Palaima: Key points for UT’s next president to consider


Palaima: Key points for UT’s next president to consider

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, July 9, 2014 Print Thursday July 10, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Local Contributor

The controversy surrounding Bill Powers’ future as president of the University of Texas at Austin has finally played out, with Powers submitting his resignation effective next spring. Even so, we have not seen drama like this since Powers dragged out the process of deciding whether head football coach Mack Brown would go or stay. Eventually Brown went, in mid-December, two years into a four-year contract extension and one year after getting Powers’ full public support.

There is another irony about the timing of the press leak concerning Powers’ position. The best parallel is how Powers timed his announcement of the $2 million raise for Brown, mid-December 2009. Then fall semester had ended. The faculty council could not gather a quorum.

The regents used the same chicanery in scheduling public discussion of the report from planning firm Cooper Robertson on the fates of the Brackenridge tract, its biological field laboratory and Lion’s Municipal Golf Course. They met on June 18, 2009, when members of the faculty committee advisory to Cooper Robertson and many golf aficionados were away.

We live in Texas, after all. That is why Ronnie Dugger’s classic “Our Invaded Universities” and Ken Ashworth’s “Horns of a Dilemma” will remain standard reading for the UT community (its faculty, staff, students, outside supporters, alumni and alumnae).

All members of the UT community should read the Regents’ Rules and the Handbook of Operating Procedures that govern UT-Austin. We might then avoid repeating the mistake of thinking that the UT president is our leader and one of us. He is not.

The UT president is not elected or selected by the UT community. Whoever aspires to become president knows from the start that their experience, values and ways of working must first and foremost prove satisfactory to the Board of Regents and the chancellor the regents appoint.

Once appointed by the Board of Regents, the president also knows that she or he “serves without fixed term, subject to the pleasure of the appropriate Executive Vice Chancellor, to whom the president reports and is responsible, and approval by the Chancellor and the Board of Regents.”

In this sense, UT presidents do preside over the university community. They adopt and adapt policies and practices to suit the regents. Presidents can be fired at any time. This applies a conservative pressure that prevents anything too radical, from any perspective, from happening to education and research at the university.

We would do well to be calm and refrain from the demonizing that Thucydides described as characteristic of these kinds of public debates, even if a doctor and a lawyer are at the center of it. Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa is a philosophical public servant with a strong record of achievement. Powers can point to many accomplishments. Opinions will vary on the decisions he has made since 2006 and the directions in which the university is going.

Now, we should focus on how to improve the academic and cultural values of the university and strengthen, maintain or repair its vital educational, research and outreach services to our state, our country and our world — no matter who presides over us. Our next president might well consider some of the following key points:

We should, as a No. 1 goal, accomplish former President Larry Faulkner’s plan, announced in 2000, to add 300 tenured or tenure-track professors to the UT faculty and to bring what university leaders have known for 15 years are unacceptably high student-faculty ratios down to acceptable levels. Both these objectives were picked up as priorities in Powers’ first state of the university address in September 2006. Neither goal is close to being reached. Both initiatives are forgotten flotsam.

The faculty council and its various standing committees need to be made meaningful once again. The faculty in virtually all areas of university operation and governance can only advise, so there is no harm in making sure the faculty council is the main forum for public discourse before decision-taking, not the “closed-door” meetings of presidential and deans’ staffs and committees.

Times are lean. Budgeting and setting of compensation must be transparent and fair. No future president should arrange exorbitant compensation (e.g., $325,000 for five years) off the radar screen for doing the job he then has.

Admissions must be kept free of insider influence.

UT presidents preside, but their actions set precedent. They are not Caesars, but they should act like Caesar’s wife.

Longhorn Football: Hubris, Counterfactual History and Mythological Lessons


Longhorn football could learn a thing or two from Greek myth

The Daily Texan Published on-line September 18, 2013 Print edition September 19, 2013

By Tom Palaima

In my many years of teaching ancient mythology, I have absorbed, as I hope my students have, the important lessons about life that the original myth-makers embedded in their stories.

One lesson is to be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. A variant is to make sure you follow through on your side of whatever bargain you strike. A third is not to get too big for your britches — the Greeks called this hubris.

The immortal and ageless goddess Dawn falls in love with a handsome prince of Troy named Tithonus. She steals him away and asks Zeus to make him immortal. Zeus asks her, “Do you want anything else?” She says no.

Zeus makes Tithonus deathless, but not ageless. He grows older and older, shrivels up and finally turns into a chirping cicada—not what Dawn had in mind.

A similar fate befalls the Cumaean Sibyl. According to Ovid, Apollo loves the Sibyl so much that he offers to grant her one wish if she will make love with him. She asks to live as many years as the grains of sand she holds. When she later refuses to give up her virginity, Apollo gives her long life, but lets her, too, grow old.

Counterfactual history, like Winston Churchill’s famous 1931 essay “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” focuses on key moments and their consequences by wondering “What if?” What if Dawn had thought through her request? What if the Sibyl had followed through on her promise?

Given the major distraction that the poor performance of the Longhorns football team has become lately at our university, it is worth posing a big counterfactual historical question. What if Vince Young had not scored the winning touchdown with nineteen seconds left in the 2006 Rose Bowl, considered by ESPN the fifth greatest play in the history of NCAA football?

The touchdown won the national title for the UT Longhorns, just weeks after William C. Powers, then dean of the UT Law School and long a sports enthusiast, was officially named the 28th president of UT Austin.

Winning the national championship was for head coach Mack Brown the NCAA sports equivalent of being head of a team of researchers awarded the Nobel Prize. As national champions, the football program brought in a bonanza in revenues from marketing souvenirs and our UT trademark.

The chief financial officer of the self-operating UT athletics program Ed Gobles has proclaimed, “We eat what we kill.” Translation: whatever monies athletics raises, it spends. Athletics director DeLoss Dodds has crowed, “We are the Joneses.”

The die was cast. From the Vince Young Rose Bowl onward, there has been no restraining athletics. Hubris has prevailed.

Stadium expansions, large salary increases coaches — not only in football, and a $1 million annuity for the athletics director were approved by the cronies within the UT sports silo, the regents who attend football games in the president’s skybox or their own, and the wealthy donors who, according to a local sportswriter, really decide whether head coaches are hired and fired.

The sense was that we would win another national title.

And we almost did. The Longhorns lost to Alabama 37-21 in the national title game following the 2009 season. Trouble was, right before that loss, Mack Brown was given, over the strong protest of a core of faculty leaders, a $2-million raise. That set in motion the decamping of his heir apparent Will Muschamp.

Without Muschamp’s defensive coaching genius, the Longhorns fortunes have faded. Talk now is of winning Big XII titles. But this hope is almost counterfactual, given that teams coached by Mack Brown have only been Big XII champions twice in his fifteen years at UT (2005 and 2009).

One more counterfactual thought. If UT had lost the 2006 Rose Bowl, perhaps Vince Young would have played another year of college football, reined in his hubris about his own abilities, and faced the transition to the fame and fortune of professional football with more maturity.

One positive fact: Young has now earned his degree in Youth and Community Studies and has a loving wife and child. He can do some real good in the world before old age overtakes him, as it overtook Tithonus, and overtakes us all, even our greatest athletes.

Palaima is the Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics. 

Austin American-Statesman 09/13/2013 Palaima: If Mack Brown Were On the Tenure Track


Palaima: If Mack Brown were on the tenure track

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 12:55 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013  Print Edition September 13, 2013

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

The big questions in Austin right now are what grade do we give Mack Brown for his performance as head coach of the University of Texas football team, and who gives him his grade?

Sportswriters are giving out C’s, D’ and F’s for play on the field. Here let me propose that it would be much better if decisions about coaches, expenditures, admissions and academic standards were made with a wider range of voices, perspectives and values.

Athletics decision-making has long operated in a silo. Regents, a sports-enthusiast president, other insiders and a few carefully chosen and easily outvoted outsiders decide on hiring and firing and set spending priorities in a self-operating sports enterprise.

What if decision-making in athletics at UT was modeled on the university’s system for promotion and tenure ? The promotion and tenure system obtains broad perspectives from inside and outside the university. It involves the tenured faculty and university administration at many levels of authority. It virtually eliminates decisions based on cronyism, except at the highest levels, where such decisions are at least transparent. It allows at every stage for fact-finding and debate.

Before you say it just can’t work, hear me out. And imagine your own analogies to UT big-time sports.

Assistant professors apply for tenure and promotion generally in their sixth active year at the university. During their first five years, committees and chairpersons or directors within their units have assessed their annual reports and given them specific advice on how to improve in the year ahead.

In the promotion and tenure year, full dossiers relating to research, teaching and service are compiled and closely reviewed. Five or more evaluations of research are sought from distinguished scholars worldwide, chosen to be knowledgeable about a candidate’s areas of specialization but unbiased. Long gone are the days, for the most part, of the good-old-boy system, when going to the finest schools and knowing the right people assured tenure.

Chairpersons or directors and committees of tenured professors judge each case separately within units. Everyone knows the stakes are high for the candidates and for the future of their units. Budgets are tight. Investing in the right person is crucial.

The two departmental decisions are scrutinized by a college-wide committee of professors and by the dean within each college. Their two college-level decisions then go to the provost and president. Not much gets missed or overlooked, but appeal safeguards are in place in case the process is flawed.

We complain about decision-making by large committees. Yet UT has made real progress every 25 years because of broad-based committees like the Commission of 125. In the promotion and tenure process, stacking committees upon committees and including the independent opinions of chairpersons, program directors and deans really does work.

It was recently reported to professors that the prevailing philosophy in the provost’s and president’s offices is that UT is not in the business of awarding tenure and promotion to B+ professors. We were also told that research productivity is the bottom line. Mentoring, advising, award-winning teaching, university, professional and community service won’t get assistant professors tenure if they have not gotten an A in research now and for the predictable future.

These are hard standards. I have seen them used. The assistant professors who received the Texas Exes Jean Holloway Teaching Award the year before and after I received it in 2004 were denied tenure. One was a brilliant linguist in Germanic Studies, the other a government professor.

Imagine a similar process and standards applied to Mack Brown. We would discount academic matters like six-year graduation rates of players and the heavy use of tutors. We would discount as outreach service his fundraising and recruiting skills and Longhorn Network appearances. The bottom line would be productivity on game days.

What grade would a broad-based system of evaluators outside the sports silo give a coach who recruits A+ athletes and coaches them in A++ facilities to play against mostly B and lower-grade teams? He chooses his own assistants who are paid A+ salaries.

Right now the problem is defense. But in 2008, 2009, 2010 under Will Muschamp, then-anointed successor to Brown, the Longhorns had the top defense in the Big 12.

The silo did not offer tenure to A+ Muschamp. Instead, they gave a $2 million raise to Brown, who has only coached two teams in his entire career to conference titles.

Would a promotion and tenure-style committee make and stand by the same decision?

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

I recommend you vote for reality

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012

Austin American-Statesman print edition October 31, 2012

Palaima: I recommend you vote for reality

By Tom Palaima,  Regular Contributor

Like many other Americans, I have already cast my votes in the local, state and national elections at an early voting center. My parents worked at polling stations when I was growing up outside Cleveland, Ohio. The working-class sons and daughters of immigrant Americans took the right to vote seriously. They knew how much was at stake for them in elections at all levels.

We are lucky that simple in-person early voting is available in Texas. It isn’t everywhere, although it seems like a no-brainer. As Dr. Victoria DeFrancesco at the LBJ School of the University of Texas at Austin puts it, “the issue of insuring early voting and/or mail-in voting is of fundamental importance to ensuring the right to vote.”

Many Americans, rich and poor, cannot be sure of voting on election day because of the jobs they hold or their family and personal obligations. Yet 18 states withhold from their citizens the simple insurance of a basic right.

In Florida, where the bogeymen of hanging chads, broken voting machines and incorrect voter registration lists still haunt citizens, early voting days have been reduced from 14 to 8 and the freest day for the working poor to vote early, a final Sunday, has been eliminated. Understandably then, large crowds of voters have been reported at early voting centers. The early voting location at UT Austin’s Flawn Academic Center has been bustling all week.

I cast my vote early for another reason, so that I would not be tempted to watch, read or listen to any more campaign advertisements or what passes for analysis of candidates and their positions on cable news networks.

Do so and you will be exposed to two viruses that have invaded our body politic, educational systems and news organizations and our very lives, the spin and brand viruses. The chief symptom of infection is our willingness to be satisfied with pretenses rather than realities, what we are told rather than what we know in our hearts.

Let’s look at high-profile sports, where, as Tom Boswell argued 30 years ago in his book How Life Imitates the World Series, we can behold what we value or tolerate as a society.

The two biggest sports stories right now in Austin, besides the sizably publicly funded Formula One circus, underscore what is wrong with public figures who cast blame on others, debates that focus on image control, and campaigns that turn on how much money candidates can raise for advertising. They also make clear that higher education is not a hospital to cure these ills, but a laboratory now to breed and perpetuate them.

The first story is the doping scandal that has cost Lance Armstrong his Tour de France titles and his sponsorship income. The second is the bargain-basement record of the UT Longhorns football team under penthouse-salaried head coach Mack Brown. Both stories are clear-cut instances of finally detecting fire where smoke has long been seen and smelled.

Yet about Armstrong’s systematic, long-term unethical behavior and coercion of others to cover it up, we are told by UT advertising professor Neal Burns that Armstrong should rebuild his personal brand, “essentially to disappear for some time,” then come back and “really work on again creating a positive image of himself.” A marketing professor at the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania who researches “moral decoupling” by consumers concurs. Armstrong can survive by exploiting our “psychological wiggle room.”

Meanwhile, on Mack Brown, whose astronomical salary is supported by revenues from the Longhorn Network (LHN), blames the dismal performance of his teams in the three years since he received a $2 million raise on his having to spend three hours per week, plus travel time, taping interviews for LHN. His exercise in blatantly self-serving spin and in pointing fingers at the goose that lays his golden eggs has drawn wry observations from national sports commentators.

UT safety Kenneth Vaccaro may have identified an antidote, advising that the players “forget about all the stuff that is distracting at Texas, the Longhorn Network, all the fans, all the glory, all the Nike, and get back to just playing football, because that is all that really matters … .”

I hope Mr. Vaccaro graduates and runs for local public office. I will cast an early vote for him. He wants to live in a real world with simple and sound values. Don’t you, too?