Turmoil in Texas Over Higher Ed Reforms
Recent higher education reform efforts in Texas, developed by the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and championed by Governor Rick Perry, have many wondering how much damage might be done to one of the country’s largest and best public university systems.
The ‘solutions‘ proposed by TPPF, and marketed heavily by board member and major Rick Perry campaign donor Jeff Sandefer, would dramatically shift even the state’s top research campuses away from research and toward teaching. They cast the student in the role of consumer, basing professor pay and tenure decisions primarily on teaching evaluations, replacing state support to institutions with direct grants to students, creating contracts between students and institutions, and maintaining a distinct line between teaching and research activities and funding.
Mike McKinney, Texas A&M Chancellor and former Rick Perry chief of staff, has already drawn national criticism for creating and publishing a ‘balance sheet‘ that measured the revenue generation of each individual faculty member based on salary, teaching, and grant awards. This exercise, promoted by the Governor and TPPF, resulted in a swift rebuke from the Association of American Universities (AAU).
Next, Governor Perry announced that he wanted institutions to create a BA degree that would cost only $10,000 (compared to the current average cost of over $31,000 at Texas public universities). Widespread skepticism of the ability to create a quality degree that would cost so little did not stop the state’s Higher Education Commissioner from embracing the idea.
Then, a senior fellow at TPPF was given a controversial $200,000 consulting position with the UT System. His appointment lasted 50 days before the concerns of the public, legislators and institutions led to his dismissal.
Now, UT System regents’ chairman Gene Powell has circulated a memo that calls for increasing UT enrollment by 10 percent per year for four years and halving tuition at the same time, moves he claims would make UT the best public institution in the country. These recommendations are in direct opposition to a blue ribbon panel that recommended enrollment at UT Austin be reduced to improve the quality of the undergraduate education there. Judith Zaffarini, chairwoman of the state’s Senate Higher Education Committee, has issued sharp criticism of Powell’s suggestions, saying that his goals are “mutually exclusive” and “detrimental to the pursuit of excellence.”
As this battle rages, others in Texas are weighing in against the reforms, including alumni and university boosters. Meanwhile, all of higher education is watching to see if Texas will allow one of the nation’s top public institutions, UT Austin, be so radically undermined.