encourage regents to be more inclusive in their deliberations about how to advance such initiatives system have fallen on "deaf ears."
One of the regents at the center of the ongoing controversy, Wallace Hall, in an interview with Texas Monthly, recently offered a public "mea culpa" for not appreciating legislators' need to hear from board members. "I get that now. I did not recognize our need to be over there and talking to them," he said.
But during the interview, he questioned the role of the coalition. "The idea is to support higher education, and who doesn’t want to support higher education?" Hall said. "But the reality of it is, this group has damaged the university and this board’s effort."
Tate said he felt the problem was the "top-down" nature of the regents' effort.
"We want the same things they want, but the process by which they are going about it is damaging the university," Tate said. "It's affecting a lot of change, none of which is good. So we're going to have to clean the mess up after they are gone."
After deciding to proceed with their own effort, Tate, Glickman and Jamail received some uncompensated advice from fellow Longhorns Roy Spence and Judy Trabulsi, founding partners of Austin-based advertising agency GSD&M, which explains why the website is registered to a former GSD&M employee. As for how much the trio ultimately paid Push Digital for the campaign, Tate said, "We paid what it cost."
Tate indicated that, beyond the video and website, little else was planned for "Wake Up Longhorns." He said: "This is a single initiative. It's done. Hopefully it works."
As the sun set on its first day, the website indicated that roughly 1,000 individuals had shared the message on Facebook or used the site to contact legislators.
Perry's office did not sound particularly swayed. "It's a shame that some put petty rivalries ahead of improving graduation rates, efficiencies and innovation at our great Texas universities," Havens said. "We need UT, A&M and all of our institutions of higher learning to serve Texas students and help our state continue to succeed."
Here's the "Wake Up Longhorns" video: