The Strange Case of Plano University

"Anybody who puts up a pagoda in Piano has got to be suspect."

Driving Central Expressway north to Piano you feel like a red blood cell, flowing along the artery, bringing lifeblood to the factories, the stores and the homes which make up the fabric of Dallas, and to the north, Richardson. At Piano, you turn west on Farm Road 544, a capillary feeding small businesses, small shopping centers and small housing developments, leading to what only a short time ago was farmland. The earth is skinned, awaiting development. A southerly wind skims across it, scooping up billowing clouds of dust and then blows them across the road. I turn north up Farm Road 2478 (soon to be renamed Custer Road) and travel along with the dust until I spot what I’m looking for – the pagoda.

Now you might think a pagoda perched in what used to be a milo field sounds odd. It certainly is odd, but no more odd than the legends surrounding the University of Piano itself- a strange shell of a university that generates almost as many stories as it does degrees. Word has it that the University of Piano is nothing but a front for a real estate gambit for some pseudo-academic ripoff artist who claims he’s running a university but in fact is buying and selling “university land” all over North America and pocketing the profits. You might have heard it is some kind of a right-wing indoctrination center-a place where a crazy old man locks students in the library and won’t let them out until they’re ready to fight the conspiracy. Anybody who puts up a pagoda in Piano has got to be suspect.

That pagoda means a lot of things to a lot of people, but in Piano it symbolizes the embarrassing, bastard child of a university which bears the town’s name. Founded in 1964, the University of Piano was supposed to feed off land development. Buy a large parcel of land in the boonies for a campus and then sell it off to north-ranging developers, bit by bit, reaping handsome profits. The capital gains pay the school’s annual operating deficits and become an endowment. It amounts to land speculating on the side to pay for a university.

While other universities depend on endowment, government contracts and corporate gifts for subsistence, the University of Piano thrives off that lifeblood flowing up Central Expressway, across 544 and up 2478. Fine and dandy while it worked. But now the economic crunch has set in like gangrene. Those small developers who once bought land can’t raise money to buy it anymore. So here sits the University of Piano, land poor, about to sell half its endowment to buy six months time until it has to think about selling the other half.

Behind all of this is Dr. Robert Morris, 59, a right-wing Republican, three-time U.S. Senate candidate and philosophic Plato struggling with realities which threaten to bring a denouement sooner than he thinks.

“This week we’re selling a $407,000 note owed us for $125,000 in cash. We’ve got to do it to make land payments and bond interest payments next month,” Morris explains. “Last week we lost 43 acres here to foreclosure because we couldn’t make some land payments. That cost us our baseball field.”

Morris’ third-floor office overlooks the baseball field to the south, the only green spot on the entire 30-acre campus. The field is neatly manicured, seeming much out of place with the rest of the campus, which is covered with dead grass and weeds. The land is Houston black clay, flat and soggy in damp weather, and in dry weather, a matrix of cracks.

“How do you raise money?” I ask.

“I’ve got a list of several hundred people, most of whom are my friends, which nets us about $150,000 a year,” Morris replies.

“Who are your big Dallas givers?” I inquire.

“We haven’t got any big givers,” Morris says. “I’m the biggest contributor. My salary is $24,000 a year and I give $20,000 to the school. (Morris says he makes his living by purchasing land on credit, letting it appreciate, and selling it for a profit, just as he does for the university.) The rest of our donations are mostly $25, $50, or $100.” To prove the point he pulls out his fund raising list, a rotating card file, and reads the names of donors and how much each contributed during the last three years. By the time Morris reaches the E’s, I’m convinced he hasn’t any big givers, and I change the subject.

“I’m not in with the in crowd in Dallas,” he explains. “They don’t much like me because I’m independent and outspoken. I say things in public about where this country is going that most of them whisper at cocktail parties. Trimming my utterances wouldn’t be enough. It’s far more serious than that.”

So it is with Morris, a man who since arriving here in the early 60’s, has been marching to the beat of his own drummer. He came to Texas with a long record of right-wing political activities, highlighted by his years as chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, back in the early 1950’s. Morris served as the University of Dallas’ second president before his political activities became too much for the school’s board of trustees.

Morris then ran against George Bush in 1964 for the Republican senatorial nomination, a move which turned the Republican Party of Texas against him, he says. He ran for the senate again in 1968, this time naming Dallas Cowboy Bob Lilly as his statewide coordinator. “I knew I didn’t stand a chance in ’68,” Morris says. “But sometimes you run for office to get a forum to say things that need to be said. I said those things and made a lot of friends. I’m glad I ran.”

It’s just with this same sort of unabashed idealism that Morris has single-handedly fashioned his university, a university struggling for a bare existence since its inception in 1964.

Going by traditional academic standards, Piano University isn’t much of a university at all. The student body is small (240), the teaching faculty is palm-sized and, in many cases, woefully unqualified. The school’s library would be dwarfed by most public high schools’ libraries. Its lone attempt at accreditation resulted in padding the university with showcase administrators, most of whom were jettisoned after the university ran up a $400,000 operating deficit and failed to gain accreditation.

Morris is a tall, graying man who speaks in an abrupt New Jersey staccato. He sits behind a somewhat officious semi-circular desk which must measure 10 feet in diameter. The desk has seen better days – the wood is dry and its finish is peeling.

He founded the University of Piano after taking one of his children, who had a learning disability, to the Doman-Delacato Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential, in Philadelphia. The Doman-Delacato treatment teaches children to creep and crawl, believing many children were deprived of this learning experience in infancy. The Doman-Delacato theory has been assailed by the medical profession as an unproven treatment which makes excessive claims while putting extreme demands on parents to carry out the programs at home. In a rare move, The American Academy of Pediatrics adopted a statement in 1968 condemning the Doman-Delacato practice.

Morris was so impressed with the Doman-Delacato theory he borrowed $250,000 from Republic National Life of Dallas and made a down payment on 680 acres of land in northwest Piano, to start a college employing the Doman-Delacato techniques. He floated a $600,000 bond issue, talked the Malaysian government into turning over its New York World’s Fair pavillion, which became the U of P’s main building.

He hired no public relations agency to announce the university or gain acceptance for it in Piano. “You mean you’re going to put a pagoda out in a corn field?” one resident asked. Morris admitted he was and did.

“In the beginning I tried to be involved in Piano but I gave up,” Morris says. “I used to speak over there but I grew weary of it. We bring an institution of higher learning into their town and we don’t get much sympathy. Sometimes we’re slow paying our bills but we’ve never defaulted or anything like that. I’ve given up over there – it’s just gotten to be we and they. One year we tried a fund raising drive in Piano and Richardson. It cost us $9,000 to run it. We raised $12,000.”

The honeymoon between Morris and Piano was almost over before it started, it seems. As one former city official put it: “Dr. Morris was raised in the East where there are a lot different methods of doing business. He alienated key people in the community with what might be normal mannerisms back East.” Morris was, and is, viewed as an outsider. An intruder. Just like that pagoda intrudes into Piano’s boomtown three-bedroom brick home architecture.

Morris’ concept of land endowment financing is based on two tenets. The first assumes housing developments will continue spreading north, and that demand will drive up the value of the school’s land. It did just that until last year, with land purchased in 1964 at $1,800 an acre selling in 1969 for $3,000 an acre, ranging up to $6,300 an acre in 1971. The second tenet presumes the city council will zone some of the land commercial, which drives the land’s value up five or six times what it’s worth as residential property. To a large extent in a small town, zoning depends very much on how friendly you are with the city council, and in this case, the answer is not friendly at all. Morris managed to secure only 15 acres of shopping center zoning, and after a bitter fight, four acres of small retail zoning.

“We did very poorly,” he explains. “We should have been given some kind of consideration. Here we are bringing a college into Piano and starting development of the northwest side of town, and we didn’t do as well with the city council as some land speculators did.”

After the city council fight, Morris decided to buy land in Frisco, a small town about to be touched by the Dallas population boom, located 30 miles north of Dallas on Preston Road. “I had some personal dealings with the mayor there,” Morris says, “and I knew we’d get some good zoning up there.” Acting on behalf of the university, Morris bought 500 acres of farmland on credit, just east of Frisco. He had a small, four-classroom building constructed right in the middle of the field and christened it Frisco College for Arts and Sciences. So now each morning a small van of liberal arts students travel from the Piano campus up to Frisco (about 12 miles) for classes and drive back in the early afternoon.

Frisco’s Mayor Harold Bacchus welcomes the students. “We’d like to have some students in the area. They’re the kind of students that fit in here-you know what I mean – they’re not a bunch of radicals who are against our way of life. Only about 10 of our high school graduates attend college each year. Maybe this will give them a chance.”

With the liberal arts students at Frisco, that leaves only the “middle college” students at Piano. Middle college attempts to reclaim high school dropouts and prepare them for college.

Probably the biggest millstone around Morris’ neck was his pet project-the Doman-Delacato creepers and crawlers. “I think the school of developmental education really hurt us out here,” he says. “Some people thought we were bringing a lot of retarded children into the community and they were worried about Piano’s image.” Morris solved the problem by sending the creepers and crawlers to the Doman-Delacato institute in Philadelphia.

Morris is bent on establishing campuses all over the country, despite the fact that the school has been in serious financial trouble since its beginning. First there was a Piano campus, then the Frisco campus, and then plans were announced in Washington, D.C., for a third campus, a Mensa-operated college for gifted children. Not long after a press conference was held in Washington trumpeting the school for young geniuses, the whole thing blew up. It seems someone speaking on behalf of Mensa committed the organization without sufficient authority. The University of Plano-Mensa deal fell through and was never heard from again.

And then there was a beachfront “campus” on the Mexican Baja Peninsula, which was supposed to support a marine science program. That, too, has been dropped. The school also purchased 1,100 acres of land just east of the Garza-Little Elm Reservoir for an environmental sciences program which has been discontinued. Now land payments on that property threaten the university’s very existence.

Despite all these debacles Morris remains placidly optimistic, and speaks with great pride about his current favorite program, the college of the air. He just returned from the Far East where Morris, two contracted professors and 12 students spent 13 weeks touring Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. Morris has many entrees in some of these countries.

Morris’ college of the air is emblematic of the trouble he has had in Piano, the trouble that has made his school the bastard child. As one Piano businessman and former city council member puts it: “Morris can pick up the telephone and talk to Chiang Kai-shek, but he can’t straighten out his own damned bank statement. You can’t be a college president and be so political. You’ve got to meet the bills, not proselytize.” And indeed, Morris was in Indonesia when he received a telephone call telling him the latest bad financial news for his university – the baseball diamond had been foreclosed.

If you don’t like Robert Morris you’ve got a couple of easy ways to indict him. The first is that old real estate bugaboo. Here is a man who simply must be dealing in real estate. Why else would he be buying land in Mexico, Piano, Frisco and Garza-Little Elm, especially when the Baja land is ripe for tourist development and the Piano, Frisco, and Garza-Little Elm land is within sight of big Fox & Jacobs housing developments? Is it possible that Morris just put the university there so he could covertly make some money off surrounding real estate developments if the university grew rapidly?

And yes, by God, there are plenty of people who think just that. Said one current Piano city council member: “I never thought the university was much of an asset to Piano. It still looks like nothing but a real estate venture to me.” And said the HUD official whom I contacted just to ask about land financing in Piano: “Oh yes, I’ve heard about that guy (Morris). I’ve heard he takes his half off the real estate sales first and then leaves the school what’s left.” Morris, of course, denies all this.

Another way to condemn Morris is to claim he’s simply running a right-wing political indoctrination center. “Lots of people think the Hunts are behind us,” Morris says. And indeed Herbert Hunt does own plenty of land around the school. Morris continues: “Either people don’t like Hunts or they figure if Hunts really are behind us, then we sure as hell don’t need any more money. Now I’ll tell you the truth-H.L. Hunt gave us $1,000 a year and that’s it. No more than he gave any other area school.”

It would be easy enough to write off Morris as some kind of opportunist, but let’s take a closer look. Anybody who would run for the U.S. Senate three times and admit that he didn’t always run to win, but ran merely to speak his mind, has got to be an idealist. Here’s a man who was sold on the Doman-Delacato theory and thought it might revolutionize education. If his revolutionary idea had been political, he might have run for the Senate again. But this time it was educational, so Morris simply started his own university.

Dishonest? Probably not. Eccentric, yes, just as eccentric as Plato in The Republic or John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. If a man has an idea, a calling, he ought to contribute it, no matter what other folks think. Who knows, he might be right. But in Piano, people like Plato, Mills and Robert Morris could probably count their disciples on one hand.

So Morris is fighting an enormous public relations problem in a town which is downright hostile to him. His supporters are few in Piano and their ranks are not likely to increase. One of those few is John Brodhead, a member of the school’s board. “It’s not a communistic school,” he says, “which makes it a damn sight better than most colleges today.”

After hearing all the strange stories about Morris and his university, you expect to meet a mystical man who will spin a baroque tale of how his university came to be and how it is. You expect to find a man sitting in the cupola of his pagoda overlooking his small domain, spouting right-wing oversimplifications. Instead, what you find is an ingratiating man with a teddybear face, calmly telling you his troubles while big red wasps hover in the corners of his office. They look big enough to grab me by the scruff of my neck and carry me right out the door.

He tells of how half the school’s land endowment is gone and the other half is in danger. He tells about the 43 acres he lost at Piano because he couldn’t pay the bills up at Frisco. Morris’ 10-year-old venture into education is clearly in danger, yet he remains calm. “Oh, I don’t know what we’ll do,” he says. “Maybe something will happen.” That something is either a large gift in cold cash from some angel or a sudden change in the economy. Both are unlikely events.

Outside, we walk across the marshy campus and out by the baseball field with its thick, green infield carpet and neatly trimmed basepaths. “We’re going to play Notre Dame, right here, next spring,” Morris says. “I’ve talked to the man who foreclosed on our baseball field and I think we have permission to use it next spring.”

I recall a plaque on Morris’ office wall. “Today is the tomorrow that you worried about yesterday,” it says. His words are drowned by two cement trucks roaring up Farm Road 2478 in a cloud of dust, passing him by.

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