Photo used courtesy of Hirsch Lecture Series
Professor Sarah Weddington
UT professor Sarah Weddington was asked to stay at the university. Talking Heads' blogger Josh Haney fills us in on why we should care.
Earlier this week, news broke that Sarah Weddington, a UT professor who is perhaps best known for her lead role in successfully arguing Roe v. Wade, will not be laid off after all. Regardless of where you come down on the merits of this controversial case, UT students should celebrate the fact that their University retained one of its most popular and talented professors.
As the Texan reported back in April, her 23 years at UT were set to end in May as a result of the recent budget cuts. As with many colleges and departments around UT, the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies (CWGS) was dealt a 25.9 percent reduction in funding at the start of 2011. On February 8, Weddington received an email stating her position would not be funded the following semester.
This set off an extensive lobbying effort from many of Weddington’s current and former students, as well as groups around campus including Student Government. After a few months and some behind-the-scenes pooling of resources, Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl asked her to teach a course through the Government department this fall. Though it hasn’t been confirmed yet, she’ll also likely have a larger class—her previous classes were limited to around 30 students—in order to help offset the costs of her salary.
The first reason UT students should celebrate Dean Diehl’s actions is purely economical. At a salary of slightly more than $80,000 a year, she is a real bargain. She is paid nearly half of the highest salary for an adjunct professor at UT ($150,000), despite teaching here for longer than all but a few other adjuncts. With the financial constraints UT is currently facing, University officials should be looking to make all their big-name faculty members as affordable as Weddington.
Also, Weddington offers a wealth of experience that few other professors—let alone adjuncts—could rival. Though she is best known for Roe v. Wade—where she was one of the youngest lawyers to ever argue before the Supreme Court—Weddington has also worked at many levels of government. She directed the Carter Administration’s work on women’s issues, and she was the first female state representative to represent Austin. Also, during the early 80’s, she was the State of Texas’ chief advocate in Washington D.C. as the Director of the Office of State-Federal Relations.
But unlike some of UT’s other famous faculty members, Weddington has developed a reputation around campus as being heavily invested in her students’ progress. She was so moved by their achievements that she wrote a guest column last year in the Texan expressing just that—the headline read “Student Success Inspires Optimism.” It says something that Weddington, who fought and won one of the biggest legal battles in this country’s history, still gets so worked up about her student’s comparatively minor successes.
Weddington also has something of the Midas touch when it comes to cultivating future leaders. When she was a state representative, she gave Gov. Ann Richards one of her first jobs in government. Also, Scott McClellan, the longest serving press secretary under President Bush, referred to Weddington’s class on leadership as one of his favorites, praising her evenhanded responses during class discussions.
But her staying at UT will also hopefully have another, broader impact. With the budgets for family planning and women’s health services being virtually zeroed out by the Legislature, we need to give people like Weddington a platform more than ever. Pushing political agendas shouldn’t be the mission of a public university, but providing its students—as well as the public—with a diversity of opinions and perspectives is. While the Legislature was going through its budget process, Weddington gave talks around campus laying out the consequences of their actions. Though you might not agree with her conclusions, it’s difficult to imagine an honest and open discussion about those issues occurring on our campus without her being there to articulate her perspective. Thankfully, now we won’t have to—at least not for another semester.