Fifty years ago the Astrodome was opening its doors for its inaugural event, a football game between the University of Houston and the University of Tulsa.
Philip G. Hoffman, for whom the building that houses the UH Department of Political Science was named, was president of the University.
Col. W. B. Bates, whose name adorns a student residential facility, was chairman of the UH System Board of Regents.
And Richard Murray, whose name would become synonymous with Houston and Texas political analysis, arrived on campus.
To call Murray an institution, would be an understatement.
His UH classes and community lectures fill up quickly with those who want a front row seat to hear his insight fueled by his passion for the living, breathing creature that is Texas Politics. Some — not him — have called these enthusiasts “Murray groupies.” But he sees himself as a servant to the research and to those who wish to learn from it.
His résumé includes directing the Center for Public Policy and the Survey Research Institute, tracking the changing demographic and political tides in the city and state, sharing his analysis with media and community groups, and teaching more than 20,000 UH students (by his estimation), including many who went on to political careers.
Richard Murray is more than a sought-after resource, expert or lecturer. He is a respected professor, researcher and mentor whose name elicits reverent tones from colleagues and former students.
“He’s been a trusted friend for so long, but I still call him Professor Murray,” said State Sen. John Whitmire, a former student of Murray.
Professor Murray looks back at 50 years with UH.
Richard Murray: “Teaching and research weren’t always my goals. I always wanted to get out of the rural poverty I grew up in, in Southeast Louisiana. After you pick the 10,000th strawberry, you don’t learn much from number 10,001, but when I started at LSU in 1958, I thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. A five-hour calculus class convinced me that another path was needed. I had always enjoyed history and politics, so I switched my major to government. I thought I would go to law school, but my professors convinced me that the country needed more college professors.
I finished work on my Ph.D. in political science in 1965. I was hired by UH to teach political theory, but gravitated to American and Texas politics. A good move given, I rather quickly got involved in local politics, especially with the restive African-American community. Among the leaders I got to know was State Sen. Barbara Jordan, who subsequently ran for a new congressional seat in 1972. (She became a national political star in D.C. in the 1973-74 Watergate hearings.)
I chose to accept a job here as opposed to the University of Georgia, or the University of Kentucky or Penn State, and a big factor was my desire to teach in a big, interesting city — Houston filled that bill.”
“I was a 22-year-old student in Professor Murray’s class some 45 years ago. I went to his office one day, because I needed an extension on a paper that was due. He was studying a redistricting map. It was the first time the county had single member districts. It was 1971. He showed me the map, asked where I lived and said no one was serving in that area. He pointed out the demographics and we agreed the district was written for me. I went home and told my parents I wanted to run for office. I did and got elected.”
— State Sen. John Whitmire, longest serving member of the Texas Senate
Richard Murray: “I calculate I have had about 20,000 students in my classes and my greatest satisfaction comes when I see how UH has changed their lives for the better — and I like to think I made some contribution in some cases.
My favorite class over the years has been one focusing on current presidential elections. As an LSU undergraduate in 1960, I got caught up in the Kennedy-Nixon election that fall, and I remain fascinated by these contests every four years. I taught my first presidential elections class at UH in 1968. I have learned that every presidential election shares some things, like the need to secure 270+ votes in the Electoral College, but each one is also different in important ways. I expect 2016 will be no different.
The political climate at UH and in the nation was most interesting in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The war in Vietnam deeply divided Americans and my students. The one time in my teaching career when I lost control of the classroom was after the Kent State National Guard shootings in 1971 that killed four students. A brawl nearly erupted — probably the low point of my decades of teaching at UH. Personally, I had soured on the war in Vietnam within about a year of arriving at UH, but I did not take a high profile role in the anti-war movement.
Meanwhile, I had begun to appear on local TV as an election analyst in 1968, which raised my community profile, although I don’t think I got any smarter with the exposure over the years.”
“He taught me important lessons about the use and limitations of polling data. The first time we worked together on a poll for my television station, before we went into the field, he told me I should ask questions about issues the mayoral candidates weren’t talking about. I thought about it and told him we should question voters about banning smoking in bars and restaurants. The response was so overwhelming; I asked candidates about it during a live televised debate. Sure enough, the next mayor pushed through an anti-smoking ordinance. His (Murray’s) expertise and institutional memory are irreplaceable. He’s always shared his guidance and counsel, not only with politicos but also with the reporters who cover them.”
– Doug Miller, KHOU reporter
Richard Murray: “My involvement with the UH Center for Public Policy dates back to the early 1980s when the dean of the College of Social Sciences, George Daly, launched the center. I served as director of surveying for about 15 years and became director in 1996. However, I did not want to give up classroom teaching. I did a few things as director that laid the foundation for future growth. These included getting my former student, State Sen. John Whitmire, to successfully carry a bill in the Texas Legislature giving the center a broad legislative mandate in the general area of public policy. I also worked closely with Mayor Bob Lanier on several projects and encouraged the continuing interest of former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby in working with the center. He was instrumental in getting a line item appropriation in the state budget in the 1990s. The most important contributions I made were hiring Renée Cross in the late 1990s, and recommending the hiring of professor Jim Granato, then at the National Science Foundation, to be director of the Center for Public Policy. Now the renamed Hobby Center for Public Policy seems poised to become a major force in the Houston metropolitan region.”
“It seems like I’ve had thousands of ‘lessons’ with Dick Murray, because I learned something from him in every conversation. Students and elected officials have benefited from his insight, his intelligent analysis and his real-life understanding about how politics and government really work.”
– Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack
Murray initiated a government internship program for juniors, seniors and post-baccalaureate students, now called the Civic Houston Internship Program (CHIP). To date, more than 1,200 students have been placed in local political and nonprofit offices. Additionally, several students have been awarded the Richard Murray Endowed Scholarship, established to honor his service to UH and Houston.
In 2004, Murray was awarded the Bob Lanier Endowed Chair in Urban Public Policy at the University of Houston.
Richard Murray: “Bob Lanier, in my opinion, was one of the three greatest American mayors of the 20th century, along with New York’s Fiorello La Guardia and Chicago’s Richard M. Daley. Elected in a highly racially polarized contest in 1991, Lanier quickly built a broad racial and ethnic coalition. I am honored to fill a chair bearing his name.
I have continued as director of surveying, while resuming full-time teaching in the political science department. What’s next? Short term, I plan on teaching full-time for a couple more years.
Life is a journey, and I have been most fortunate that my road led to Houston and the University of Houston — enough said.”
“He has shared his political wisdom with thousands of students and mentored scores of public officials, including me. He founded the Center for Public Policy (now the Hobby Center for Public Policy) to provide quality research on public affairs. Thank you, Professor Murray.”
— Former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby