Murchison supports Perry higher ed reforms
Mon March 28, 2011 3:17 am

Bill Murchison published this column on Dallas Blog. I am publishing it, with my responses, because Murchison attacks my own writings on the subject as well as making a gratuitous personal allusion. In an earlier version of this post, I erroneously identified Mr. Murchison as a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, based on information in his online biography. Mr. Murchison has not been associated with the paper for ten years and now writes for Dallas Blog and other web sites. I regret publishing the error.

A media storm over the future of the University of Texas – the academic, not the football part – abated last week after a day or two: leaving puddles all over the ground, nonetheless, and significant questions strewn about, such as, who says UT couldn’t stand some reforming?

The UT establishment says it couldn’t, that’s who; together with Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka and likeminded defenders of the modern academic commitment to research. The fear among these folk is that Gov. Rick Perry has declared ideological war on UT in the name of accountability and efficiency. Why – gasp! – the man wants teachers to teach more. He and his cronies on the board of regents suspect the academic product is becoming unaffordable for many Texans. Why not a cheaper alternative?, he inquires innocently. “[T]he moneychangers are in the temple, and there is no getting them out,” Burka warns, with a face – I presume – like Bernie Madoff at a parole hearing.

--It is not my intention to revisit the points I made in my column on this subject, "The Old College Try," which was posted on the TEXAS MONTHLY Web site and appears in the April issue of TEXAS MONTHLY. My belief is that Texas has two flagship universities of national class, and that those who think that UT and Texas A&M need reforming should reflect on the wisdom of the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

[Murchison resumes] All of which sounds, well, a bit academic to voters who think the university’s main mission consists in keeping the Tower bright orange on autumn Saturday evenings. The issues at stake are basic and urgent, bearing heavily on the state’s economic and cultural competitiveness. A UT ex (BA 1963) speculates that we’re just at the front end of this conversation – assuming it turns out to resemble conversation more than it does a 2 a.m. fray with beer bottles.

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.

--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.

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.)

--Of course he is shilling for TPPF.

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.

--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.

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.

TPPF (without my collaboration, be it duly noted) has developed information and ideas on possible ways of delivering the educational product at less cost while making teachers more accountable for productivity and effectiveness. I feel bound neither to oppose nor support such initiatives. I would instead ask a question:

We’re not to look at ways of improving the product? How come? Where’s the value in assuming anywhere, at any time, it’s not possible to do a better job; that the only direction worth pursuing is the one we’re on at present?

--The question is not whether we should look for ways to improve the product. The question is whether the reforms will improve the product -- or harm it? Does anyone think that submitting Texas's universities to a nonstandard method of accreditation -- one of the governor's major reform proposals -- will improve the product? Nothing could be more harmful.

The Governor has made, among other recommendations, one that seems well worth careful examination. It is the creation of a college degree program costing $10,000. Not per-year, as at UT now; for four years, rather. Maybe three. It seems exactly the kind of program a state concerned with educating its burgeoning, not exactly wealthy Hispanic population might want to adopt. How do we know it can’t be done unless we get out of our perpetually defensive crouch on matters academic. Don’t we want at the very least to talk about new ideas, new opportunities?

--Mr. Murchison and I are not far apart here. Texas must stay the course on its "closing the gaps" strategy. We part company, however, when he would impose a mandate of $10,000 degree, while I would urge that the cost of education be reduced by increased funding of academic scholarships.

A common delusion about the Academy is that universities are “liberal.” Ha! The cries of outrage one hears over calls for reassessment of academic mission and means show that the posture of many modern academics would do credit to someone we learned about in UT’s history department way back there – King Louis XIV. Or was it Attila the Hun?

--The cries of outrage are not over calls for reassessment of academic mission. They are over ideologically driven reforms that are unnecessary and untested. If UT and Texas A&M were failing in their missions, it would be appropriate to consider reforms. But they're not, and it isn't.

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