In 1967, 22-year-old attorney Sarah Weddington joined forces with the Women’s Liberation Movement and took on one of the most perpetually controversial Supreme Court cases in American history — Roe v. Wade.
She was the first woman to represent Austin in the Texas Legislature and the first woman to hold the title of General Counsel to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She served in the White House as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter before coming to UT to teach in 1988.
After 23 years at the University and more than a dozen state and national leadership awards, UT officials told Weddington, an adjunct professor in the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, that she would no longer have a job at the end of the spring semester.
Weddington said she was aware of the looming budget crisis but was surprised to hear her position was in jeopardy.
“I always thought that tenure for me was not that important because I thought as long as you were really good at what you do and did a lot to work with your students, you’d be OK,” she said. “Now I know I was wrong.”
Weddington said she received an email on Feb. 8 from Susan Heinzelman, Center for Women’s and Gender Studies director, telling her there would not be funding for her to continue teaching. The email said the center was facing a 25.9-percent cut totaling more than $58,000 and would have to cut faculty positions. According to the UT employee salary database, Weddington makes about $40,000 per year for part-time employment.
Heinzelman said because of the 25-percent budget cut spread over three years, the center has no money to hire any teaching faculty this year, though in the past it has hired three to five adjunct professors a year, Heinzelman said. The money that remains is allocated to fund an incoming cohort of about 10 graduate students.
“She is a wonderful teacher, she’s incredibly supportive to the students, and she is very important in terms of the history of feminism and women’s reproductive rights,” she said. “But we have gradually lost the support of the college over the last several years, even before this current budget crisis.”
Heinzelman said it is important to note that no one person or entity is to blame because the bleak economy is taking a toll on the whole University.
“It’s a horrible situation to be in and we are very distressed,” she said. “I have tried to secure funds for her appointment but that has been unsuccessful.”
Weddington currently teaches two undergraduate courses that are in high demand, said Jo Anne Huber, director of government undergraduate advising. She said it is not uncommon for Weddington’s classes to fill within a few hours of opening for registration.
“We opened our door at 8:30 and at 8:35 a student came in wanting to be on her list,” she said. “I had to tell him we weren’t signing people up because we weren’t sure she would be teaching in the fall and he was very disappointed.”
Alumnus Eric Cuellar, one of Weddington’s former students, wrote a letter to President William Powers Jr. saying the University would benefit from keeping Weddington.
He said Weddington’s “Leadership in America” class, which he took in spring 2010, was the best class he had during his time as an undergraduate at UT. Cuellar said he spent more time in her office than he did in any other professor’s at UT, and he believes he is a stronger leader for having taken her class.
“Being around a person like that is an experience that I wish every UT undergrad could experience,” he said in the letter. “I will never forget Dr. Weddington and her class as long as I live, and I hope you do not forget her either.”
Although she is identified as a world-renowned speaker and was named one of Time magazine’s “Outstanding American Young Leaders” in 1980 for her many national accomplishments, Weddington said it is teaching that will “leave a hole” in her life once she moves on.
“I’ve really loved teaching because I’ve gotten to work with wonderful, talented students and I’m really proud of all the things they have gone on to do,” she said. “That’s what I’ll miss, and believe I would not be leaving here voluntarily.”