Storming the Ivory Tower

Tuition is skyrocketing. Enrollments are exploding. And the street value of a college degree is up for debate. Don’t look now, but a pitched battle is under way over the future of higher education in Texas. Ground zero is UT and Texas A&M, where a powerful group of reformers backed by Rick Perry is trying to rethink the way universities work—over the screams and howls of the faculty and staff. Will they destroy the university in order to save it? Or will they actually save it?

The view from outside the ivory tower is quite different. Critics of higher education say that those who inhabit these contemporary temples are living off the fat of the land; that they answer to no one except one another; that, like the monks of old, they cultivate their vineyards, sniff heady wines, and raise lush crops on fecund soil while doing . . . what, exactly? Publishing papers few people will read? Conducting research of questionable value? Lecturing a couple days a week for nine months out of the year? The critics argue, with some justification, that the university is not responsive to its “customers”—the students, who have come in pursuit of a certain piece of parchment, and their parents, who often underwrite the cost. In their view, for the university to continue on its current course would bring great peril, and the only way to ensure the future success of UT, A&M, and other major public institutions of higher education across the country is to pursue an aggressive reform agenda that stresses accountability, efficiency, and productivity.

In Texas over the past four years, these critics have made a series of attempts, some more overt than others, to enact that agenda. The reforms were first rolled out at Texas A&M, during the 2010–2011 academic year, causing a major uprising among the faculty and endangering the school’s hard-won academic reputation. At the end of that year, the chancellor for the Texas A&M University System resigned, and many speculated that it was because he was unwilling to move fast enough on the reform agenda.

The next year, the reformers turned their attention to UT. Just as had happened in College Station, members of the administration and the faculty in Austin resisted the proposals, and a battle ensued that continues to this day. As the semesters unfolded, and as the students whom I’d watched on the first day of school wrote their papers and took their exams, the struggle spilled out into the public eye again and again, in boisterous faculty meetings, online campaigns, long-range plans from Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, statements by the board of regents, resistance by Powers, and countless stories in the local and national press. Today, as I write this, another school year has begun. But the resolution of the struggle remains very much up in the air. The sides have been chosen. The stakes are clear. Yet the victor is far from certain. 

A few days after I’d watched the students stream across campus beneath the blazing summer sky, I found myself on a plane to Denver to interview Jeff Sandefer, the man who had developed many of the reforms that were causing so much debate. He and his family spend part of their summers in Aspen, where Sandefer goes to write, and he had asked that I meet him there. We had breakfast at a small cafe while the morning sun labored to remove a chill from the air. Evidently, Sandefer had not noticed; he was wearing shorts. As I walked into his house, an immense expanse of glass provided a view of a soaring green mountainside.

A former UT business professor who is now a director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a prominent conservative think tank based in Austin, Sandefer had emerged as Governor Perry’s trusted counsel on higher education and the big brain behind the reformers’ efforts, and I wanted to hear the pitch straight from his mouth. 

He was born and raised in Abilene, where his great-grandfather Jefferson Davis Sandefer was once the president of Hardin-Simmons University. After graduating from UT, in 1982, he went to Harvard Business School, then followed his father into the oil business. His company, Sandefer Offshore Co., earned $500 million in four short years. In 1990 he returned to UT as a part-time professor in the Graduate School of Business—later renamed the McCombs School of Business for San Antonio businessman and UT megadonor Red McCombs—where he helped build a highly successful entrepreneurship program around a curriculum that he played a key role in designing. 

But in 2002 Sandefer left the university after a public dispute over the hiring of tenure-track professors to replace the type of instructors that Sandefer favored: part-timers with professional experience. He took his copyrighted curriculum with him and decamped for a series of academic jobs at the University of Oklahoma and St. Edward’s University, in Austin, before co-founding the Acton School of Business, a private, accredited graduate college based in Austin whose professors all have entrepreneurial or management backgrounds.

As Sandefer and I talked, it was clear that he takes a dim view of the future of higher education unless fundamental changes occur. “I just think the system is broken,” he told me. “The big lie is that the student comes first.” Most reformers believe that universities serve the administration and the faculty, and Sandefer is no exception. He thinks that universities put too much emphasis on research in lieu of teaching; that the current model of the American university, with its reliance on tuition increases, cannot be sustained; that tenured professors devote too much time to training doctoral candidates despite a lack of teaching positions; and that many small liberal arts colleges, and perhaps some major public colleges as well, will face bankruptcy during this decade.

He plunged me into the finer points of The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out, and another favorite work of his, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses . The lesson of The Innovative University, I gathered from Sandefer, is that higher education is about to see dramatic change brought on by technology, which will allow education to be delivered at a lower cost to more people, posing a serious financial threat to the current model of a research-based university, whose large faculty and staff could become a liability. The authors of Academically Adrift reported the discouraging news that 45 percent of students surveyed “did not demonstrate any improvement in learning

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