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Horns of a Dilemma: Coping with Politics at the University of Texas Hardcover – April 1, 2011
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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.--Reeve Hamilton --The Texas Tribune (4/18/2011)
In the early 1970s, Frank Erwin dominated higher education in the public University of Texas System of colleges and universities. He was a key player for Gov. John Connally and a drinking buddy of state senators, corporate executives and President Lyndon Johnson. Behind the scenes, this deeply conservative, dictatorial, lonely and strangely forlorn man befriended a hidden liberal high in the university system, Kenneth Ashworth, and embosomed him with tales of his tyranny as if Ashworth were his Boswell. The result four decades later, Ashworth s Horns of a Dilemma, flourishes a set of revelations as to how this bull of a man ran higher education in about 20 Texas colleges and universities with 75,000 students, for a little better and for a lot worse. It s as if he set out to prove that raw political power trumps higher learning in Texas.--Ronnie Dugger --The Texas Observer (6/27/2011)
About the Author
Dr. Kenneth Ashworth is a former commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and former vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Texas System.
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As a UT freshman in the fall of 1970 it was confusing to try and understand what was happening on campus. Some professors were denouncing the administration and occasionally each other. A dean named John Silber had been fired which pleased some and outraged others. Few of the participants are still alive so Ashcroft's work is valuable for that reason alone. It is even more valuable for shedding light how Texas treated (and treats) higher education and the role politicians and powerful interests played (and play) in the process.
Ashworth must walk a line between the observer (who is looking back and writing the book) and the participant. Generally he is successful. If you find his inner monologues less than scintillating just wait, there's a good story right behind it.
Frank Erwin plays a large role in this book just as he did in the events it chronicles. As a student, I thought of him as just a bully with power. Later when involved in politics and dealing with him first-hand (after his heyday) he seemed a somewhat pathetic figure. Ashworth does an excellent job of putting Erwin into perspective and giving him his due for the things he did that were worth doing. This alone was worth the price of the book for me.
The book is particularly timely given the latest efforts by the current governor and his cronies to gain control of higher education in Texas (at least at UT and Texas A&M). In Texas, history seems to be repeating itself like a poor remake of Groundhog Day, still trying to get it right.
Ken Ashworth spent nearly 50 years in Texas higher education as a student, academic administrator, commissioner of higher education, and most recently as a professor. Nobody knows more about academic politics in Texas than Ashworth. This memoir is a compilation of first-person stories about The University of Texas at Austin in the turbulent late 1960's and early 1970's.
A purpose of the book is to document the harm that legislators and regents can do to a university when they stop being policymakers and behave instead like middle managers. The book certainly does that. The exploits of Frank Erwin, a larger-than-life former legislator and chairman of the Board of Regents at the time, are found in almost every chapter. And, he's only one of many who tried to manipulate the university for their own purposes.
But, what I found remarkable about these stories were the big egos, hypocrisy, double dealing, and ineptness in many of the characters in these stories. There is a soap-opera quality to some of them. It is hard to believe well-educated, well-compensated, people responsible for a great university could actually act as they did.
What is equally remarkable about the book is Ken Ashworth's willingness to name names and call a spade a spade. For example, in a world of press releases in which university administrators are never fired and instead choose to return to "teaching and research," Ashworth describes the reality behind the press releases. He describes in some detail why people were fired, the process for doing it, and the results ... many of which were messy. His assessments throughout the book are exceedingly candid.
As a cautionary note, it is almost certainly true that no legislator or regent could wreak the havoc on The University of Texas today that was done 40 years ago. But, there are still hundreds of other institutions all across the country that are susceptible to manipulation by legislators or regents because they have weaker traditions and weaker administrations. This book is useful reading for academic administrators, governing boards and anyone concerned about higher education.
It's also a great read.