Norman Hackerman Comes to Rice, 1970

When I first saw this image (another eBay find, by the way) my reaction was a small snort of surprise, followed by a good laugh. Dated at the end of January, 1970, we have here Norman Hackerman, then president of the University of Texas, beaming at Frank Erwin, then chairman of the UT Board of Regents. (Why do I think they were both squeezing as hard as they could?)

One of the malign results of the 1969 Masterson Crisis was that once Bill Masterson was out, we couldn’t  find anyone who wanted to wade onto the still tense campus and take over as president. Frank Vandiver of the History Department was Acting President but the fit was not an especially good one and in any event he made it clear to the board that he didn’t want the job permanently. The new search was not going well, as the residual anger and hostility between the trustees and the faculty left potential candidates uneasy. But the Rice board had learned at least one productive lesson from the catastrophe of the previous presidential search and this time listened to the faculty committee that they authorized to help with this one. Sometime near the end of 1969 Mechanical Engineering professor Franz Brotzen, who chaired the faculty committee as he had done last time,  quietly suggested to the board’s search committee that they go talk to the president of the University of Texas, who was caught up in a nasty political situation on the 40 Acres and might be open to a job change. This, of course, was Norman Hackerman. By the time this picture was taken in January 1970 rumors that Hackerman would be Rice’s fourth president were swirling on campus. The rumors were of course correct and his appointment was officially announced in April.

The nasty political situation at Texas was in fact one of the nastiest I’ve ever come across in three decades of researching the history of southern higher education, although some might argue that the only really unusual thing about it was that it broke into public view. There’s no way I can possibly explain it here. However, here is a link to a 2011 piece by Ronnie Dugger in the Texas Observer, a review of Ken Ashworth’s fascinating book Horns of a Dilemma. Dugger describes the cast of characters, including Erwin and Hackerman as well as Harry Ransom, John Silber, and Mickey LeMaitre, and gives a succinct account of the whole ugly episode. Reading it one is tempted to conclude that when he came here Norman was simply fleeing Austin. I know I thought that for a long time. But I spent a lot of time with him over the years and any time I raised this notion he firmly rejected it, saying he came to Rice because he wanted to come to Rice. This just didn’t seem realistic to me. But after many conversations, after some growing up on my part, and especially after spending a solid year working in his papers I realized that I believe him. He would have been fine if he had stayed at UT, whether as president or as a faculty member in the Chemistry Department. And although I certainly had my  differences with him (as I told him repeatedly, to his great amusement) I think he has been underrated as a president at Rice. I’ll have more to say about this.

(Side note: I was once talking with Silber about an unrelated matter and the name of one of the people involved in this brouhaha (not Norman, by the way, who he clearly respected) came up. The insult he uttered was a thing of beauty. Its combination of highly evocative language with pinpoint accuracy of the observation was devastating.  Once in a while I still roll it around in my mind in wonder.)

Bonus: They’re leaning in all directions!

But quite a few have been taken out. Last time I was there only two remained on the Rayzor side. I eagerly await next developments.

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10 Responses to Norman Hackerman Comes to Rice, 1970

  1. Joni says:

    Why, why, why does Rice have such a fascination with these trees and continue to fight a futile losing battle with them to exist on campus?!?

  2. William Cooke '75 says:

    Besides Hackerman, who among former and the current president of Rice had previous presidential executive experience at another college or university? Maybe the Board should look a few miles east of campus and see if there is another current president who would want to come to Rice.

  3. Ali Whittemore says:

    Please tell us the beautiful insult! Edited to ensure anonymity, of course.

  4. Lynn L. Elsenhans says:

    Norman Hackerman and Queen Jean are totally underrated. I am glad to have known them both and so glad they decided to come to Rice.

  5. Galloway Hudson (Wiess '60) says:

    About 1971 I found out that a Rice football player (a History major) had not graduated, despite spending seven years at Rice, trying to pass Math 100. I wrote a letter to Dr. Hackerman about it, stating that Math 100 was no longer required at that time. He agreed and said that my friend would get his degree, along with some others in similar circumstances. A class act, I thought.

  6. marmer01 says:

    Wow! Frank Erwin was a piece of… work!

  7. marmer01 says:

    In the grand Texas tradition of larger than life malevolent scoundrels.

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