Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The War About the War on Higher Education

From Left of College Station: Texas Monthly executive editor Paul Burka recently wrote a piece about Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry’s war on higher education. As Burka sees it, and as I see it by the way, this is an ideological war driven by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank.

[Note: According to this ALEC watch report, the Texas Public Policy Foundation is affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts model laws which are then introduced by Republicans in state legislatures—for example, laws eliminating collective bargaining with state employee unions. ALEC has been in operation since the seventies and claims its members introduce 1,000 pieces of legislation every year in all fifty states.]
In order to fight this war, Perry has stacked the Board of Regents of Texas A&M and the University of Texas with allies and campaign contributors that will align themselves with Perry’s agenda for higher education in Texas. What is Perry’s agenda?
“Some of the reforms that Perry is pushing date back to a May 2008 higher education summit hosted by the TPPF. The governor was in attendance, as were 45 regents from various state colleges and universities. What emerged from this conference were seven proposals—“breakthrough solutions,” as the TPPF put it—to change the way the state’s colleges and universities are governed. At issue is the old bogeyman of fiscal conservatism: inefficient public employees wasting the taxpayers’ money. As Jeff Sandefer, a TPPF board member who advises Perry on education policy, wrote in a paper published two years ago on the TPPF’s website, “It’s time for the Texas Legislature to stop writing ‘blank checks’ to our state colleges and universities for tenured faculty members to spend as they please.” His evaluation of the work faculty members do is “writing academic articles that few people read.”

It would come as news to many Texans that UT and A&M are in need of dramatic reforms. Both are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), the nation’s most exclusive academic club, where membership is reserved for Tier One research institutions. In a recent U.S. News & World Report list of the best American universities, UT ranked forty-fifth (very high for a public university) and A&M sixty-third. If one applies the normal measures, these two schools rank among the best in the nation, public or private. But this has not slowed down the drive to implement reforms at A&M, nor will it save UT.

Another of the reforms is “split research and teaching budgets.” This may not seem like a big deal. The idea is simply to increase transparency and accountability by emphasizing teaching and research as separate efforts in higher education. But many observers, myself included, suspect that the real agenda is ultimately to curtail the role of research in higher education. Why? Because it costs money. Sandefer has written that academic research consumes two thirds of every dollar spent in American universities. Once the public sees how much more money is spent on research than on teaching, it will demand that spending on research be cut. This is why, to the UT brass, splitting budgets amounts to a frontal attack on the classic model of a research university. “Teaching and research are inextricably linked,” UT president Bill Powers told me. “Splitting the research and teaching budgets devalues the synergy between two essential components that are the essence of a world-class institution.” Like all the TPPF recommendations, the objective is not to improve the academy but to diminish public support for it in its current form.

The seventh “breakthrough solution” is to change the way Texas colleges receive accreditation. The TPPF wants to bypass the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the six regional accreditation organizations recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Rather than use this prestigious body, the proposal calls for Texas to establish its own standards. The current process, which is “input based,” should be discarded in favor of a new “results-based” model. What does this mean? It means that in the name of reform, Texas colleges and universities could be in danger of losing their hard-won reputations. It may already be happening. Last fall the president of the AAU sent a letter to A&M chancellor Mike McKinney urging him to resist the “ill-conceived” reforms. McKinney, an old Perry ally, reportedly threw it in the trash.”
Conservative Dallas Morning News columnist and fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, William Murchison, took exception to Burka’s view of Governor Perry and the TPPF’s so-called reforms. In a column at Dallas Blog, argues that reforms are needed in higher education because the research that takes place at these universities have caused the increase in college tuition, and that reforms can improve the quality and availability of higher education for Texans.
“The well-groomed, well-educated folk who run modern universities grow testy when told certain things they do might be done better. The Governor has them in this mood, with – in Burka’s words – his “ideological blueprint for how the state’s universities should be governed.” That’s to say, with an eye open for ways of broadening the present high-cost mission.

The anointed bogeyman for the Longhorn defense is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which, as the state’s leading, free market-oriented state policy think tank, has been vetting new ideas about higher education reform. I blush to acknowledge myself as a senior fellow of this estimable outfit. Lest I seem to be shilling for TPPF, I will confine myself to general remarks about higher education and the role of the college teacher. I do think, as it happens, that TPPF is asking the right questions: mainly, are there better ways our two “flagship universities,” Texas A&M being the other one, can do their jobs better? (For really, truly full disclosure I confess that a direct forbear was A&M’s first president.)

All right, then: the question of cost. UT tuition costs a comparative bundle these days – something like 10 grand a year for residents. I hate to reveal what it was a half century ago – to wit, $50 a semester, plus $40-odd for the “blanket tax” that covered campus events and Daily Texan subscription. Ah, but what about inflation? I checked that. The $50 that tuition cost back then equates to $380.26 today. That leaves $9,619.74 to explain in increased costs. Better teachers today? I wouldn’t be so sure of that. No one living could excel Dr. Thomas Mabry Cranfill as expositor – not to mention actor – of Shakespeare. Walter Prescott Webb was still on the faculty then, even if starting to fade. Frank Dobie had lately retired from the English department. This was fairly high cotton for a state – as the Eastern press often portrayed us – full of cattle rustlers and oilmen encased in grease.

A lot of the increased cost today is due to UT’s function as a developer of ideas and new scientific understandings through, inter alia, big salaries and benefits for famous researchers. This is likely a good thing in terms of prestige and distinct contributions to American life. Yet research is hardly a self-justifying enterprise in an academic institution. The cultivating of young minds is the university’s larger function – the exposure of kids to ideas and, yes, hard, dull facts of the sort that get such a bad rap in modern times.”
Burka then responded to this critic on his blog at Texas Monthly:
“I would put it another way. The folk who run modern universities grow testy when politicians threaten to meddle with what they have achieved and attempt to impose ideological preference on their institutions. One of the most harmful of the reform proposals, all of which were developed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, is to separate the teaching and research budgets. To do so is inconsistent with the mission of a modern university. It is a conservative mantra that money spent on research is often wasted. This is why I have described the attack on UT and A&M as ideologically motivated: because it is.

Yes, there are increased costs. And where did they come from? As public education and health care accounted for more and more of the state budget, the Texas Legislature could no longer afford to fund higher ed. In 2003, the Legislature allowed universities to set their own tuition rates. Governor Perry signed the bill. And now he complains that the cost of education is too high. That outcome became inevitable when he approved tuition deregulation.”
Is this really about instituting reforms that seek to add more transparency and prevent tax payer money from being wasted on unneeded research, or is this about turning the Texas flagship public universities into the University of Phoenix?

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