Old College Try

Rick Perry is waging a quiet war against our current system of higher education, which makes him a lot like some previous governors. He may win, but we’ll lose.

Anyone who has read or watched the news in the past few months knows that public education in this state faces a fiscal crisis. School districts are contemplating layoffs, closing campuses, and cutting programs. What the public does not realize is that a second education crisis looms, this one involving the state’s colleges and universities. But unlike the crisis in public education, the one in higher education is not primarily about funding. It is about ideology. Rick Perry is waging an undeclared war on higher education—in particular, on the state’s two flagship institutions, the University of Texas and his own alma mater, Texas A&M. He has delegated higher education policy to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank, which has produced an ideological blueprint for how the state’s universities should be governed. The objectives are accountability, transparency, and productivity. Several of the TPPF’s recommendations have already been put into practice at Texas A&M. UT has resisted so far, but the administrators I spoke with believe the battle is likely to be a losing one. Just last month, the UT regents hired Rick O’Donnell, formerly the executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, as a special adviser. O’Donnell’s skeptical view of the value of research is in direct conflict with the model of a Tier One university. In short, the money changers are in the temple, and there is no getting them out.

High-stakes political battles between governors and public universities are nothing new in Texas, a state that has at times seemed suspicious of the notion of a public university. Higher ed is, after all, intrinsically elitist, and Texas, with its frontier background, has always valued common sense above schooling, especially graduate-level schooling. As the state’s leading university, UT has found itself wearing the bull’s-eye more than once. In the mid-teens, Governor James E. “Pa” Ferguson ordered the regents to fire faculty members whom he found personally objectionable. The regents refused, whereupon Ferguson vetoed the university’s appropriation, though his action was reversed on a technicality. The next major clash occurred during the forties, when UT regents appointed by Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel pursued an agenda of cutting funding and removing alleged communists from the faculty. When university president Homer Rainey refused to go along, they fired him. One of the reasons for his dismissal was the charge that Rainey had discovered a “nest of homosexuals” on the faculty but had not disclosed

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