Last August, on the first day of classes for the fall 2011 semester at the University of Texas at Austin, I stood on a pebbled apron of the UT Tower in a patch of shade and took in a timeless scene. A parade of youth passed before me, their backs bent to accommodate the weight of their packs. Guys in baseball caps and baggy shorts sailed a Frisbee across a parched lawn beneath a flagpole. Girls with ponytails and jogging shorts screamed with delight when they spotted a familiar face.
The setting was at once uplifting and reassuring. In any year, on any campus, the first day of class is a moment, like the first day of spring training, when all things are still possible, when everything seems poised to turn out exactly as we want it. The entire world is nothing but promise. Looking out at the students’ faces, I recalled the days four decades ago when I was the one walking across this very campus as a law student. I remembered something Paul Woodruff, the dean of undergraduate studies, had once told me: “UT,” he said, “is the largest concentration of smart young people in the world.”
Behind me loomed the Main Building and the Tower, the symbol of the pride and power and prestige of the university (notwithstanding the damning description by the late folklorist and UT professor J. Frank Dobie, who once said its top resembled a “Greek outhouse”). Occasionally students would glance up at the arcade that shades the entrance to the Tower, above which an inscription from John 8:32 reads, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” It is a noble sentiment that is at the core of any liberal arts education, yet from where I stood, it was freighted with irony: though they gazed upon this line of scripture, few of the students crossing before me knew the truth about what was happening inside the citadel on which the words are carved. Few were aware that a high-stakes battle over the future of the university—and perhaps the future of higher education in Texas—was raging inside, pitting President William Powers Jr. and much of his faculty against reform-minded members of the UT System Board of Regents, who had been appointed by, and were loyal to, Governor Rick Perry. Few realized that over the course of the academic year that lay ahead, this battle would upset the seemingly placid grounds of the Forty Acres.
Ah, the happy ignorance of youth. What most of the students walking past me that day were blissfully unaware of is that higher education in Texas is at a crossroads. Among the sweeping reforms that were being advocated for UT were tying professors’ salaries to student evaluations, increasing the workload of professors, quantifying the amount of work that professors do and the value they add to the university, and generally bringing the efficiency of a major corporation to the academic sphere. Reforms, in other words, that would radically transform how our big public universities operate.
The students could be forgiven for not having a clue about any of this. UT appears to be an icon of stability and prominence—the embodiment of the establishment itself. Along with Texas A&M University, the state’s other flagship university, it seems to grow richer, more successful, and more powerful every year. The two schools have arguably the strongest brands in the state, with a passionate network of alumni who feel intimately connected decades after they graduate. Both are proud members of the Association of American Universities, the most exclusive club in academia, whose membership is restricted to 61 leading research institutions. In the most recent edition of U.S. News & World Report ’s list of the top American universities, A&M was ranked 58th, UT was 45th. When you factor out the elite private universities, UT ranked around number 15, the same spot as the Longhorn football team in the 2012 preseason poll. All, it would seem, is well.
Yet seen from a different angle, the world in which these two institutions exist is in distress, beset by skyrocketing tuition costs, tight budgets, and an existential crisis about the value of a college degree. Though a diploma is still seen as the surest ticket to the American dream, the price of admission has exploded over the past decade. Now too many families find themselves uncertain about how to pay for tuition—or can’t afford it in the first place. And for those students who do enroll, many end up with a huge debt after they graduate and limited options for finding a job. Enter the reformers, who contend that this situation is unacceptable and that universities must reinvent themselves if they are to survive, that they must adapt to the changing world around them.
The view from inside the ivory tower is that universities are like the monasteries of medieval Europe, where monks labored to save civilization during the Dark Ages by copying and preserving the texts of antiquity. UT’s motto, “ Disciplina praesidium civitatis ” (roughly translated as “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy”), is an echo from that era. The college’s administrators and faculty take that belief seriously—UT always takes itself seriously—just as they take seriously the state constitution’s injunction that UT shall be a “university of the first class.” This is, after all, a state where education has not always occupied a revered place in the state’s pantheon of values, and within UT there exists the sentiment that without the university, intellectual life in Texas would leave much to be desired. Deans and department heads consider it their duty to recruit the best and brightest minds, students and faculty, and to send professors forth to pass along their wisdom to students, thereby assuring the survival of civilization and progress. The most elite faculty members conduct research that is designed to improve the human condition. The American university system, its admirers say, is the envy of the world.