Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Texas A&M and the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough" Solutions, Part I

The Texas Tribune reports that Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities---an invitation only association of leading research universities in the United States and Canada---sent a letter last fall to Mike McKinney, Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, advising him to resist carrying out reforms supported by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank with close ties to Governor Rick Perry and several members of the A&M System's Board of Regents.  
In his letter... Berdahl urges McKinney to resist "ill-conceived calls for 'reform,'" ...Berdahl suggests that TPPF's seven proposed "solutions" for higher education, which include splitting research and teaching budgets, "demonstrates little or no understanding of the nature of graduate education."

He wrote, "...[S]eparating research from teaching and oversimplifying the evaluation of faculty does violence to the values that have produced the American universities that are envied and emulated across the globe. Moreover, these proposals directly contradict Texas' stated goal of building more research universities."
The Tribune further reports that McKinney responded to the AAU letter by defending the reforms already undertaken by the A&M system and its scholarly productivity.
In November, McKinney responded with a letter of his own, also just obtained by the Tribune, that opens, "I find it to be slightly ironic for you to send me a missive about research without first seeking to better understand the efforts and the objectives of the Texas A&M System." McKinney notes that "no one with any knowledge of the data or with any authority" ever suggested it be taken into account when considering faculty compensation. "I would welcome the opportunity to host you on a visit to our main campus in College Station," he concluded. "I know that you will be pleased and perhaps surprised by the scholarly works we produce on a daily basis."
Here are the seven "Breakthrough Solutions" proposed by TPPF:
1. Measure teaching efficiency and effectiveness.

2. Publicly recognize and reward extraordinary teachers.
3. Split research and teaching budgets to encourage excellence in both.

4. Require evidence of teaching skill for tenure.

5. Use “results-based” contracts with students to measure quality.

6. Put state funding directly in the hands of students.

7. Create results-based accrediting alternatives.
(A more complete description of each item is provided here.)

I admit that I am puzzled by the tenor and pitch of debate over these proposed reforms (from both sides).  These are serious ideas with a serious goal: to ensure that public resources for higher education are supporting high quality undergraduate teaching.  Neither reflexive criticism of the proposed reforms (or, more properly, ideas for proposed reforms) nor ignoring the legitimate concerns of those with some expertise and experience in higher education serves Texas or Texas A&M.  Likewise, neither an ornery attachment to the status quo nor a damn-the-torpedoes reform effort is likely to move the state or the university forward. 

I have in mind a three or four part set of posts on the specific reforms and some ideas for improving and implementing them, but I have a few general comments that I think are important to set out at the start.

First, Texas A&M is a public, land grant institution.  Serving Texas and educating Texans are critical elements, indeed the critical elements, of the university's mission.  Ensuring that public resources effectively serve these goals is an important task.  The propriety of creating tools to assess the extent to which the public mission of a public university is being achieved and structuring incentives within a public university to enhance the performance of its public duties are unassailable in principle, though, reasonable people may have serious disagreements about how these assessments and incentives should be undertaken and implemented in practice.

Second, I disagree with two implicit premises of TPPF's proposed reforms---one, as it applies to Texas A&M and the other as it applies to scholarly research more generally.

With respect to Texas A&M, the TPPF seems to be under the impression that undergraduate teaching is not important to individual faculty or to the institution.  This is untrue.  Individual members of the faculty---at least as far as I can observe---are excellent teachers in general, and they work very hard to design courses that offer students the chance to learn valuable skills and important information that will serve their professional, civic, and personal development.  Unless I am seriously mistaken, most any objective measurement of student learning or student satisfaction at Texas A&M is likely to indicate that the university is providing an education on par (at least) with the world's other top colleges and universities.

Indeed, there is ample evidence that Texas A&M is doing a great job of adding value to our students and the public sphere.  For example, the Wall Street Journal ranks Texas A&M as the second best university in the nation in terms of preparing students for employment (based on a survey of professional recruiters), and  Washington Monthly ranks Texas A&M second in the nation in terms of the university's service to the nation and the community (based on students' participation in ROTC, the Peace Corps, and community service)---not to mention Texas A&M's strong performance in reputation-based rankings like those reported by the NRC and US News and World Report.

With respect to scholarly research more generally, the TPPF's proposed reforms are hard to divorce from its publication of claims that academic research offers few tangible benefits to Texas.  As such, it is easy to read the "Breakthrough Reforms" as an effort to undermine scholarship rather than enhance teaching.  To the extent that this is accurate, the TPPF's position stands in stark contrast to the bulk of evidence about the critical role of research universities in generating economic growth in general and in catalyzing it in specific locations.  Indeed, Richard Florida, one of the world's leading authorities on the geography of economic development, writes:
Research universities increasingly function as a key hub institution of the knowledge economy – from Stanford University’s role in Silicon Valley to MIT’s role in greater Boston’s Route 128 high-technology complex, from the University of Texas in Austin to the rise of the North Carolina Research Triangle, not to mention Carnegie Mellon’s role in Pittsburgh’s regeneration.
It is difficult to read analyses of the relationship between the presence of research universities and patterns of economic development without concluding that Texas's prominent high-tech and creative economies are not intimately related to the state's outstanding public university systems.

Research universities support regional economic development in several ways.  Most directly, academic research translates into technologies and innovations in business practices that can be fed into private enterprise.  Outstanding public universities (and public education more generally) are also magnets for world-class professional talent in the private sector.  Most importantly, though least directly, universities are incubators of creativity.

Michael Dell sums up the relationship between his company and UT-Austin in the school's 2003 commencement address:
Though I left UT prior to the achievement that you’re all celebrating, this school has been a big part of my life in many ways: as a source of guidance and counsel for a young start-up company, as a constant resource of talent and support for a growing and established business, and as the foundation for a dream that this community has helped to build. 
Steve Jobs credits an esoteric course he took at Reed College with one of the major innovations of Macintosh desktop computing:
I decided to take a calligraphy class... I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them.
The expertise of research faculty can nurture the budding business ambitions of their students (and their dropouts).  Obscure research in typography (or literature, or psychology, or, or, or) can inspire critical business innovations.  By bringing creative (i.e. actively researching) faculty together from an array of fields---including humanities and social sciences with less direct links to private enterprise---into close geographical proximity, universities create opportunities for people inside and outside the university proper to learn, connect, and create something new. Universities are an important  part of the intellectual infrastructure for entrepreneurship and creative enterprise, which are increasingly the principal sources of economic growth, precisely because of their engagement with research rather than in spite of it.

Teaching, in the broadest sense, is enhanced by encouraging research and exposure to research in the undergraduate classroom and the larger community.  The key is to maximize the link between research and teaching and to expand the teaching platform from the lecture hall to the larger community.  Indeed, that is the premise that motivates my (still developing) thoughts about making the Breakthrough Reforms work most effectively. 

With all that in mind, I have in mind a (loose) plan to write about Reforms 1, 2, and 4 as a group, 3 and 5 together, and 6 and 7 in separate, shorter posts over the next couple weeks as time permits.

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