Between the Lines With Kirk Watson

by Kyle Knighton | May 15, 2019

The following interview is taken from a recent podcast between The Baylor Line and Texas Senator Kirk Watson. To listen to the rest of the interview and subscribe to the podcast, click here.

BLF: So how did you wind up at Baylor?

KW: My freshman year in high school, we had a brand new drama and speech teacher. I think the way you tried out for the debate team was you were the most talkative person in class, you were the loudmouth, you were kind of the pain in the neck, because she picked a group of us, and I was part of that group.

Well, we went to debate tournaments. That summer, I found myself in Waco on the Baylor campus going to the Baylor debate camp. I started going to Baylor debate camps every summer. By the time I had started looking at where I wanted to go to college, I felt like I knew Baylor like the back of my hand.

BLF: I guess if you’re good at arguing, then law is the natural career path.

KW: I stayed in trouble all the time talking. And so I remember very vividly my old man saying to me, by about the fourth grade, “Son, we have got to figure out a way for you to make a living with that mouth, otherwise you’re going to just stay in trouble.” There were no lawyers in our family, but Daddy knew a few lawyers. My guess is he would say, “What do you do with a kid that all he does is talk, and maybe the only talent the child has is talking?” But all of them told him that if you wanted to go to a law school that would train you to be a first-class lawyer, trying cases in a courtroom, Baylor law school was the place to go.

BLF: Was there ever a consideration to do something else?

KW: No, in fact. If I had anything to say about it looking back now all these years later, I would say I was too directed. And here’s why I would say that. I graduated from high school in 1976, and then I walked off Baylor’s campus in 1981, so five years later I had my law degree. And that was because Baylor had what I think is a great program. They called it the three and three program back then. Well, that was a great program for somebody like me because the cost was significantly diminished if I could get into law school quicker and get out. And I really hope Baylor will look back at that.

BLF: So after Baylor, what brought you to Austin?

KW: I got a job with a Baylor guy, Sam Johnson, who was a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. And his family has a lot of Baylor connections. But, we were going to move here for one year. Liz had a job working as a reporter and anchor. And we got here and it wasn’t three months where we were looking around saying, “Oh my goodness, I wonder if we could make a living in Austin.” And that was in 1981, so almost 40 years later here we’ve been. And I think it just was a gift, it just was a gift.

BLF: What is it about the city that pulled you guys in?

KW: Well, part of it was it was just the most beautiful place we had seen. And part of what also played out with that was we immediately fell in love with the culture, the music. So Liz anchored the weekend. I remember vividly what would happen is on a Saturday about 9:30, I’d find a payphone and I’d call her and tell her what club I was going to be listening to music in. She would read the 10:00 news, finish at 10:30, and then by 10:45, maybe 11:00, would meet me someplace and we’d listen to music.

BLF: So how did you transition to politics?

KW: The truth of the matter is that was always something I was interested in. I worked in different people’s political campaigns, including another Baylor person, governor Ann Richards. And she appointed me the chair of a state agency. The state agency at that time was involved in air quality. And one of my jobs was to work with the chair of the water commission to merge those agencies into what we now know as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

And like I say, I was always involved in one way or another. But it really wasn’t until I got very, very sick. During the first part of ’92, I was diagnosed with what ended up being metastatic testicular cancer. And so I had three surgeries and chemotherapy. I just went back to work when it looked like I was going live. It was in ’95 that on a routine cat scan they found another tumor in my abdomen. When I say they field dressed me, they went in and cut me from stem to stern and stripped lymph nodes in my abdomen. That was when I said, “Okay, January of ’97, I’m going to do something different.”

And what happened was people started saying to me, “What about running for mayor? The mayor’s not running for reelection. You love public policy. You like politics. You’re looking to do something different. Why not run for mayor?” And my running joke was, “Well that would make me the only guy in the world that thinks being mayor of Austin’s better than chemotherapy.”

And I loved being in public office and enjoyed that experience. I was reelected, ran for another office in 2002 that wasn’t successful. And then this opportunity to be in the Senate looked like it might come up. I was elected to this in 2006 and been doing that since.

BLF: Did you think having cancer motivated you?

KW: Well, here’s what it did, it didn’t drive me, it gave me freedom. One of the gifts of cancer was it gave me freedom that I didn’t have before. And part of that was the freedom to do things that I thought maybe I would do, that I’d even kind of talked about or whispered about from time to time, but never did. And you know, part of that gift is that you live your life in increments of time. If you’d have asked me at 32 years old, before I got sick, “Watson, where you going to be in 20 years?” If I’d have been honest with you, I’d have told you where I thought I was going to be within about a week. I really thought I had the world by the tail only to find out that I might not live to be 35.

Well, now I try to live my life with a short-term focus but with what I call a long-term vision.

BLF: Let’s switch gears and talk about the cost of higher education. What are some things being discussed?

KW: Well, there are a couple of things. We have to figure out a way to make it easier. And I’ll tell you, the state of Texas has a set of goals through the Higher Education Coordinating Board to have 60% of people between the age of 25 and 34 having some sort of degree or certificate by 2030. The question becomes, can you achieve those without doing some things that are very important.

One is we need to make it a whole lot easier to transfer hours from a community college to a four-year college. A few years ago, I was very pleased to see that Baylor was entering into specific contracts with community colleges where, if a student got out of that community college with an associate’s degree, they were admitted to Baylor. What they did is they had an affiliation agreement that allows those courses that you’re taking at that community college to transfer toward a degree. Now granted, that plays into tuition, and you’d rather have that tuition coming to the school than going someplace else, but the truth of the matter is it might work better for somebody like a Kirk Watson to go back home in the summer, have a job, be picking up hours, and then come back for that sophomore year or junior year or whatever. So I think we have to do a much better job with what we call transferability of those hours. And I think private schools ought to play a role in that as well.

The other thing is, it’s incumbent on the state of Texas to provide more funding to help students. If you look at the number one funding sources for scholarships, it’s called the Texas Grants Program. And we have degraded it, in my view, over year after year, where less money is actually going to those students because we’re not willing to fund it.

Baylor’s the single largest recipient of what we refer to as TEG, Tuition Equalization Grants. But if you look at what the state of Texas has done in terms of putting money into TEGs, we’re only a couple of million dollars more than what was put in in 2002. So the state is not doing what it ought to do to educate its population.

Those are two big things I would say. One is we need to make it easier to go to a cheaper school for a while. And the second is, the state needs to be putting money into helping these students that don’t have the wherewithal.

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