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 each teacher brings to the university through research and teaching. Faculty are then listed in a 265-page spreadsheet with members who produced a “profit” for the university coded in black and members who produced a “loss” for the university coded in red (some professors have organized a “Red Brigade”). An October Wall Street Journal article compared the position of Carol Johnson, a lecturer for an introductory biology course with 79 students, with that of a newly hired assistant professor, Charles Criscione, who had spent most of his time setting up a research lab. Johnson “made” $279,617 for A&M. Criscione “lost” $45,305.
So numerous were the faculty complaints that A&M officials took the spreadsheet off the Web, and university president R. Bowen Loftin declared that the data wouldn’t be used to assess the productivity of individual teachers. Still, I recently met with around a dozen faculty members at A&M to talk about the spreadsheet, and it was clear that the impact upon morale had been severe. “If it were possible in the national economy,” a former speaker of the faculty senate told me, “half the junior faculty would be gone tomorrow morning.”
Another of the reforms is “split research and teaching budgets.” This may not seem like a big deal. The idea is simply to increase transparency and accountability by emphasizing teaching and research as separate efforts in higher education. But many observers, myself included, suspect that the real agenda is ultimately to curtail the role of research in higher education. Why? Because it costs money. Sandefer has written that academic research consumes two thirds of every dollar spent in American universities. Once the public sees how much more money is spent on research than on teaching, it will demand that spending on research be cut. This is why, to the UT brass, splitting budgets amounts to a frontal attack on the classic model of a research university. “Teaching and research are inextricably linked,” UT president Bill Powers told me. “Splitting the research and teaching budgets devalues the synergy between two essential components that are the essence of a world-class institution.” Like all the TPPF recommendations, the objective is not to improve the academy but to diminish public support for it in its current form.
The seventh “breakthrough solution” is to change the way Texas colleges receive accreditation. The TPPF wants to bypass the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the six regional accreditation organizations recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Rather than use this prestigious body, the proposal calls for Texas to establish its own standards. The current process, which is “input based,” should be discarded in favor of a new “results-based” model. What does this mean? It means that in the name of reform, Texas colleges and universities could be in danger of losing their hard-won reputations. It may already be happening. Last fall the president of the AAU sent a letter to A&M chancellor Mike McKinney urging him to resist the “ill-conceived” reforms. McKinney, an old Perry ally, reportedly threw it in the trash.
Texas is currently home to two great research universities, which train our workforce, create new industries and jobs, and help make this state the dynamic place it is. Does Rick Perry really believe the TPPF’s reforms will improve these schools? Or, like Pa and Pappy before him, is he just playing ideological politics with the state’s great learning institutions? Pa, Pappy, and Perry—it’s not an honor roll.