Oil money helps the University of Texas be top rate

When a University of Texas football team wins a game, the top of the school's 28-story tower is lighted in orange, the school color. And when Texas bests arch-rival Texax A&M, the whole tower is bathed in neon, like a popsicle.

The tradition is one sign of this university's loyalty to its Longhorns. Yet today the University of Texas (UT) is becoming known for more than great football teams.

It is also becoming recognized as a top-flight research-and-training school--emerging, in effect, as a swatch of Ivy League eminence in balmy central Texas.

Its rise symbolizes the growth of the Sunbelt as a new source of ''brain capital'' for the country.

While many Northern schools grapple with fiscal woes and slimmed-down enrollments, some universities in the rapidly growing South are trying to parlay increased prosperity into positions of academic excellence.

Their thrust forward is seen as just one more sign of a power shift away from the frost belt, as more people and industries move South. The rise of a few of these Southern schools, however, may just reflect the region's coming into its own rather than any wholesale shift of brainpower.

''Institutions in the region are now minding their own territories better,'' says Norman Hackerman, president of Rice University in Houston.

UT, many believe, is poised to make the kind of great leap forward that the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan did in an earlier era.

It has traditionally been respected as a good teaching school. But as it emerges as a swatch of Ivy League eminence in sun-dappled central Texas, it is also coming to be known for its research.

Flush with a Texas-sized endowment, the school has set out in recent years to lure noted scholars to its oak-studded campus. Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has moved here from Harvard. So have Princeton luminaries John Wheeler, a foremost authority on black holes, and Marshall Rosenbluth, a fusion expert.

Perhaps most symbolic of UT's research drive, however, was its winning in 1980 of a $5 million federal fusion grant over schools like Yale and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the time, Texas was already building a

When the jostling for the federal grant was over, someone from MIT suggested Texas had gone after physicists the way they do football players. ''It is quite true,'' William S. Livingston, UT vice-president and dean of graduate studies, now says. ''If MIT learned the technique, they'd have a better football team.''

UT's ace in the hole for all of this is the same one that has helped thrust Texas forward since America's love affair with the automobile blossomed: oil. The university system owns 2.1 million acres of West Texas land, which, when ceded by the state, was thought to be of little value. Until, that is, oil was found and the price of crude started to go up. Today Texas's oil-enriched endowment, called the Permanent University Fund, is valued at about $1.6 billion , making it second to Harvard's $1.7 billion.

By 1990, if oil prices cooperate, its worth should top $3 billion. Each year the fund yields some $250 million in income.

Not all of the petrobucks go to UT. One-third of the fund's income goes to the state's other main university, Texas A&M. Next priority is paying off building debts of UT and several other schools in the university system. Then UT gets to spend the rest ($39 million last year) as it wants.

Thus oil money makes up only a thin slice of the school's more than $250 million budget but gives the school an edge over many other universities in these austere times.

''It (the endowment) is critical,'' says Peter T. Flawn, UT president. Some of the money is being funneled into setting up endowed chairs and professorships. By the end of 1983, the school expects to have 300 such positions. Texas already boasts several top-ranked academic programs, including botany, engineering, business, linguistics, German, astronomy, and law.

''There's a feeling now on campus of purpose and direction that is characteristic of an organization which is growing and developing,'' says Dr. Flawn.

Certainly it is growing. Last year the school opened a $41 million fine arts complex that local folks like to compare to Washington's Kennedy Center. Not far away are a new pharmacy building and law library. Though the building spree is winding down, there are sketches on the drawing boards for a $29.3 million engineering building and $52 million worth of fix-up on a parcel of land north of the city. Bulldozers are currently sculpturing the beginnings of two new teaching centers.

These will go along with the noted LBJ library-museum, a humanities library housing the world's foremost collection of 20th-century British and American manuscripts, and the school's Gutenberg Bible, one of only five complete copies in the country. UT libraries hold 4.7 million books, making them the eighth biggest university library system in the country, ahead of Cornell and Princeton.

One reason for all these bricks and books is the number of students on campus. At 48,000 strong, UT is the third-largest university in the country, behind Ohio State and the University of Minnesota.

And bargain-basement tuition rates continue to draw the crowds. The school's universities in the county. And Detroit students can attend UT for less than it would cost them to attend the University of Michigan.

Yet in its drive toward excellence UT faces its share of problems, not the least of which is size. Indeed, some outsiders argue that the school has been on the verge of academic greatness before, only to have it slip away because of too much emphasis on bigger enrollments and more buildings.

Like other big schools, UT has to watch student-teacher ratios and guard against ossified bureaucracies. Rice University's Hackerman, himself a former president of the University of Texas, considers UT ''among the better schools in the country at the present time.''

But he warns of what happens when you become too big. ''If you step on your toe it takes two weeks for the brain to know it.''

This fall Texas will be raising its admission standards in the hopes of rolling back the student population to around 46,000. ''We worry about growth and managing enrollments,'' says Mr. Livingston. ''At this stage, we have pretty well filled up the campus.''

The school has had its problems with a business-minded board of regents crossing swords with administrators, too, although some say that has subsided in recent years.

In addition, the university will be jousting with other fast-rising Sunbelt schools in the years ahead for research dollars and topnotch students. Closer to home, pressure is building to divert endowment money toward other financially pinched colleges and universities in the state.

Still, President Flawn believes UT is destined for a rendezvous with greatness. If the oil money keeps coming in, ''in the year 2000 this will be one of the most distinguished universities in the world,'' he says.

But then, oil-rich Texas seems to have been handed one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Says Boston University president John R. Silber, a former UT dean of arts and sciences: ''The University of Texas is the only university in the United States that has no excuse for not being the best.''

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