Friday, May 20, 2011

Reforming Higher-Ed in Texas: High Priests of Academia v. Animal Science Majors?

Michael Sullivan, blogging at EmpowerTexans, takes "the high priests of academia -- the faculty senates, the administrators, the ivory tower crowd" to task for the substance and style of their (our?) opposition to higher education reforms.
Despite being public institutions, underwritten by taxpayers, students and parents, and enjoying the sovereign status as entities of the state, transparency is all but nonexistent once dollars enter the hallowed grounds of our major universities....
At a minimum, the higher ed establishment is exuding a nasty form of elitism that has little place in the body politic. For example, State Senate Higher Education Committee chairwoman Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) recently slammed Gov. Rick Perry for wanting more transparency and accountability brought to bear in higher education.
"Rick Perry doesn’t understand higher education,” she said in a published interview. “He doesn’t have a graduate degree, and he graduated a long time ago with a major in something like agriculture. I have a PhD, so I understand the value of research and teaching. He just doesn’t understand it."
That’s elitism defined. Since more than half of taxpayers don't even have a bachelors' degree, Sen. Zaffirini would obviously be even more dismissive of the public's right to know how their dollars are being utilized.
When it's being done on or with the taxpayers' dime, we should have very strict accountability and transparency. We should know how much professors are making, how many students they are educating, and what value the research they pursue provides. Frankly, “just-pay-the-bill-and-shut-up” is not a very attractive public policy, but one all too often embraced by the ivory tower crowd.
He's got a point. Two actually.

Substantively, most of the leadership and faculty at Texas's public universities are defending a status quo that is difficult to defend. While it is my belief that Texas's public universities provide important educational and economic benefits to the state and that, by and large, the public funds contributed to the state's universities are used efficiently and effectively, it is incumbent on the state's public universities to demonstrate the truth of these statements and to be responsive to legitimate questions about how well the universities are performing their public missions and using public resources.

This does not mean that state universities should necessarily embrace external pressures to reform in general or the Texas Public Policy Foundation's proposed "Breakthrough Solutions" in particular. Indeed, I have been critical of the many of the specific proposals included in the Breakthrough Solutions (see here, here, here, and here), though I am supportive of their stated aims of improved undergraduate education, reduced student costs, and increased efficiency in the use of public resources. It does, however, suggest that state universities responses to the current round of external criticisms has been off base. Rather than working to preserve the current system, universities should be working to generate alternative proposals to improve transparency, costs, and efficiency.

[Having said that, all of the information that Sullivan wants universities to disclose is already public. Anyone who cared to know could, for example, look-up my salary here and find out the number of courses and students I have taught (and the grades I awarded in each of those classes) here. You can also find my CV and syllabi here. These are already publicly available, so any member of the public, any advocacy group, or any part of the state government with internet access already has all the information they are likely to need to evaluate the "efficiency" of my research and teaching. The same bits of information are available for all faculty members at Texas A&M, and, I presume, all other state universities. It would take some work to compile and cross-reference the data, but they are all there for the taking. So, it is a bit misleading to say that A&M or other state universities are not transparent to a fairly large degree.]

Stylistically, Sullivan is also correct to point out that many in Texas higher education, as well as some of its supporters, have been unreasonably dismissive of criticisms of the state's university systems and those who have proposed reforms. One need not have a Ph.D. to understand higher education. These kinds of ad hominem criticisms of  the Board of Regents and other reform-minded bodies and institutions are not helpful. Dismissing Governor Perry because he studied animal science (an important and rigorous academic program here at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University, as you might imagine) or the Board of Regents because its members have fewer graduate degrees, on average, than other university governing boards is unfair, unhelpful, and wrong-headed. Doing so simply reinforce the caricature of unresponsive and out-of-touch academia and alienates many potential supporters in government and the public.

Instead, those of us inside higher education and our supporters should start from a presumption that those proposing to reform public colleges and universities in Texas have good intentions and bring a useful and different perspective to the table. In the same way that academic departments value external reviewers' evaluations of their performance, universities should value feedback from the public and those who are interested in improving higher education.

By the same token, of course, members of the Board of Regents, legislators, and interest groups should take the experience and insights of those of in higher education seriously and incorporate constructive feedback into proposals for reform. It is no more helpful to shake a finger at "the high priests of academia" than to make snarky comments about studying animal science. Those who are serious about reforming higher education in Texas should make a serious effort to engage and cooperate with university faculties and administrators rather than adopt an adversarial posture.

Higher education and higher education reform need not be battles between high priests of academia and animal science majors. There is a lot of common ground between those inside the states universities and those who seek to update and enhance our teaching and research practices. Improving education, reducing costs, and increasing efficiency, though, will only be achieved through a cooperative effort to reach these goals. I am certainly no hippy, and I don't expect professors and reforms to resolve their differences with group hugs and team-building exercises, but I hope it is not too much to ask everyone to calm down a little, and work together.

As a first step, perhaps the major Texas university systems, our alumni associations, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and representatives of the state's business community could form some sort of joint public-private task force to evaluate the state of higher education in Texas and propose a set of reforms to improve teaching, costs, and efficiency drawing on the combined expertise and experience of all these groups? The evaluation component of the commission's mandate could help identify the more troublesome aspects of higher education in the state as well as the areas in which improvements are most feasible. Using this information, it could then craft targeted solutions to address the identified problems. This is a vastly more systematic approach than using the TPPF's Breakthrough Solutions as the baseline for continuing discussions of higher education. Also, since this approach begins from a premise of cooperative input from various stakeholders in higher education, it seems likely that such a commissions proposals would be much more likely to be consistently adopted and implemented across the state's university systems than we can expect from the systems' varying and idiosyncratic responses to the Breakthrough Solutions.

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