Excerpted from the upcoming Hidden History of Plano, Texas (History Press, March 16, 2020) by Mary Jacobs, Jeff Campbell, and Cheryl Smith.
Driving across the Texas plains in the late 1960s, you’d expect to see new subdivisions, or fields with barbed wire and pastures. But a pagoda? Probably not.
Yet Plano did indeed have its very own pagoda, and it was not a Chinese restaurant or a martial arts studio. The pagoda was the centerpiece of the University of Plano, one of the strangest stories in Plano’s hidden history.
The University of Plano was the creation of Robert J. Morris, a native of New Jersey who moved to Texas in 1960. Over the years Texans would come to view Morris as either passionate, crazy, conniving—or all three.
“Anybody who puts up a pagoda in Plano has got to be suspect,” wrote John Merwin, in a 1975 D Magazine article entitled “The Strange Case of Plano University.”
Morris was a nationally known conservative firebrand who railed, along with Joe McCarthy, against communism. Twice he served as counsel on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Internal Security, from 1951 to 1953 and again from 1956 to 1958. After failing to win a 1958 U.S. Senate race in his native New Jersey, Morris moved to Texas in 1960 and became president of the University of Dallas. Yet, his term as president would last only two years. His university colleagues were shocked by his incessant political anti-communism rants, and his outspokenness led to his forced resignation in 1962. During his years in Texas, he ran for U.S. Senate twice, started an ultra-conservative group called the Defenders of American Liberties, and founded a university of his own.
Morris ran for U.S. Senate twice, in 1964 and 1970. In both races he lost the Republican primary to future President George Herbert Walker Bush. The 1964 campaign made him an enemy of the Texas Republican Party and he came in third in the primary. When he tried again to beat Bush in the 1970 Republican primary he lost handily, 87 percent to 12 percent.
“I knew I didn’t stand a chance in ’68,” Morris told D Magazine in 1975. “But sometimes you run for office to get a forum to say things that need to be said.” It’s worth noting that Bush went on to lose both general elections, to Democratic incumbent Ralph W. Yarborough in 1964 and to Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr., also a Democrat, in 1970.
After leaving the University of Dallas, Morris organized the Defenders of American Liberties, closely modeled after the American Civil Liberties Union, but with a very different political agenda. The group’s first cause was to defend former Major General Edwin A. Walker, who was accused of inciting unrest on the campus of the University of Mississippi when James Meredith tried to enroll as the school’s first black student.
However, Morris unveiled his most outlandish pursuit in 1964: the launch of the University of Plano. Originally known as the University of Lebanon, the name was changed to reflect the new campus to be constructed in Plano, Texas. The campus would be located on Custer Road between Park Boulevard and Parker Road.
Persuasive by nature, Morris was able to get the Malaysian government to donate a 12,000 square-foot pagoda to the effort. The pagoda had originally served as the government of Malaysia’s pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. This building would become the infamous centerpiece of the University of Plano, housing the school’s administration offices and library. A dedication was held on April 6th, 1966 with Plano Mayor R. L. Harrington and a delegation from the Malaysian government in attendance.
Morris’s motivation for building the school was his son’s disabilities. Willie Morris did not speak until he was three years old and was described as having a “fuzzy look” in his eyes. Most likely Willie was slightly autistic, but given the limited knowledge at the time, he was diagnosed as having sustained brain damage at birth. Through therapy, Willie was able to attend regular kindergarten; meanwhile Morris became obsessed with the idea that there must be numerous children with slight learning disabilities who could not attend college.
In the beginning, the University of Plano implemented techniques from the Doman-Delacato Method, which emphasized crawling and creeping as a way of stimulating brain development. Through the years the American Academy of Pediatrics has voiced warnings about these methods. As late as 2010 the Academy reaffirmed its views, stating, “This treatment is based on an outmoded and oversimplified theory of brain development. Current information does not support the claims of proponents that this treatment is efficacious, and its use continues to be unwarranted…The demands and expectations placed on families are so great that in some cases their financial resources may be depleted substantially and parental and sibling relationships could be stressed.”
The University of Plano continued offering special needs programs and a liberal arts curriculum through the 1960s and early 1970s, at one time even fielding a baseball team. The team’s moment in the sun was losing all four games of a four-game series to the 1975 National Champion Texas Longhorns by a combined score of 26-1.
Most universities in the United States have endowments, usually amassed through donations. The University of Plano had very little in donations; instead the institution’s endowment was based on land speculation. As the corridor along Highway 75 began to prosper, Morris started buying and selling land to support the school’s endowment.
Merwin’s 1975 D Magazine article quoted a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official whom he contacted to ask about land financing in Plano.
“Oh yes, I’ve heard about that guy,” he said of Morris at the time. “I’ve heard he takes his half off the real estate sales first and then leaves the school what’s left.”
In 1967 the new University of Plano was in danger of losing accreditation and by the 1970s it was losing more than $400,000 a year. Morris was also losing his reputation with the local community as he continued trying to hustle real estate.
Morris never developed a good relationship with the Plano City Council and failed to convince the Council to approve his request to have his land zoned commercial so that he could sell it at a higher price.
Merwin’s article was unsparing in its assessment.
“Word has it that the University of Plano is nothing but a front for a real estate gambit for some pseudo-academic rip-off 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,” he wrote. “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.”
Soon, the scheme fell apart. As Plano developed, the opportunities to buy and sell land diminished. Morris started to sell off the campus property. The 700-acre campus would shrink to 30 acres by the mid-1970s. Then Morris began to look globally for land acquisition.
But he didn’t stop dreaming. There were plans for a campus in Washington D.C. and one on the Baja of Mexico, neither of which ever materialized. Also, a loan was taken out to buy over 1,000 acres near the Garza-Little Elm Reservoir for an environmental science program that never came about. The loan for this land was strangling the University of Plano to death.
Morris even scheduled a baseball game with the University of Notre Dame. The game would be played in Plano on the university’s foreclosed football field. The idea was the game would raise money and help publicize the University. But like Morris’s other ideas, this one never came to fruition either.
The school would continue to lose money, fight lawsuits, and finally a recession wiped out the University of Plano in 1976. With an enrollment of 200 to 300 students, and many of those from out of town, there aren’t many local alumni to carry on the memory of Plano University.
Morris returned to New Jersey, taking the schools transcripts with him, and continued to write. He ran one more failed U.S. Senate campaign and finally, in 1996, died of heart failure at the age of 82.
The author wishes to thank D Magazine and the Plano Star-Courier for their research.
Originally published in the January 2020 Hidden Collin Issue of Local Profile under the title “Pagoda on the Prairie”