Chastisements

Polemicist hereby chastises...

"If, when a man has fallen into habits of idleness, of daydreaming, and of sloth, putting off his most important duties continually til the morrow, another man were to awaken him one fine morning with the heavy blows of a whip, and were to whip him unmercifully, until he who was unable to work for pleasure now worked for fear - would not that man, the chastiser, indeed be his benefactor and truest friend?"

-Charles Baudelaire
 Intimate Journals

 

The Only Candidate for Chancellor?

Extended Chastisement by Scott Henson and Tom Philpott
April 1992; pages 1-2, 3; Volume 3, No. 5
Polemicist

With the promotion of "Dollar" Bill Cunningham to chancellor of the UT System, we confess to feeling much like Michael Kohlhass, the horse trader in Heinrich von Kleist's inspiring tale of the same name. Wronged egregiously by a petty noble in 16th-century Germany, Kohlhass sought justice through every official venue, only to find it had been compromised or bought by his enemies at each turn. Ultimately, Kohlhass gathered together a band of angry men and rampaged through Germany sacking townships, burning buildings, and demanding with the sword, the torch and the lash what he couldn't gain through the court system: that the petty noble who'd behaved so shamefully be brought to justice.

Like Kohlhass, Polemicist has identified injustice and sought its redress through accepted avenues. In the last three years, we have documented Cunningham's complicity with Freeport in developing Barton Creek and collaborating with the Indonesian butcher Suharto, his use of UT resources to subsidize powerful capitalists, his quashing of academic freedom in the E306 case under pressure from monied alumni, and generally the half-truths and obfuscations with which he confronts university issues. In order to halt this injustice, we started our own newspaper to publish our investigations, we used the Texas Open Records Act to discover his misdeeds, we testified to his transgressions before the university council and city council, we questioned him vigorously in public forums, and we supported editorially and participated in peaceful demonstrations against his most odious policies (and were once even hauled away in chains by uniformed thugs for our trouble). Indeed we have issued countless polemics lambasting this profane man, and worked diligently to galvanize opposition to his foul doings on campus and off. A reviled figure, after a time Cunningham appeared in public only at risk of facing jeers and epithets from angry mobs.

At a university with self-respecting trustees and a courageous faculty, Cunningham's administrative career would have ended in shame long ago. Instead the regents rewarded him for his vile behavior by granting him the most powerful post in the UT-System bureaucracy. Elevating such an undistinguished academic - this marketing specialist, a scholar of sales - to such a powerful position reveals the moral bankruptcy and philistinism of the insurance executives and oilmen who dominate the board of regents. In the face of this abomination, we can see, like Kohlhass, only one option: open and angry revolt.

Historical Precedents

At other points in history, American students launched Kohlhassian revolts against such defilement of their universities. In his autobiography, the distinguished journalist Lincoln Steffens recalls a successful uprising at Berkeley during his freshman year in 1885, in response to breaches of student privacy:

"One evening, before I had matriculated, I was taken out by some upper classmen to teach the president a lesson ... Fetching a long ladder, the upper classmen thrust it through a front window of Prexy's house and, to the chant of obscene songs, swung it back and forth, up and down, round and round till everything breakable within sounded broken and the drunken indignation outside was satisfied or tired ... [The President] was allowed to resign soon thereafter."

Other students throughout U.S. history have behaved just as heroically. Seymour Martin Lipset recounts how in 1836 students at University of Virginia "organized an independent military company and announced that they would resist the 'tyranical movements of the faculty.'" At Harvard in 1834, according to Samuel Eliot Morison's Three Centuries of Harvard, then-President Quincy once called the police to quash student demonstrations:

"Then, hell broke loose! ... The "black flag of rebellion" was hung from the roof of Holworthy. Furniture and glass in the recitation rooms of the University were smashed, and the fragments hurled out of the windows. The juniors, led by Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, voted to wear crape on their arms, issued a handbill with an acute dissection of the president's character, and hanged his effigy to the Rebellion Tree. A terrific explosion took place in the chapel; and when the smoke had cleared, "A Bone for Old Quin to Pick" was seen written on the walls. A printed seniors' "Circular," signed by a committee who were promptly deprived of their degrees, gave their version of the Rebellion in language so cogent that the Overseers issued a forty-seven page pamphlet by Quincy to counteract it ... Quincy never recovered his popularity."

At Princeton, according to Lipset, six major student rebellions occurred between 1800 and 1830. Once, after three students were unjustly expelled, "for several days Nassau Hall resounded to the report of pistols and the crash of bricks against doors, walls and windows."

These actions must not be seen as the isolated antics of callow schoolboys. Indeed, they are a part of a grand American tradition dating to the colonial period of resistance to abuse and misuse of power by arbitrary authority. That learned historian Bernard Bailyn recounts how in Boston one night, during a confrontation between colonial Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchison and Samuel Adams' group the Sons of Liberty, Gov. Hutchison could make his way home in the dark by the light of his own burning effigies. Ultimately, the Sons of Liberty burned the governor's home to the ground, drove him out of office, and forced him into exile in Great Britain - for much more minor grievances, we might add, than has Austin for ousting Bill Cunningham and his patrons.

The Shame of the Professors

Nevertheless, we fear that news of Cunningham's ascension will be met on campus not with a thunderclap of determined revolt but with the dull thud of pervasive docility. Student activism has all but collapsed; faculty activism, despite all the cant about "tenured radicals," is nearly an oxymoron. Historically, college faculties ran universities - today they run from controversy in their attempt to further their careers. The situation is not new. In the 1920s H.L. Mencken contended that the professor is "almost invariably inclined to seek his own security in a mellifluous inanity - that is, far from being a courageous spokesman of ideas and an apostle of their free dissemination ... he comes close to being the most prudish and skittish of all men." His solution was downright Kohlhassian: Mencken argued that to reform the universities, one must begin by burning all the buildings and hanging all the faculty.

Academic freedom, as Russel Jacoby once pointed out, has decayed into the freedom to be academic. Although protected by the First Amendment and by tenure, most UT professors shun the burning questions that haunt the University, retreating to their little offices at the barest hint of controversy. They behave not like protected intellectuals but like IBM employees, fearful that a critical opinion on a company issue might offend the boss. The great majority of the faculty, including a number of self-styled radicals, watched idly as student journalists exposed Cunningham's most heinous actions.

How many professors disapproved strongly - yet silently - of Cunningham's ties to Freeport McMoRan, with its plans to ruin Barton Creek? Will they now speak? Karl Galinsky, former chairman of the classics department, privately praised Polemicist editors for exposing Cunningham's Freeport ties, and denounced the president for using his prestige to profit from such an environmentally destructive venture. Galinsky bragged that he donated money to Ann Richards and the Sierra Club, and considered himself an environmentalist. But despite his misgivings and professed liberal credentials, Galinsky kept publicly silent - will he remain so even after Freeport's UT point man becomes chancellor?

The shame of the professors lies in their utter failure to claim responsibility in the governance of the University. Like the courtiers and petty judges who denied Kohlhass justice while pandering to powerful interests, most UT professors shuffle meekly along while the board of regents violates every known academic principle. Perhaps they hope to express their outrage at Cunningham's promotion vicariously, through the voice of student protest. But as we said above, student activism at UT is sadly but effectively dead. As evidence of its demise, consider that the archphilistine Robert Ovetz has emerged as a leader of the student left. With his sullen immaturity and childish tactics, he seems hell-bent on confirming Lenin's charge that "left-wing Communism is an infantile disease." If Cunningham's ascension to chancellor were to be stopped, the faculty would have to initiate the opposition; we harbor no illusions that this will happen.

Our Invaded University

Like the petty noble in Kleist's tale, Cunningham turns to powerful and monied figures to protect himself from the punishment he so richly deserves. For Michael Kohlhass, the chief obstacle for gaining retribution was a powerful chamberlain, a kinsman of the guilty noble, for whom the idea of justice meant promoting the interests of political allies. UT dissidents, like Kohlhass, face a formidable adversary in blocking Cunningham's obscene rise: Bernard Rapoport, chairman of American Income Life Insurance Company and recently appointed member of the UT System Board of Regents.

Rapoport personally championed the idea of naming Cunningham chancellor. When he joined the Board of Regents, many liberals on campus hoped that Rapoport might be a force for progressive reform. His vast wealth has made him the kingmaker of Texas Democratic Party politics - candidates who he anoints, most recently Bill Clinton, typically rise to positions of power and prominence. One object of his benefactions, former Speaker of the house Jim Wright, left public office in disgrace after the press revealed that Rapoport and others purchased thousands of copies of his vapid autobiography to supplement his income.

For years, in every issue of the Texas Observer - a journal which, incidentally, stays afloat financially only due to Rapoport's largesse - Rapoport has bought full-page advertisements in which he prints articles by people or about causes he supports. Since his appointment to the UT System Board of Regents by Ann Richards - to whose gubernatorial campaign he donated $75,000 - Rapoport has at times turned his bi-weekly ad space into a forum for UT-Austin bureaucrats to justify their egregious policies. So far we have heard from Liberal Arts Dean Bob King, whose chair Rapoport endows, and from "Dollar" Bill. Critical articles about both men by the authors of this polemic had appeared in the Observer over the prior 18 months.

In Cunningham's column, he (or more probably his ghost writer, former Austin American-Statesman reporter Monty Jones) rehashes the same tired obfuscations he has employed for years concerning the source of UT-Austin's fiscal crisis. Cunningham tries to convince us with an eight-point apology that UT-Austin is an impoverished institution, whose only budget problems stem from its valiant attempt to fulfill its educational mission on a shoestring budget. He never mentions the tens of millions UT spends on capital for high-tech and military research, and thus paints an entirely misleading portrait of UT's budget.

We find it bizarre that a member of the UT Board of Regents would use what has long been his personal forum to promote false and obfuscatory propaganda. Cunningham gets paid to spew such apologies, however offensive, but Rapoport's decision to feature them prominently in this self-proclaimed "journal of free voices" is the mark of a vulgarian. Someone should tell Rapoport, and the editors of the Observer, that with freedom comes the responsibility to tell the truth.

Inexplicably, Rapoport has sided with reaction, and helped engineer the ascension of perhaps the university's most despised villain to a position of even greater power. In the process, he has disgraced himself, and profaned the liberalism he pretends to champion.

For Kohlhass, justice came only at the price of his death. Just before his public execution, Kohlhass learned that the noble who had wronged him had been convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. We hope that justice will prevail in the case of Bill Cunningham without the university suffering the same fate as this noble German horse trader.

Louis Dubose
Apologist, Tx Observer editor

Between August 1991 and January 1992, the Texas Observer's founding publisher Ronnie Dugger, who resides in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, fired or drove away his entire editorial staff for fear of offending his liberal patrons. After this shameful period, known around the office as "the killing fields," Dugger somehow convinced former Observer editor Lou Dubose to return from Spain to reclaim the low-paying editor's position, since Dugger himself had been editing the magazine via fax from Wellfleet. Many wondered why Dubose would traverse the globe to take a job under such sordid circumstances.

Soon after his return, insurance tycoon and UT regent Bernard Rapoport printed an article by UT President Bill Cunningham in the space he buys in the Observer every issue. At the time, Rapoport was championing Cunningham for chancellor. (See "Our Invaded University" section of the front page Cunningham-lashing). In turn, we called Dubose and asked whether he would print a rebuttal if we wrote one, and told him we wouldn't waste our time if he didn't plan to run the letter. He told us to "Have at it." Later that day we brought him a cogent point-by-point breakdown of Cunningham's article, lashing the UT president for his obfuscations, and Rapoport for presenting them as fact.

Dubose's cowardice became evident after he failed to return our repeated phone calls, and held our letter until after the regents announced Cunningham's chancellorship. When we finally cornered him weeks later, he claimed that he had failed to publish the letter because he considered it libelous. He went so far as to claim that Rapoport, an appointed state official, wasn't a "public figure" in terms of libel law - a wholly specious claim.

We challenged Dubose to show the letter to the magazine's libel lawyer, who informed him not a word violated the law. Dubose then shifted, declaring the letter "unfair" in its depiction of Cunningham as a "perhaps the most despised villain on campus," and Rapoport as a "philistine" who had "disgraced himself and profaned the liberalism he pretends to champion." Although we offered Dubose the opportunity to respond and defend those men, he simply refused to print the letter.

Because Rapoport's money sustains the paper, Dubose apparently feels obliged to portray him in a positive light, no matter what his negative attributes. On its cover, the magazine proclaims itself "A Journal of Free Voices." But Rapoport's ability to buy the magazine's sympathy suggests the magazine's voices are not exactly free. Simply a "A Journal of Voices" might better fit its editorial policies.