William S. Livingston, 1920-2013
Teacher, Scholar, Academic
Posted: August 26, 2013
Bill Livingston was known for many things. He was, rightly, concerned that his academic achievements would be overshadowed by his ‘folk-status’ as the voice of Tex. But even within his academic career, his roots have been glossed over on account of his rise through the university’s administrative ranks. Bill is remembered first as Tex and second for his roles as senior vice president, acting president, vice president, and dean of graduate studies, among earlier posts along the way. Reading that list again, one must question the altruism we have previously attributed to him in his recurring refusal to be courted by other institutions — if Bill didn’t know it outright, he surely had unwavering faith that big things were in store for him at Texas. Of course, the two are inseparable. Bill loved it here — he couldn’t have been half as endearing otherwise. Regardless, we would like to shed a little light on some of the contributions Bill made to political science generally and this department specifically.
Livingston chaired the Department of Government from 1966-69, and during that time he oversaw dramatic reform in department governance. Until that point, the department operated under the Budget Council system, which consisted of the department’s full professors. Livingston, himself a full professor at the time, led the fight to democratize the system. The final debate came down to a memorable one between Harrison Wagner arguing for the young guys and Wallace Mendelson defending the old guard. It was Wagner who won the debate and, May 29, 1968, the department shifted to an elected executive committee representing all three faculty ranks. Livingston carried the torch of reform and made it happen.
Why did Livingston lead this fight? There seem to be at least two reasons. First, colleagues remember that his guiding principle during his chairmanship was “seeking comity” — he believed very strongly in the importance of creating a collegial environment, which it stands to reason the ‘ruling class’ structure of the Budget Council system obstructed. Second, Livingston was always looking to the future and he knew the department was old. Promoting and retaining young faculty were necessary if his plans for bringing the department to national elite status were to gain traction; that simply was not going to happen without democratizing the governance system. In fact, he resisted the Budget Council and recommended tenure to the Dean for three assistant professors whose promotion the council had voted against. The old guard was out of touch, both with the department’s needs and, in many cases, changes occurring within political science. It was time to open things up, and Livingston knew it.
Serving as the department’s graduate advisor from 1958-67, Livingston had, at the time, institutionalized what were known as ‘conference-seminars’. The idea behind the seminars was to inform students on matters not covered in course work, including source materials and research methods, employment opportunities, and professional ethics. These were mandatory meetings for graduate students and were the subject of an Oct. 10, 1965 Austin American Statesman article: “Every week or so during the academic year at least 75-100 graduate students and faculty members of the Government Department gather … To this room come authorities from every conceivable field … The men represent different disciplines, nations, and philosophies. What they have in common with this university group is the intellectual curiosity of learning.” The first conference-seminar, organized by Livingston, was held Oct. 17, 1957. Wallace Mendelson had just been hired, and he gave a presentation in the Texas Union International Room on civil liberties and the Supreme Court: “The Shape of Things to Come.”
Livingston wanted to be remembered first as a teacher, and he certainly was that. He was known above all for his undergraduate courses, British Government, and The Commonwealth and Empire. But he taught others, too. In 1954-56, for example, he taught Africa and World Politics as well as International Organization, and his graduate seminar was Comparative Political Institutions. He has been described as “spellbinding” in the classroom.
Bill wanted to be known as a scholar, and he certainly was that. Following his arrival in 1949, Livingston quickly became the department’s ‘man’ in comparative politics. As he wrote in a letter dated November of that year, he found the set up for his future in that regard “most encouraging … it looks as though I might almost write my own ticket on the subject of comparative government.”
Livingston showed immediately that he was on the forefront of things to come, pushing the study of comparative politics away from country-by-country analysis to focus on cross-regional, thematic comparisons: “I’ve had a talk with [Chairman Emmette Redford] … and suggested a course that has been simmering in my mind for some time – one concerned with a comparative study of institutions and the ideas behind them, without treating the subject country by country, as it is usually done.” Livingston was first and foremost a scholar of federalism, and his career was recognized in 1986 when he received the Daniel Elazar Distinguished Federalism Scholar Award from the American Political Science Association.
No simpleton, Livingston sought to tackle complexity head on. As he wrote in his 1952 Political Science Quarterly article, “A Note on the Nature of Federalism,” studying federalism was about looking beneath political institutions to understand the context, interests, forces, etc. shaping and reshaping those institutions. He wrote, “The essential nature of federalism is to be sought for, not in the shadings of legal and constitutional terminology, but in the forces—economic, social, political, cultural—that have made the outward forms of federalism necessary … a society may possess institutions that are federal in appearance but it may operate them as though they were something else; and, what is more likely, it may possess a unitary set of institutions and employ them as though they were federal in nature. The institutions themselves do not provide an accurate index of the federal nature of the society that subtends them … [and, toward the conclusion of the article] the problem of the student of federalism is made much more difficult, for he cannot clearly distinguish between society and the instrumentalities it employs.”
Of course, Livingston was about more than (what to some might be) abstruse political sociology and probing unmeasurable questions. He no doubt believed in systematic, empirical political science, and he also had concern for the real-world consequences of political institutions. This can be seen, for example, in his 1976 Journal of Politics article, “The Institutionalization of Accountability” (an excellent base comparison of American and British institutions), and in his work on British politics and his research into the nature of the British party system, reflected in two 1959 articles, “British General Elections and the Two-Party System, 1945-55” (Midwest Journal of Political Science) and “Minor Parties and M.P.’s, 1945-1955” (The Western Political Quarterly). Livingston served as Journal of Politics editor for three years, 1970-72, and was president of the Southern Political Science Association in 1975.
Finally, Livingston cherished being an academic man in all ways. There are few groups on campus more academic than British Studies. Livingston’s role in establishing and institutionalizing British studies is legendary, though its story belongs to another author. Lesser known, however, is Livingston’s role organizing the Verbalphiles (those who love words), a group Livingston spearheaded in the early-mid 1970s. A group of 10-15 people on campus would meet once or twice a year to discuss language and the oddities of the English language, but it followed Bill into retirement. Bill Livingston had a reverence for the English language and a keen sense for what made a good university great — he was an academic’s academic.
Regarding his role in establishing the LBJ School of Public Affairs, it is crucial to point out that Livingston bears responsibility for the name. Initially, the plan was to name the school the “Institute of Public Service.” However, Livingston wanted it to be more than a training ground for public service. Livingston wanted the school to be a teaching unit that would deal with policy and administration, both what should be done and how to do it, to spread itself comprehensively over the study of public issues and the techniques of administration, and he wanted the name to reflect the mission. While he won this battle, he lost another. Both he and Emmette Redford wanted an old Texas Ph.D., the congressional scholar Ralph Huitt, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and aide to LBJ, to lead the school, but their choice was shot down. They also wanted the school much more integrated with the Department of Government than it was and is, although the partnership between the two continues paying big dividends on campus.
The Edward A. Clark Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies is another campus unit bearing Livingston’s imprint, and it has always been closely associated with the Department of Government. During the late 1980s and the quarter century since, Bill was the locomotive force behind the center. He took the initiative in persuading the university to create the center, he spearheaded the drive to find endowments to support it, and he met regularly with the hundred or more prominent Australian and New Zealand politicians and officials, including several prime ministers, who visited the center.
While the focus of this tribute has been on Livingston the government professor, we are of the strong belief that one of the things that made Bill great, and helped him be so successful, was his ability to always keep things in perspective. And in that spirit, we deviate briefly from the task at hand, to something we know Bill always took pleasure in. Livingston loved his Longhorn football (though not necessarily upon arrival in 1949). And of all his achievements, he was not one to let a shining star fall through the cracks, pointing as much out in a 2005 presidential medallion presentation speech: “Indeed, I may say of my entire administration what no other president can say, namely that our record of beating the hell out of Oklahoma was a monumental 100%.”
The point here is that Livingston's life, though it appears uncommonly coherent and seamless (he had a single employer for his entire professional career), is not easily captured in a few simple generalizations. His various pursuits are impossible to disentangle. He was at once a decorated warrior in the European theater of WWII, a devoted husband to Lana, his wife for more than a half-century, and a doting father and grandfather to his progeny. He was a distinguished and sophisticated academic man whose command of the English language was both stunning and a life-long preoccupation. His prose and speech were littered with evidence of the peaks of erudition and, if the occasion permitted, a taste for the rude. But he was also an unapologetic Longhorn cheerleader who came early, wore orange, and stayed late. He was a professor of political science, a fledgling discipline for whose growing prominence in the educational backwaters of the 1950’s South and Southwest he was significantly responsible. He was an administrator whose concerns outgrew those of his department and discipline to embrace the most trying issues of higher education in America. He was a 'man in full'—a person we counted ourselves fortunate to have known and whose irrepressible personality and wit make us grateful that we could go along for the ride.
*Written by Stuart M. Tendler, with assistance from many. Based on materials housed in the Briscoe Center for American History, department records, materials provided by the Livingston family, conversations with Bill's former colleagues, and conversations with William S. Livingston in late 2009 and early 2010.