UT pushed Prop. 1 too hard

On Tuesday, Nov. 6, Travis County voters approved Proposition 1, which will raise money with its property tax increase and allow UT-Austin to establish a medical school. The voluminous emails, editorials in local newspapers, online discussion and press conferences on behalf of University officials have been hard to ignore.

The Daily Texan endorsed Proposition 1 because of its benefits to Austin’s health and economy. A new medical school will provide Austin residents, including low-income ones, with a new health care option, a fact we view as especially important. It will create an estimated 15,000 jobs, and it will benefit the uninsured through the creation of community-wide clinics, reducing unnecessary congestion in emergency rooms across the county.

The University is a public institution and cannot legally take a position on the proposition. Gary Susswein,  director of University media relations, said in an interview, “No one was encouraged [by the University] to vote for Proposition 1.” President William Powers Jr.’s op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman and Provost Steven Leslie’s school-wide email were meant to correct misinformation, Susswein said. Undeniably, the op-ed and email dwelled heavily on the benefits of Proposition 1.

In the email, Leslie acknowledges his legal constraints: “As a public institution, the university may not take a position on the Nov. 6 referendum.” But he goes on to list reasons why the University would endorse Proposition 1, if only it could. “For us, this is a yes or no proposition… It will help us transform 19th century medical education methods into 21st century models.”

Powers’ op-ed in the Statesman clearly aimed to persuade the greater Austin voting community outside the University that a medical school would bring numerous, specific benefits to the city at large.

But in the victory press conference he held after the election ended and it was clear Proposition 1 had passed, Powers crossed the line. He made a tenuous connection between the medical school’s future and the recent death of beloved former UT football coach, Darrell K Royal, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. “It would be a great legacy to Coach if significant progress on Alzheimer’s could take place on our campus,” Powers said. It is unclear — and unimportant — whether Royal would have favored Proposition 1. Regardless, using the legacy of a school hero to tout a political victory is disrespectful.

UT officials “have long believed in the value of a medical school,” Susswein said, which means they had an incentive to work on behalf of Proposition 1 as much as they could within their legal bounds. With UT students, faculty and staff comprising nearly 70,000 potential votes, University officials were able to target a powerful political demographic with their email lists. In the end, 186,128 voted in favor of Proposition 1, and 154,308 voted against.

The emails accomplished their intended purpose — generating significant student support. The areas around campus, as well as neighborhoods densely populated with students such as Riverside, voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 1.

Photographs posted on Facebook of an October campus event in favor of the referendum feature a group of healthy, privileged-looking college students flashing big smiles and holding “Yes on Prop 1” signs. The students, with their fingers arranged into “hook ‘em” signs, exemplify school pride. It’s easy to understand why disgruntled Austin property tax payers might find such scenes objectionable. Few, if any of these students will directly bear the economic burden of Proposition 1. For them, a medical school is primarily a matter of reputation for their alma mater.

University officials capitalized on school spirit to support the legislation they wanted passed, forcing additional UT exceptionalism down the student body’s collective throat in place of more compelling reasons for a medical school in town. We agree with the ends, but they hardly justify the means.

Steven Leslie is correct: “It goes without saying that our University is well-established as a Tier 1 research institution,” which is precisely why it should have been left unsaid.