First Things First

Paradise by UT's Stadium Lights

illustration by Jason Stout

Football games over Philosophy and Finance? Sounds like an old Aggie problem. But this legislative session, it's a University of Texas problem, one that's particularly galling to Austin's Representative Glen Maxey, who complains that UT's priorities are woefully misplaced. Minority applications at Texas colleges are falling fast in the aftermath of the Hopwood decision by the Fifth Circuit district court. The ruling outlaws the use of race or ethnicity as a factor in college admissions, effectively throwing out traditional affirmative action programs. At UT alone, minority applications were down 52% as of the February 1 deadline. And yet the university's highest profile achievement at the Legislature to date is the passage of its football stadium extension bill. (You may recall that to build the proposed $86 million stadium upper deck, complete with expensive skyboxes and extra seats, the university needed the Legislature to exempt it from a state law protecting the Capitol view corridor.)

Rep. Maxey is sponsoring at least six higher education bills, three of which deal directly with the hot topic of minority admission policies, and yet, he says, "I haven't seen one lobbyist from UT who wants to talk about that." (For the record, UT employs PR staff, not lobbyists, to provide information to legislators. See the main story.) What UT proponents at the Capitol did want to talk about, Maxey says, was the stadium bill that, by the way, passed with lightning speed through the House and Senate and was signed by the governor early in the session. "They came to me with a glossy, 30-page binder showing what the stadium would look like, and I was outraged," says Maxey. "I said, `This is your highest priority?'"

Maxey's not the only one who's incensed. UT Faculty Council member Alan Friedman and others on campus have criticized the amount of attention the stadium is getting, and have pointed out that it seems administrators are more interested in athletics than academics.

Is this a fair assessment of UT's priorities? Not at all, says Chancellor William Cunningham. "Our most important priority this session is our Back to Basics program." The broad-based education proposal would, among other things, create cooperative studies with public schools and workforce programs, improve infrastructure in the UT system, raise faculty salaries, and increase staff. Back to Basics may be the university's biggest priority this session, but it is also, sadly, mostly a pipe dream. University representatives are asking the Legislature for $926 million to fund it. Yes, there's likely to be $1 billion left over in the state budget at the end of the session, but everyone knows the Legislature, and the governor in particular, long ago tagged that money for property tax relief. Despite this knowledge, the university's man at the Capitol, Governmental Relations leader Michael Millsap, thinks that UT's $926 million request is "being seriously considered." He then concedes that, "Actually, any amount of funding would be appreciated."

As for the university's next priority -- minority admissions policies -- the Chancellor recently announced a new program that would remove race and ethnicity as a factor in admissions for the entire UT system, but would allow other factors such as economic and education background and family education status to be considered. His announcement came at the advice of Attorney General Dan Morales, who suggested that by using such tactics, the university could continue its efforts at diversity, especially in the face of plummeting minority applications. The university is looking to the Legislature to give their brand-new admission policies credibility via a state statute, but those efforts are going unnoticed, says Millsap. "The stadium bill received a lot of press attention and that makes it look like there was more work done on that than anything else," he complains. "But there were more than 1,500 bills we worked on. In fact, we've been working on Hopwood-related bills since the beginning of the session."

Not only that, argues Millsap, Rep. Maxey's contention that UT's heart is not in the right place is unfair, considering that the university has only five staffers working the Capitol -- not enough to visit every member. In addition, he asserts, there's the obvious need to deal with "House leadership" on higher education issues, which Maxey is not. The university PR folks, he says, have been concentrating on minority admission policy bills filed by Rep. Irma Rangel, chair of the House Higher Education Committee, and Senator Royce West. Those bills fine tune the university's new admission policies of looking at an applicant's economic and family background information. "It's disingenuous to say that just because we didn't visit with Maxey on the issue that we're not interested. I'm always saddened when members say we haven't given enough attention to their bills, but we just can't get around to everybody. To the extent that we haven't visited with him, I'm sorry."

"We really don't buy their theory that they don't have enough people to come around and visit," responds Maxey's press secretary, Hugh Strange. "We've had the graduate student tuition waivers bill up and they keep opposing it, even though [former UT president Robert] Berdahl wrote a letter in favor of it." That bill would waive tuition for graduate students who work or teach at the university. "We understand trying to work with the Higher Education Committee chair on Hopwood bills, but it takes more than one vote to pass a bill," notes Strange. "More than that, they haven't shown an interest in the students at all, only the administration's financial concerns." Is it really football over education? "Clearly," says Strange.

To be fair, the minority admissions issue is really more of a constitutional problem than a legislative one, which could be why Rangel's bills are still being debated in committee. The Legislature appears to be wrestling with the question of how to continue the university's affirmative action program within the parameters of the new ruling. Hence, the stadium is the only real success UT has had so far. Which, in turn, leads to the impression that UT cares more about skyboxes and wooing donors than about funding scholarships and books.

And yet, there could be another explanation for the hoopla around the stadium. If academics are supposed to be the anatomy of Texas universities, football, it could be said, is the lifeblood. For Darrell Royal, the beloved former UT football coach and the stadium's namesake, that analogy is right on the money, so to speak. Back in February, in the darkened hallway outside the Lieutenant Governor's meeting room, a congratulatory crowd gathered around Coach Royal and UT Chancellor William Cunningham, who had just won a swift victory on the stadium bill from the Senate State Affairs Committee inside. "Football is the bell cow of our university," Royal pointed out. "They're out front. The money generated from football sustains other athletic programs. And by the way, none of the money to pay for this [stadium extension] is public money." That last bit was thrown in, perhaps, due to grumblings on campus that the $86 million in private contributions earmarked for the stadium addition and renovations would be better spent elsewhere. Royal may be right about football and bell cows. After all, money is what feeds the beast that is UT, and nothing packs those donors in faster than a rousing football program. Oh, and plush skybox seats. Nearly $6,000 was spent last legislative session on football tickets for visiting legislators, and thousands more on private club memberships to entertain big donors and politicos who do what they can for UT.

Such "frivolous" expenditures rankle Maxey, who, surprisingly, got a bill passed out of committee that prohibits the university from using any funds for private club memberships. Millsap, while noting that the university cannot take a position on any bill, defends those memberships insofar as they provide a welcoming environment for contributors. But what about the argument that those funds would be better spent on scholarships -- even athletic scholarships? "For that matter, then, why don't we come up with a list of our needs in order of priority and hand it to the Legislature?" snaps Millsap.

Okay, why not? "This kind of argument is circular," he answers. "It's politically easy to criticize a membership at a lunch club like the Austin Club, much less the Barton Creek Country Club, but those gifts [that pay for the memberships] are used for entertainment for the donors, and that's in the best interest of the university."

All of which helps explain why the stadium is, in fact, a high priority for UT. State funding has remained nearly flat for the past three years, leaving the university with no choice but to pound the pavement for a little sugar. Sweeten the pot with football tickets, golf games at Barton Creek, and lunch at the Austin club -- and the cash flows a little easier. Just a few figures: 10 years ago, UT received 44% of its operating revenue from state funds. Last year, that figure was less than 25%, or $228 million towards $884 million in operating requirements.

Millsap puts it succinctly. "Some people seem to like to speak in symbolic ways, that athletics receives more attention than academic, and we understand the university is there to educate some people, but you have to look at the university as a community with many different needs. The stadium and athletics is an important part of life at the university. We neglect that, I think, at our own peril."

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