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On Campus

January 25, 2001 - VOL. 28, NO. 01

Flawn: A Legacy of Stability, Integrity, Excellence



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Editor's Note: Peter T. Flawn, former president of University of Texas System campuses in Austin and San Antonio, last fall received the Santa Rita Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Board of Regents of the UT System.

Flawn is the 16th person to receive the award since its inception in 1968. The award is named for the first producing oil well on university land in West Texas. It honors individuals who have demonstrated loyalty to the principles of higher education and commitment to furthering the purposes of the UT System.

Flawn made the following comments after receiving the award.

On a hot summer day in June of 1949, Priscilla and I arrived in Austin, driving from New Haven, Conn., in a Jeep Station Wagon containing all of our worldly possessions. I went to work for the University on July 1, 1949. I do not remember complaining about the heat. Everyone accepted the reality that it was hot in the summer in Texas, and it did not occur to us then to blame anyone for our discomfort.

I was at that time consumed by the science of geology -- as were all my new colleagues. No one worked a five-day week. Those were good years. We had won a great war, and the future was up to us.

I really did not begin to think about universities as social institutions until 1970, when I entered upon academic administration as vice president for academic affairs. It was then that I had to justify and defend what the University was doing and how it was doing it. And I have been thinking about universities and their role in enhancing the human condition ever since.

After 21 very happy and busy years with the Bureau of Economic Geology -- 1949 to 1970 -- years in which I came to know, on the ground, most of Texas' 254 counties -- there were three enterprises in higher education in which I was engaged that brought me great satisfaction.

First was the five years I spent in San Antonio building The University of Texas at San Antonio. I t was Christmas morning of 1972 that the then chairman of the Board of Regents, John Peace, called and asked if I would go to San Antonio. I was then executive vice president of UT Austin. I spent December 26 at UT System looking at plans and budgets, and on December 27, I was in San Antonio. I have written a history of the early years at UTSA and the people who worked to make it all come together, but it is still a work in progress.

When Priscilla and I arrived, there were a few planners and administrators in rental offices. Five years later, we had a beautiful 600-acre campus with O'Neil Ford designed buildings, 300 faculty, 8800 students and all of the infrastructure in place. Those were splendid years. Ken Ashworth, later commissioner of higher education, was executive vice president and played a key role.

The second great enterprise that gave me satisfaction was the three years of UT Austin's Centennial Celebration, beginning in 1981 -- the 100th anniversary of the legislation that created the University -- and concluding in 1983, the 100th anniversary of the year we opened our doors to file first students. I shall always be indebted to Shirley Bird Perry, whose heroic efforts made the Centennial years so memorable to all who were involved in them.

The third event was from March

1997 to April of 1998. My wife

calls it my "second coming." I call it "waiting for Larry". It took some days for me to respond affirmatively to Chancellor (William H.) Cunningham's invitation to resume the presidency of UT Austin on an interim basis after 12 years in other endeavors. The only condition I made was to have a clear understanding that I was not going to mark time as a caretaker!

I remember my surprise when I learned that while the size of the student body and faculty was more or less the same as when I retired in 1985, the budget had doubled. There were new student services, new academic programs and new research centers, and much expanded government requirements for accounting, auditing, compliance and reporting. Bureaucracy and the cost of it grow!

During that interim year, I ran into some -- challenges -- which I had not anticipated. But in April 1998, when Larry Faulkner walked into the office, I was pleased I was able to deliver to him an institution without the burden of un-made decisions.

I am of the opinion, formed over more than half a century of association with higher education, that the institution that is the university is perhaps the greatest social invention of humankind -- save perhaps the institution of democracy itself. It is an institution created by society to develop its human resources. All advanced civil societies have created universities because of time-tested social wisdom holding that knowledge is better than ignorance, and that inquiry -- and the development and transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next -- improves the human condition.

Education and enlightenment of the individual uplifts society. It is because of this widely held belief, common sense, really, that the people are willing to build and support with public and private money, colleges and universities. Through history, even in societies that were desperately poor, as in post-civil war Texas, scarce resources were allocated to higher education.

But although both public and private universities are financially dependent on the larger society, they must be intellectually independent. And that's no mean trick in this world of strong social tides and political passions.

Universities are at one and the same time durable and fragile.

They are durable in the sense that they have endured as social institutions for hundreds of years with their basic purpose and structure more or less intact. Of course, through the centuries, universities have changed and adapted -- but the purpose and structure has been --durable.

There have been some societies in some times that in the throes of ideological turmoil closed or abolished their universities, but even the most fanatical of ideologs soon realized what a high social cost was attached to that foolishness.

But while the institution is durable, its intellectual integrity is fragile. In the old Regents room in the Main building is a quotation attributed to H.Y. Benedict that says -- Public confidence is the only real endowment of a state university. Public confidence in what? The only answer can be -- public confidence in the intellectual integrity of the institution.

There is abroad in the land an extreme form of egalitarianism that holds that excellence in undemocratic. This is a particularly insidious doctrine that takes political form in attempts to divert resources from public flagship universities. It holds that all public universities should be equal. After all, a university is a university, and they all award degrees. Having spent a half-century building universities, that is to me a most repugnant view. Excellence is not undemocratic! It is precisely through the recognition and reward of merit and achievement that democratic societies have triumphed. If we as a society come to believe that the quest for excellence is somehow undemocratic, then the intellectual integrity of the university is at risk.

Political correctness, with its doctrines of cultural and moral relativism and its passion for revisionism, is incompatible with the intellectual integrity of the university. The university must be free to pursue the truth unconstrained by politically correct dogma. So, of course. we must reject the politically correct imperative that there is no truth that all is culturally relative.

When political correctness first raised its head among the philosophers of the 1960s generation, I thought it would perish through its own absurdity. But it seems to be alive and well, particularly in centers of education and entertainment. If it stifles free expression and inquiry in the university, then we shall indeed lose that most precious endowment -- public confidence. We as educators must have the courage to deal with it! We must maintain a civil forum where our students and faculty may hear a free discussion of any issue.

During the years that I was responsible for the management of a public institution, I was comforted by a quotation from Edmund Burke who, writing in the 18th century, observed: Those who would carry on great public schemes must be proof against the most fatiguing delays, the most mortifying disappointments, the most shocking insults, and what is worst of all, the presumptions judgement of the ignorant upon their design.

So -- everything changes; nothing changes.

I thank the Santa Rita Award Committee and the Board of Regents for the signal honor they have bestowed on me. I am truly grateful Thank you.


January 25, 2001
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