Frank Craig Erwin, Jr., chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, was born in Waxahachie, Texas, on January 24, 1920, one of two sons of Frank Craig and Margaret (Edwards) Erwin, Sr. He enrolled at the University of Texas in 1937 and graduated with a law degree in 1948, having interrupted his academic career in 1942 to serve in the navy during World War II. After a brief, successful legal career, Erwin entered the political arena in 1961, assisting Secretary of the Navy John B. Connally in his quest for the Texas governorship. Erwin quickly emerged as one of Connally's foremost advisors and developed friendships with many leading figures within the conservative faction of the Democratic party in Texas. He first made a statewide name for himself as chairman of the resolutions committee at the 1962 state Democratic convention. His hard work on behalf of the conservatives soon got him elected secretary (1962–63), and later chairman (1963–64), of the state Democratic Executive Committee. Later he served as Democratic national committeeman from Texas (1964–68), vice chairman of the Texas delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and Texas delegate and spokesman at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. His relationship with Connally led to a friendship with Lyndon B. Johnson, with whom Erwin worked closely for the development of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. In 1972 Erwin was appointed to the board of directors of the LBJ Family Foundation, a position he retained until his death. In all circumstances Erwin was loyal to Connally's conservative group and was a major player in the struggles against the state's liberal Democratic wing.
Although politics was important to his life, Erwin's foremost passion was the University of Texas. From 1963 to 1975 he sat on the University of Texas System Board of Regents; he was chairman from 1966 to 1971. Working closely with his political allies in the state legislature, he increased university appropriations from $40.4 million in 1963–64 to $349.7 million in 1975–76. He further increased the system's available revenue by expanding the bonding capacity of the Permanent University Fund from 20 percent to 30 percent. Much of the money was allocated to expanding the university's physical plant, and the building contracts issued by the regents during Erwin's tenure totaled more than $762 million. This building program provided the University of Texas System with more than sixteen million square feet of new indoor space, of which the Austin branch received more than 6 million. The system's enrollment also increased rapidly, from 29,940 in 1963–64 to 77,437 in 1974–75. By the time Erwin stepped down, the University of Texas System, which he had helped form in 1967, comprised twelve component institutions and was one of the nation's leading state-supported systems of higher education.
In spite of these accomplishments, Erwin's career was marked by controversy. He firmly believed in his own authority to shape the university in the image he chose, and sought to ensure a system where the faculty taught, the students learned, and the regents made policy. This attitude clashed with that of a student protest movement that saw in Erwin an example of the societal elite who, in the student protesters' view, dominated America. Erwin first attracted notoriety in December 1964, when, on behalf of the regents, he fired the comptroller of the University of Texas at Austin. It was charged that this action enabled the regents to award building contracts to political allies rather than to contractors selected on the basis of merit; a major controversy arose when another regent publicly objected to the practice. Erwin's authority reached its zenith when he was appointed chairman of the board of regents in December 1966. With the support of most of the Texas legislature and of his fellow regents, Erwin often displayed an intolerance of opposing views, especially those of the left-leaning movements that were emerging on college campuses across the nation. Determined not to let the University of Texas become a voice of the counterculture, he began his stand in 1967, working behind the scenes to remove professors whose politics he considered unpatriotic. Later, in the hopes of stifling the growing Students for a Democratic Society and Young Socialist Alliance movements, he attempted to close campus facilities to nonstudents and to student organizations with nonstudent members. After the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970, Erwin and the regents successfully fought student and faculty initiatives to cancel classes to protest the shootings and the Vietnam War. The next year Erwin led the regents to adopt a policy prohibiting administrators from negotiating with student demonstrators under any circumstances. Although such policies alienated many students, Erwin's firm control was widely praised in the conservative Texas legislature, which continued to increase university allocations.
Erwin had other problems with the student body and rarely tolerated student opposition. In October 1969 the board of regents decided to bulldoze several hundred feet of a local creek so they could expand the football stadium. In an attempt to stop the bulldozing, student protesters chained themselves to trees, and Erwin, complete with hard hat and bullhorn, personally oversaw their arrests. In another well-publicized incident, student protesters demonstrated against Lyndon Johnson, who was visiting the Austin campus. Erwin verbally chastised the protesters and then stood by as the police arrested the leaders. In 1974 Erwin, bluntly declaring, "we do not fund what we do not control," tried to cut funding for the student newspaper, the Daily Texan, because of its longstanding opposition to him. Time and time again students, student groups, and faculty called for his resignation but were ignored by Erwin and by the legislature, which reconfirmed him in 1969 with only three dissenting votes. Although Erwin was supported by most of the legislature, he had a tempestuous relationship with many members of the university faculty. His hands-on style of leadership led to conflicts with those professors who considered the academy to be their jurisdiction. The conflict culminated with the firing in July 1970 of Dean John Silber of the College of Arts and Sciences, who had led the opposition to a proposed splitting of his college into two. The dismissal was perceived by many as politically motivated, since Silber's growing popularity was often considered a threat to the regents' control of the university. After the dismissal, several notable professors fled the university.
After a stint as the official university lobbyist to the 1975 legislative session, Erwin left the University of Texas System and returned to the practice of law. In 1979 he was honored by the board of regents with a resolution expressing appreciation for all his years of hard work; later that year he was named a university distinguished alumnus. He died of a heart attack on October 1, 1980, in Galveston. Before the funeral, his body lay in state in the Great Hall of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, an honor previously granted only to Johnson himself. His funeral was held at the huge University Special Events Center (later renamed the Frank C. Erwin, Jr., Special Events Center), a fitting site for a ceremony honoring a man who had such a dramatic impact on Texas higher education. Jeff Sandefer, part-time UT business school lecturer and Houston businessman, organized the Frank Erwin History Project in 1993 to develop oral histories and archives on Erwin with the goal of writing a biography.