The University of Texas, hungering for recognition as a world-class institution, spent enormous sums in the last decade accumulating the best faculty money could buy.
But today, when UT took an important step toward academic maturity, it was the work of two researchers who were drawn to Texas for a relative pittance 14 years ago, before the shopping spree began.
Michael S. Brown and Joseph L. Goldstein, physicians at the UT Health Science Center in Dallas, won the Nobel Prize in medicine for cholesterol-metabolism studies they began in the early 1970s as junior associate professors earning what their boss said was "about twenty grand a year in hard money."
"The fact that they were virtually home-grown makes it all the sweeter," said Dr. Charles Sprague, president of the health center in Dallas, one of four medical school complexes in the UT system. "It reveals, I think, a certain maturity for our school and for the whole system that they were nourished here, not bought outside and transplanted."
The two medical researchers are the first scholars to win a Nobel Prize for work done at Texas. The university's three other Nobel laureates -- chemist Ilya Prigogine and physicists Polykarp Kusch and Steven Weinberg -- were recruited after they had won the award.
Weinberg was part of Texas' fat-wallet raid on the Ivy League, lured from Harvard in 1979 at a salary of $126,000 a year. That salary is about three times the average for UT professors, but not singularly high. One year after Weinberg, for instance, Princeton's Marshall Rosenbluth was snared to run the Institute for Fusion Studies at a yearly stipend of $124,566.
For a few years, brilliant professors were being recruited at Texas almost as hard as blue-chip high school football players -- and paid almost as much as the coaches. There is a certain irony in the fact that the Nobel Prize came as that trend was changing.
The university endowment and the state treasury in Texas both rely heavily on oil and gas revenues. Those revenues have been slipping in the last few years, reaching the point where the UT system was threatened with spending cuts. As a result, several star-quality professors who were being recruited by Texas suddenly became reluctant to move South. Two candidates for endowed chairs in the business school withdrew their names from consideration, and four of six professors being recruited for the sciences postponed negotiations.
"We had great momentum going," said Robert Boyer, dean of the College of Natural Sciences at UT-Austin. "But we had to reduce the intenstiy of our recruitment because of the budget situation."
This morning, while faculty and students were celebrating the Nobel announcements in Dallas, Gov. Mark W. White Jr. was meeting here in Austin with the state's Select Committee on Higher Education to discuss future funding and other university issues.
In a statement that perhaps could be made and understood only in Texas, White said: "Educated minds are the oil and gas of our future."
The UT Health Science Center in Dallas, which includes the Southwestern Medical School and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, is in especially good shape, considering its history. It was founded in the early 1940s with a small research staff and small budget after the Baylor School of Medicine moved from Dallas to Houston.