All the President's Tripe

Cunningham deconstructed and debunked

By Tom Philpott and Scott Henson
November 1989; Pages 9, 12; Volume 1, No. 2

In mid-October, only weeks after The Daily Texan ran a white space with President Bill Cunningham's name on it, our student paper allowed Cunningham to print some 100 inches of cheap huckstering - and didn't even charge him the usual rate of advertising. Cunningham wrote the articles in an odd question-and-answer format, in which he swings at fat pitches that he claims students threw at him. Many students thought that those were questions The Texan submitted; they weren't, but they certainly were lame enough to be.

We disagree with The Texan's decision to run the three-part piece; Cunningham had his chance to respond to The Texan's challenge, and he failed to do so. Since the piece did run, however, and since Texan editor Karen Adams chose not to critique it, Polemicist has decided to expose Cunningham's fraudulent apologetics.

Cunningham frames the understaffing crisis in terms of student-teacher ratio, which he correctly identifies as quite poor: 22.27 to 1, 44th of the 50 state flagship schools in the nation. He then asserts that the University plans to hire 50 new faculty members to improve the ration, but that "between 200 and 300 additional faculty positions will be needed to solve the [University's] class-availability problems."

But he also notices that the national average for flagship state schools is a ratio of 17 to 1, and that it takes 90 professors to improve the ratio by one point. That means we would need 513 new faculty members to match the national average. At first glance, then, Cunningham's situation might attract sympathy: He's struggling under what he calls "budget constraints" to hire 50 new professors, when he really needs the seemingly unreachable figure of 513.

But let's look at those "constraints." He complains that "we have a classic funding problem - more students and less money." Do we though? Cunningham cites massive enrollment growth since 1979, but much of this growth occurred among graduate students, where understaffing isn't a problem. Among undergraduates, enrollment increased from 34,617 to 38,303 between fall 1979 and fall 1989 - approximately 10.6 percent. Meanwhile, the UT budget grew from $149,645,196 in 1979-80 to $308,567,188 in 1988-89, the last year for which we have figures. This amounts to about a 50 percent increase, adjusted for inflation. Additionally, Cunningham cites a 12 percent budget hike for 1989-90, adding to this astronomical sum. So, budget increases have far outstripped enrollment over this period.

What did they spend that money on? Not new faculty. The UT-Austin faculty grew only 7.1 percent during the same period. Five-hundred thirteen new faculty members, at an average annual salary of $35,000, would cost the University just under $18 million per year.

Yet Cunningham pretends that state-imposed funding mechanisms prevent him from hiring more than 50 professors. As he explains it: "on the average, the university receives [from the Legislature] approximately seven times the support for Ph.D. students and three times the support for master's students that it receives for undergraduate courses."

For starters, not all of UT's budget comes from the Legislature - in fact, only 40 percent of the University's budget comes from the state. The rest comes from tuition and from interest on the Permanent University Fund.

And Cunningham has more control over the funds that do come from the state than he lets on - much more. In 1985, the Legislature gave UT System universities the power to move money from one line item of the budget to another, according to the Austin American-Statesman. If Cunningham ever got the urge, then, he could divert money from graduate research programs into undergrad programs. He just doesn't want to.

It's not quite accurate to call Bill Cunningham a liar - what he actually does is use figures selectively to make his case sound realistic, and omits the most important date which would make the University look bad. But Cunningham does lie by omission, and if they're smart, students - especially our "student leaders" - will never take what he says seriously again.

In particular, students should look dubiously on Cunningham's arguments for reducing or "controlling" enrollment. He asks himself, "If enrollment is a serious problem, why doesn't the administration simply reduce enrollment?" In posing that question in those terms, Cunningham allows himself to shift the debate away from finance and aim it directly at students. He goes on to equivocate somewhat, saying that among other things a "kind of populist philosophy" among Texans prevents him from outright attacking enrollment.

But, he boasts, the "University does have the tools at its disposal to maintain its enrollment at 50,000 students." That statement is disgusting for two reasons. First, it doesn't reveal that only about 38,000 of those students are undergrads, which isn't significantly higher than 1981. More offensively, though, framing the argument that way allows him to arbitrarily set his limit at 50,000 students. If present trends continue, this means that under such a limit undergraduate enrollment will actually decline. The trend throughout the '80s has been steadily increasing graduate enrollment, and only slight growth among undergrads. A cap on enrollment would force the University to slash undergraduate enrollment to maintain high growth among graduate students.

And since Cunningham and UT System Chancellor Hans Mark see research as an integral part of UT's "mission," they would be hard pressed to stop growth among grad students. From students' point of view, there's no reason to even consider an enrollment cap. With all the funds that have poured in since 1979, UT could support many more undergraduates than 50,000 - if only the UT System would stop investing its funds in private industry instead of hiring teachers (see "Sematech and You," page four).

Cunningham simply shames himself defending that policy. In the third installment of his series, which amounts to an extended apology for having transformed the University into a research institute, our president writes: "The University ... has a responsibility to the state and the nation to conduct high-quality research. In the United States, it is public policy that basic research will be undertaken in university laboratories." In other words, Cunningham advocates diminishing the quality of undergraduate education to serve some nebulose notion of "national interest."

Next time you're standing in line for a required class, don't forget to feel all warm and patriotic: the funds that would've paid your professor are off somewhere serving national "public policy."

Not only that, writes Cunningham, "if the nation's major universities fail in their research mission, the United States will not be competitive in the world marketplace, and we will lose touch with our heritage, our culture and our values." Cunningham never explains how our place in the world marketplace relates to our heritage, culture, and values. But his association of "marketplace" with those qualities reveals much about the man - that's what you get when you hire a former business-school dean to run your university. No one else would assert that you could buy and sell those things like commodities in the open market.

Cunningham expects us to knuckle under to his vision of a university like obedient sheep. "Undergraduate students at the University have opted to attend a major comprehensive research university with a significant committment to graduate education and scholarly research." Thus, he continues, we were "aware that the University is not a small liberal arts college." Yes, we knew. But who told us that UT administrators would be lining the pockets of multinational corporations with student dollars?

The point of criticism is not, as Cunningham suggests, to convert the University to a "small liberal arts college." Rather, the point is to make the administration account for the money pumped into the University since 1979 by the Legislature and tuition hikes. (At that time tuition was $2 per semester credit hour; today it is $16.) And it's also to hold Cunningham accountable for his statements. He announced in the last Texan piece that "we have succeeded" in making the University "first-class." That's asinine, and student leaders and especially the mainstream student press have failed us by not pointing that out. Instead, it took a national newsweekly - U.S. News and World Report - to tell us that not only isn't UT a "first-class" university, it's not even in the top 25.

As the man who presided over the University's decline, Cunningham must bear the sting of the lash as we strive to reclaim it for students. Sure, he's just a lackey for the Regents and Chancellor Hans Mark. And he's certainly more appealing, at least personally, than the presidents our Board of Regents usually unleash on us. But as Christ said, "By their fruits, ye shall know them." And by the fiscal allocations, yet shall know them, too.

The fruits of Cunningham's labor have degraded the intellectual and moral basis of the University. That's why the time has come - indeed, it's past time - to demand his ouster. Then we can attack the structures that drain UT funds to serve the interests of the nation's monied classes.