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 it. The incident led to the blacklisting of UT by the American Association of University Professors. Almost a decade passed before UT’s academic reputation recovered.

Perry is the next governor in this dubious lineage to take on the universities, though his efforts are cloaked in the mantle of reform. In his early days as governor, Perry followed the usual pattern of naming high-achieving, independent-minded Texans to the boards of regents at UT and A&M. But as the years went by, Perry found himself on the losing side of regents’ votes, which he did not like. He backed Phil Gramm to be the president of A&M, but the regents opted for Robert Gates; he wanted former state senator John Montford to be chancellor of UT, but Francisco Cigarroa won the vote. So he began stacking the boards with loyalists. Now both boards of regents are composed entirely of Perry appointees who appear to be willing to do his bidding.

Which is what, exactly? 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.

An early and ominous warning signal for UT was the voluntary departure from the board of regents, last July, of Perry’s longtime friend and confidant James Huffines. Huffines was in the midst of his second term as the chairman of the board, and his resignation was an indication that he knew change was coming and didn’t want to be around to see it. In a letter to his colleagues announcing his decision, Huf­fines reminded the board about the danger of becoming embroiled in politics: “Therefore, while always respectful of the political process, the Regents hopefully will continually be united in elevating the University above any type of a partisan agenda.” Translation: Put the university ahead of the governor.

Not these regents. Not this governor. Especially not after a taste of reform has already been had at A&M. As has been widely reported, new standards for measuring efficiency and effectiveness of teachers were implemented in College Station last year. Here’s how it works: First the university determines the total employment cost for every teacher. That number is weighed against how much money

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