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.

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 over the first two years of college, and 36 percent did not demonstrate any improvement over four years.” 

Then Sandefer returned to his proposals, which he called the Seven Breakthrough Solutions. “They are a chance for Texas to do what Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of the University of California System, did for his state in the sixties: change the rules and allow Texas to leapfrog ahead for the next twenty-five years,” he told me. Kerr had basically invented the concept of the modern research university as the leader of a system of universities that includes state colleges and community colleges. His model is still followed by many states, including Texas. But for how long? “Twenty years from now,” Sandefer said, “the value of a college credential will decline. It will be replaced by a portfolio of your work that shows who you are. College will be more like a master-apprentice program than what it is today.”

That’s part of the reason Sandefer believes that the natural evolution of a university is that it should be run like a business. “Let’s create a new results-based model,” Sandefer went on. “We’ll ask two questions about how a university operates: Are the graduates doing well? Is the research changing the world?”

You don’t have to look any further than Acton to see these principles in action. “At Acton, students will learn how to learn,” he told me. “We ask our students, ‘Are we delivering? Did we deliver?’ ” Faculty pay is linked to student evaluations. Instructors must demonstrate teaching skills (in fact, the teacher with the lowest student rating isn’t invited back). Classroom teaching is valued far more than research. And when students finish their studies and begin their job search, Acton professors call prospective employers to offer a recommendation based on the student’s accomplishments.

Many of Acton’s policies and philosophies are reflected in the blueprint that Sandefer drafted for higher education reform in Texas, including linking faculty pay to student evaluations and emphasizing teaching over research. Sandefer’s reforms were first unveiled at a special conference called by Governor Perry, who is closely aligned with the TPPF, at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, in Austin, on May 21, 2008. He had sent out an invitation to the regents of all the university systems in the state using “Office of the Governor” letterhead, saying the meeting would “focus on ‘myths, truths, and breakthrough solutions’ for higher education.” The letter went on to say, “As you know, with deregulation of tuition in Texas, increasing costs of higher education, and graduation rates that have come under scrutiny, parents, students—indeed all taxpayers—have begun to demand more accountability in our higher education institutions.” In the battle over higher education, the first shots had been fired.

As Sandefer began his presentation that day, he encouraged the regents to remember their fiduciary duties to their universities, then outlined specific steps for reform, including making a compact with students consisting of explicit promises to deliver the skills graduates will need in each major; taking the satisfaction of their customers seriously; providing prospective employers with portfolios of students’ work; and recognizing that technology has brought “a tsunami of disruptive change” (mainly, online and blended learning) and taking advantage of that technology.

The hitch in the plan was that most of the breakthrough solutions had never been tried at a major university. Following the meeting, a staffer for the governor wrote to the regents: “The governor’s intent is that this be a regent-driven project.” But it was clear that Perry wanted Sandefer’s ideas implemented—and he didn’t want to wait, and he didn’t want a trial period. The only thing that was left to do was select a campus to implement the reforms. And considering that Perry is the state’s most famous Aggie, it came as a surprise to no one that the reforms debuted in College Station.

What happened next should have been fairly easy to predict. The reform agenda, so logical and sensible on paper, now had to face the harsh light of day. The A&M regents directed university officials to gather information about every faculty member on campus in an effort to accomplish reform number one: “Measure Teaching Efficiency and Effectiveness.” To accomplish this, school officials analyzed data that included salary, benefits, and teaching loads. The Wall Street Journal wrote about a lecturer named Carol Johnson who taught 79 students. She “made” $279,617 for the university. A newly hired assistant professor, Charles Criscione, spent most of his time setting up a research laboratory. No thanks to him, A&M “lost” $45,305.

Ultimately, the data were collected in a 265-page spreadsheet, containing every faculty member’s name, and posted online in September 2010. Professors who made money for the university had their results listed in black figures; those who lost money had their results written in red. It became known as “the red and black report.” The faculty hated it, and it was devastating to morale. I met with a dozen or so professors at A&M, several of them former speakers of the faculty senate, and one of them told me, “If it were possible in the national economy, half the junior faculty would be gone tomorrow morning.”

The man who was caught in the middle was Chancellor Mike McKinney. He straddled both of the worlds that were colliding: he had served as a vice chancellor for health affairs in the UT System and had been a chief of staff for Perry. McKinney understood that the red and black report would upset the faculty, and he tried to balance its effects with what the regents wanted. Sandefer was not satisfied. He remained in frequent email contact with the regents and his colleagues at the TPPF, writing: “The fact that McKinney’s numbers show that most faculty are ‘in the black’ shows that his methodology is flawed.”

In an email sent to regent Jim Schwertner, Sandefer’s father, J. D. “Jakie” Sandefer III, wrote: “Jeff cannot figure out why A&M has not gone ahead and completed Reform Number One, which of course is what we thought Mike was putting together.” 

Schwertner wrote back: “Just tell Jeff to get ready to saddle up. We are doing a lot more than staff knows about.” And the stakes were made clear in another email Jakie sent to regent Phil Adams: “[McKinney] needs to be told that these things are going to get done either with him or without him.”

The reforms threatened more than faculty morale and McKinney’s position, however. They also endangered A&M’s academic reputation and its membership in the Association of American Universities, the crowning academic achievement of the university. AAU president Robert Berdahl, who had been president of UT during the nineties, wrote McKinney that A&M should resist “ill-considered calls for ‘reform.’ ” The initiatives, Berdahl warned, “appear to diverge” from the very standards that allowed A&M to be accepted into the organization in the first place. In the end, the regents did not implement all of Sandefer’s reforms, but the faculty remained uneasy.

In the spring of this year, president emeritus Ray Bowen, on whose watch A&M achieved its membership in the AAU, co-wrote an op-ed in the Bryan–College Station Eagle with a prominent alumnus. The piece was published on April 21, San Jacinto Day, a date on which Aggies around the world congregate for an emotional ceremony called Muster. “As we gather again this year,” Bowen wrote, “we are among those who wonder why so many Aggies have remained silent in the face of this generation’s most serious challenge to the long-term quality of our university . . . Texas A&M is a great university. It is a tragedy when regents, through their inept or thoughtless actions, fail to make it even greater for this and future generations of students.”

It is baffling, in retrospect, that the regents were so loyal to Perry that they would put the university’s academic reputation at risk by continuing to press for the breakthrough solutions in the face of pressure from the AAU. But that is what they did, and the damage was done. McKinney resigned as chancellor on July 1, 2011, a casualty of the war to reinvent higher education. Though the chair of the A&M System Board of Regents said that the implementation of the breakthrough solutions had had nothing to do with McKinney’s departure, McKinney himself disputed that. “I wouldn’t say they had nothing to do with it,” he told the Eagle.

Throughout the 2010–2011 academic year, as the battle raged at A&M, professors and administrators at UT kept a wary eye on what was happening in College Station. In the halls and offices and parking garages on campus, and in the coffee shops surrounding it, conversations about when the reformers would turn their guns on UT were a common occurrence. I should know. I was teaching there. 

For around twenty years, I have been teaching a freshman seminar in the Plan II Honors Program. (I have also taught in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs; one of my former students is Brooke Rollins, who is the president and CEO of the TPPF.) I typically teach one semester per year, usually in the fall, and the class is of my own design, a “great books” course about politics. When we are not talking about Caesar or Willie Stark of All the King’s Men or Thomas Becket of Murder in the Cathedral, we are watching videos of The Daily Show or campaign commercials, in the hope of sharpening the students’ judgments about politics. Though I make no claims about my credentials as a teacher, I happen to be exactly the kind of professor that Sandefer favors: a part-time adjunct with no benefits and a modest salary of less than $10,000, who brings to the classroom the real-world experience of having covered politics for this magazine since 1974.

Nonetheless, I am well acquainted with many of the other kind of professors, those handsomely paid, tenured “elitists” who are seen by the reformers as a partial cause of the crisis in higher education. And I am all too familiar with the response from these quarters when the reform flag flies. Professors have a long memory when it comes to outside intervention at the university, and high-stakes battles are hardly new to UT, or to Texas governors. In 1916 Governor James E. “Pa” Ferguson sought to have several professors removed from the UT faculty. He failed. As his quarrel with the university escalated, he vetoed virtually all of the university’s budget. The Legislature responded by impeaching him. 

Another showdown, between the regents and the university president, occurred in the forties. The regents began to insert themselves into decisions about what the faculty taught and how they went about their jobs. In one case, they pressured President Homer Rainey to fire four professors who supported the New Deal. Later the board dismissed four faculty members who defended federal labor laws. Eventually, they turned their ire on Rainey himself, firing him in 1944. The American Association of University Professors blacklisted UT. Not until Harry Ransom took the reins in the sixties did the university begin to recover.

As 2011 began, many members of the UT faculty began to worry more openly. It was not lost on them that during his multiple terms as governor, Perry had appointed all of the members of the board of regents, and that, having won yet another term in 2010, he would control its composition for some time to come. A seat on the board of regents of UT or A&M is among the choicest appointments that a governor can make, and—as I might teach my students—in politics, nothing is given away for free. 

Sure enough, in February, Perry named two new regents, Alex Cranberg and Wallace Hall, and reappointed a third, Brenda Pejovich, all of whom were friendly to the reform cause. Hall and Pejovich, who is on the board of the TPPF, have both made financial contributions to the organization, according to an August report in the Texas Observer; Cranberg was a recent transplant from Colorado with ties to Sandefer. The new board elected another Perry loyalist, Gene Powell, to be its chairman. Powell, a San Antonio real estate developer and technology entrepreneur, had first been appointed to the board by Perry in 2009, and he had helped lead the governor’s campaign finance team during the 2010 gubernatorial election. (Lest there be any confusion about the ideological leanings of the board, Powell sent Chancellor Cigarroa a note that February explaining that the new members “all have extensive experience in higher education, and all of them are hard core conservatives.”) 

Powell is a Weslaco native who enrolled at UT in 1964 to play football for Darrell K Royal and went on to earn a graduate degree in finance. As chairman, he quickly demonstrated a knack for inflaming the campus community. He wrote a draft memo that included various proposals, such as expanding enrollment by 10 percent a year over a four-year period, increasing the number of incoming students by nearly 18,000. He also praised the idea of a $10,000 degree, which had been introduced by Perry at his State of the State address just a few weeks earlier. The average cost of a four-year degree at a public institution in Texas is around $30,000—still a bargain by national standards—and many in the higher education community had seemed puzzled and caught off guard by Perry’s calling on them to slash the price by two thirds. (At the time, A&M Chancellor McKinney told the state Senate Finance Committee, “My answer is, I have no idea how.”) 

Powell, by contrast, approved of the idea, using an analogy that would come back to haunt him. Likening the low-cost degree to a Chevy Bel Air, as opposed to a Cadillac, he said, “There’s nothing wrong with a Bel Air–quality education.” No, there isn’t, unless your school happens to be in the business of making Cadillacs, which is presumably what many UT students are seeking. Powell later clarified his comments in a widely circulated email: “Austin delivers a great Cadillac and needs to continue to do so as our flagship. Several of our universities deliver very good Olds 98s and Buick LeSabres. But for tens of thousands of students, many who are first-generation college students, we need to offer within the System an excellent, no frills, low-cost undergraduate degree—or what I referred to as the basic Bel Air.” 

But Powell’s efforts to calm the waters had little effect on a faculty that was now in a state of near-constant alarm. Another early move of Powell’s was to bring in Rick O’Donnell, a reformer from Colorado with ties to Cranberg and Sandefer, to fill a newly created position, special adviser to the board, with a salary of $200,000. O’Donnell had previously been a senior research fellow at the TPPF, where he had written a paper in 2008 titled “Is Academic Research a Good Investment for Texas?” His conclusion, that research provided “few tangible benefits,” was taken as a signal to many faculty and staff members that the new board of regents would be openly hostile to supporting the type of environment in which they had grown accustomed to working. State senator Judith Zaffirini, who chairs the Senate Committee on Higher Education and has never been one to mince words, warned of an “anti-intellectual, anti-academic mind-set.”

UT Nation went ballistic at the news of O’Donnell’s report. The Texas Exes, the university’s alumni association, put out a statement on March 24, 2011, headlined “Call to action—we need your help to protect the mission and core values of the University of Texas.” The statement read, in part, “The UT System Board of Regents, led by Chairman Gene Powell, has hired consultants who have publicly stated the fundamental view that academic research is not valuable and that tenured faculty could be replaced by lower cost lecturers.”

The same day, Red McCombs sent a “Dear Gene” letter to the chairman. “I, along with others who identify with the University of Texas, have been getting too many calls and comments about the direction of the UT System,” wrote McCombs, who has also contributed to the TPPF. “While it is always healthy to have opinions of others and lively discussions about the direction of the University, it is not healthy to have the current swarm of challenges to our leadership policies. . . . I have great confidence in Governor Perry and the leadership of our regents and the direction of our System.”

Never doubt that McCombs has clout in this state. The day after his letter to Powell arrived, the board of regents responded to the university community with a letter addressed “Dear Friends.” 

“As alumni of the University of Texas,” it began, “you were no doubt alarmed by yesterday’s Texas Exes e-letter conveying that the mission and core values of The University are under attack . . . We hope first to assuage many of your concerns through this letter.” Was the board opposed to research? Oh, goodness no. How could anyone get such an idea? “Our view is that academic research is extremely valuable to society,” the regents wrote. “There is no desire on the part of the Board to diminish research. Academic research is one of the pillars of greatness of UT Austin. We respect it. We embrace it. There has not been, nor will there be, an attempt to exclude research in how we value faculty.” Would professors be graded based on whether they “make” or “lose” money for the university? Heavens, we would never dream of formulating such a plan. “We will not attempt to develop a report that indicates which individual professors are and are not generating revenue.”

The regents’ letter concluded: “There is no hidden agenda. There is absolutely no attempt to replace our distinguished tenured faculty with part-time, contract lecturers. Submitting ‘low-cost’ lecturers to teach instead of giving our students an opportunity to learn from, and train with, the best tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct faculty in the nation and world is not of interest to us.”

The regents had cut themselves a very large serving of humble pie. 

In the end, O’Donnell’s tenure was brief. Just six weeks after he was brought aboard, he was fired, apparently over a dispute about whether or not he was being prevented from gathering data on how exactly tuition dollars and taxpayer money were being spent. In a letter O’Donnell wrote to regent Hall at the time of his dismissal, he contended that his effort to obtain this data “was resisted at the highest levels.” He also accused the UT administration of “what some have called a well-orchestrated public relations campaign of breathless alarms.”

As the school year drew to a close, UT was in a state of major unrest. Chancellor Cigarroa did his best to reassure the professorate. In May, just before graduation, he presented a plan called the “Framework for Advancing Excellence” to the regents. It included several nods to the reformers—buzzwords like “accountability” and “productivity”—as well as ideas that had broad support at UT, such as improving graduation rates and increasing the potential of online learning. His plans seemed to placate the regents who had been most hostile to the university’s leaders, particularly Hall, Pejovich, and Cranberg. When Cigarroa finished his presentation, he received a standing ovation. 

It was a brilliant performance. Although he had addressed the areas of concern that the most conservative regents cared about, Cigarroa had also issued them a warning. “Universities simply cannot be micromanaged,” he said. “I trust my presidents . . . I need your support, and I need your confidence, and I need the authority to accomplish the important work ahead.” As the regents began to discuss the proposals, a motion of support for the chancellor was brought up. One of the veteran members of the board, Steve Hicks, seconded the motion, then asked for a roll-call vote to see where the other regents stood. “Now is the time to get fully behind our chancellor,” Hicks said. “Today we have the opportunity to begin earning back the trust of our constituency.” One after another, the regents went on record. The support for Cigarroa was unanimous.

Yet the era of good feelings was short-lived. On the same day that Cigarroa gave his presentation, Cranberg submitted a request for information concerning faculty members’ workloads, average grades for undergraduate courses, and student evaluations of teachers.

And as the summer wore on, O’Donnell’s parting shot arrived: a report he had prepared on faculty productivity at UT and A&M. One would have thought that after Powell’s Bel Air imbroglio the reformers would have decided to steer clear of metaphors altogether, but O’Donnell’s report compared professors’ course loads to the distribution of labor on a Himalayan trek, “where indigenous Sherpas carry the heavy loads so that Western tourists can simply enjoy the view.” He broke down the faculty into five groups: coasters, dodgers, pioneers, stars, and Sherpas. Dodgers were the least productive faculty, coasters were protected by tenure, and Sherpas were folks like me—adjuncts with professional experience who were brought in to teach specific classes and received a modest salary with no benefits.

O’Donnell’s research also produced a mountain of statistics that turned a lot of heads: for example, he argued, if coasters increased their teaching loads by 97 students a year, UT could save $573 million. Theoretically that may be true, but practically speaking, you can’t shift people around on a campus of 50,000 students and declare it as savings. It was clear that the battle over UT was far from over, but Powers would soon signal his intention to fight back.

As reformers kept the pressure on, Powers became increasingly outspoken on the subject of reform. He enlisted the dean of liberal arts to prepare a detailed rebuttal to the breakthrough solutions. He also directed the university to release its own study of the faculty’s productivity, the results of which were published in the online journal Inside Higher Ed. The results showed that the faculty were paid $318 million in salary from state funds but generated $658 million in revenue. Jane Wellman, the executive director of the Delta Project on Post-Secondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability, who has written extensively about how colleges spend money, said she found the analysis “credible.”

In September Powers gave his annual State of the University address and jumped to his faculty’s defense. “To paraphrase Lincoln,” Powers began, “we are a house divided about our fundamental mission and character . . . Our faculty work hard. They carry an average of thirty-three percent more teaching load credits than the UT System requires. And the old saw that senior faculty can’t be bothered teaching undergraduates is just not true. Within our thirteen colleges that teach undergraduates, eighty-six percent of our tenured and tenure-track faculty teach undergraduate courses. Papers and articles attacking them are replete with errors.”

If Powers sounded defensive, it could be because rumors had been circulating that Perry wanted him replaced. The two men had known each other for years. In 2005, when Powers was the dean of the law school, the board had to fill the vacancy left by outgoing president Larry Faulkner. James Huffines, a close friend of Perry’s, was the chairman of the regents, and he led the board in its selection of Powers. But with a constricting state budget, the question of funding would push them into confrontation that spring.

Funding for universities had always been a critical and contentious issue, but the landscape had changed radically after 2003. That was the year the Legislature voted to deregulate tuition and let universities establish their own sticker prices. Perry signed the bill, but it is said that he now regards his support for deregulation as the decision he most regrets. In the first year alone, UT voted to increase tuition by a whopping 38 percent. Yet the money that the state provides to the university has dried up, dropping to 14 percent of the school’s budget in 2010–2011 from 47 percent in 1984–1985.

It’s little wonder then that money would be the issue that would ultimately threaten the leadership of the university. For most of the 2011–2012 academic year, the reform battles remained in the background. Parts of Cigarroa’s plan were implemented, and for a time, the big debate was whether Mack Brown could breathe new life into the Longhorns football team.

This spring the battle exploded into the open. Perry called for a freeze in tuition, and, to no one’s surprise, the regents and Cigarroa agreed with him at their meeting on May 3. Powers had sought a 2.6 percent increase and had worked with people in the campus community, including students, to get it. In the end, the regents provided UT with the money to fund a medical school, but they also voted to freeze undergraduate tuition for in-state residents for two years. In explaining his support of the freeze, Cigarroa cited a 72 percent growth in tuition nationally over the previous ten years. To balance the lost tuition dollars, the school received a one-time infusion of funding from state oil revenues.

Powers praised the regents for their decision on the medical school, but in a May 10 post on his blog, “Tower Talk,” he wrote: “Nevertheless, I’m disappointed to report that the Board declined to adopt our tuition recommendation.” The problem, from Powers’s perspective, is that the regents’ plan provided only a one-time pot of money. What Powers sought was a train that had probably left the station: a stable, steady source of funding. 

His comments created a public rift between him and the board—and, by extension, Perry. In some circles, his comments were viewed as insubordination. Several days later I received information from a highly placed, extremely credible source within the system that the board was discussing firing Powers for his response to the tuition freeze. I published a blog post on the situation, which was picked up immediately by newspapers and blogs and turned into a major story. Cigarroa denied that the board had asked him to fire Powers. (I later confirmed with another knowledgeable source that my information was correct, but both sources asked not to have their names revealed given the sensitive nature of the proceedings.) 

As the story took flight, the UT faculty council called a meeting in the Main Building. Powers, in the meantime, sent out an email that read, “I love the University of Texas, and it’s an honor to serve as its president. I am deeply grateful for the support of our students, faculty, staff, and the thousands of members of the UT family. I will continue to work with the entire UT community to move the university forward.” On the day of the meeting, the room was so packed I was lucky to find a seat. Its purpose was to adopt a resolution of support for Powers, which was adopted with no nays and one abstention. A few students were present to demonstrate against the tuition increase that Powers had sought. Powers spoke to the faculty and was effusive with his thanks. He received an enthusiastic response.

UT settled into an uneasy calm. Some observers speculated that the support of Powers from the university community had caused the regents to back down. Then, on June 10, news from the University of Virginia—Thomas Jefferson’s university—reminded everyone in the world of higher education that the issues facing Texas schools were also being felt nationwide. UVA’s Board of Visitors had removed President Teresa Sullivan from office, in part because she had not moved forward with reforms quickly enough. Somewhere, I suspected, Jeff Sandefer was reading the news and saying to himself, “I told you so.” If UVA could not avoid the fate the reformers had prophesied for higher education in America, what university could? In the end, a deep level of support from the deans, faculty, and students forced the board’s hand, and Sullivan was reinstated. UVA had looked into the abyss and relented after widespread criticism and the threat of having talented faculty members stolen away to other top universities. Perhaps the UT regents saw what had happened in Virginia and decided that this was not the right time to jump off the cliff.

For a time, the armies appeared to have agreed to a truce. UT–Permian Basin had already announced that it would offer a $10,000 degree, which was met with broad approval in the region. UT-Arlington later followed suit. And one year after unveiling the Framework for Advancing Excellence, Cigarroa was receiving positive feedback. At the August 2012 regents meeting, where measures were approved to greatly expand UT’s online presence and to award performance bonuses to administrators in the UT System, Cigarroa’s plan was lavished with praise. “From what I understand,” Powell said, “the chancellor’s framework is quickly becoming a national model.”

The director of the TPPF’s Center for Higher Education, Thomas Lindsay, was less sanguine. “I think the framework needs to be reframed,” he told the Texas Tribune. Lindsay’s concern, one that comes straight out of Academically Adrift, is that Cigarroa’s plan fails to address the crucial question of how much students increase their knowledge from their freshman to their senior year. If Academically Adrift is right, it’s not much.

Bill Powers’s office on the fourth floor of the Main Building looks more like a nineteenth-century conservatory than a workplace. Shelves of books pack built-in cases of polished wood. Windows filter sunlight through leafy limbs. I had come to talk to him about the future of the university. Powers was dressed casually and exuded a relaxed confidence; he didn’t appear to me to be a man in the crosshairs, though a condition of our interview was that I would not ask about the safety of his job. He sat at one end of a long table, and I noticed that if he craned his neck, he could see the Capitol from a nearby window. “There are two ends of the spectrum that the great universities of the country are designed around,” he said. “Hire great faculty. Have great students. And have them pursue teaching and discovery.”

“There’s a narrative that critics adopt about higher education,” I replied. “That it costs too much is one common theme. That students come out burdened with debt is another. There are frequent complaints that they can’t get the classes they need, so they don’t graduate on time. But there’s also a sense that the goals of the university tend to run more toward power and prestige, while the goals of the parents are that their kids can graduate in four years and are able to get a job. UT is very high on the power and prestige scale,” I added, “but until recently, it hasn’t paid much attention to graduation rates. Is this something you wrestle with, these conflicting ambitions of the universities and the public?”

“I don’t know if ‘power’ and ‘prestige’ are the right words,” Powers said. “We teach students and we do research, we create knowledge, and we perform service to the community. How our students do when they graduate—the kinds of jobs they get, the kinds of leadership positions they go into both immediately and down the line—is a real test of what we do. I have five children, I’m a parent, I get the idea—people after college want to be out in the productive workforce. The issue is how to prepare them for that. And that takes both sides—the students and the parents have to have a game plan to navigate through the university, and we have to help them do it with course availability and advice.”

I asked him about the reformers’ criticism of research, including Sandefer’s argument that it produces few financial results. Powers sees it as essential to the future of the country. “Research and R&D in universities and in industry are going to determine what this country and what this state are like ten and twenty-five years from now,” Powers said. “That has always been true. Productivity depends upon discovering new ways of going about things, and that involves engineering, it involves the social sciences, it involves the humanities. If we don’t have a robust amount of our GDP going into preparing our population through education and our knowledge through research, we will fall behind economically.”

Inevitably, the interview with Powers turned to the subject of funding. Among the major national universities that UT regards as its peer group, he said, UT is tied for last. “It would take us something like three thousand dollars per student per year to do what?” he asked rhetorically. “Get us to the top? No. To get us to the median? No. To get us tied for eleventh. Now, take that funding model and look at the output—the kind of education our students get and the kind of research output, which is reflected in the reputation of our research programs—and we are the most productive institution in the country.” 

After the interview ended, I left Powers’s office and stepped outside, once again taking in the idyllic scene of students walking to class during the start of another semester. As I looked across the South Mall toward the Littlefield Fountain, and beyond toward the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion, which was hidden from view, I wondered what tests the campus would encounter in the next several years. Universities seem to be timeless, unchanging institutions, but in fact they are quite fragile. And there is no ambiguity about what UT is facing: the fundamental issue is that there are two conflicting views of governance. One is that of its president, who strives for a “university of the first class.” The other is the vision of the reform-minded regents, who want to make the university open to more students and more affordable. The problem is that these ideas are incompatible. One is elitist; the other populist. Somehow the two sides must find a way to reconcile their differences. If not, UT’s epitaph could recall the famous pronouncement of president emeritus Peter Flawn, who once said, “It takes fifty years or more to build a great university, but it only takes a year or two to tear it down.”