Students, Parents and Taxpayers First – By Rick O’Donnell
Having spent many years in public service, advancing K-12 education accountability, tax relief, higher education reform and running for Congress, one lesson I’ve learned is you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
If you had asked me before I started as Special Advisor to the University of Texas Board of Regents what the forces of the status quo might have disliked, the answer would have been the fact that, as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, I led the implementation of the College Opportunity Fund, which created the nation’s first higher education vouchers. For some people the mere mention of the V word brings a negative reaction.
The Texas Tribune reported accurately, however, that my hiring “sparked an uproar that, in the words of House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, ‘shook the foundations of UT.’” Hardly anyone ever mentioned vouchers, so the question is, what is it that caused this earthquake?
The First Iron Triangle
Among the reasons I was excited to serve the regents is my belief that this current board understands that higher education is undergoing disruptive innovation and that they are eager to position all UT System campuses to succeed in breaking what is often referred to in higher education as the iron triangle. As I wrote for the regents at the time:
The University of Texas System has a fundamental choice in how it responds to the pressures facing higher education: merely react and possibly be forced to make decisions that compromise our mission or be proactive and embrace the future, with a vision of being the nation’s number one public university system for the 21st century, including having the top flagship public research university in America. To be proactive will require that the U. T. System and campus leadership, management and faculty – and how it is organized and operated – embrace a culture that believes it is possible to accomplish three goals simultaneously:
- strengthen the quality of student learning and research excellence;
- expand access to serve more students; and
- reduce costs to be more affordable to students and taxpayers.
Too often many in higher education have believed these goals to be contradictory – more access requires more money or lower standards; higher quality means more limited access or more money; lower costs mean less quality or enrollment caps. The Regents’ Task Force on University Excellence and Productivity will explore how to break this iron triangle and instead embrace the implementation of improved quality, expanded access and lower costs.
Breaking this iron triangle is not an easy task. It requires courageous leadership, fundamental changes in how institutions operate and, ultimately, a shift in mindsets among administrators and faculty as to what makes for a premier public research university.
Unfortunately, before the regents or I had taken any actions beyond setting up two task forces to begin to look into how to break this iron triangle, we ran smack dab into a different one.
As is often the case in public life, there is the story you see in the media and then the real story. Almost from the day I started at UT, the media reported that a think tank white paper of mine that took a hard look at the economic return of taxpayer investments in university research was the tremor that started the foundations shaking. But as I detail in this letter, that white paper represented only a slice of life and a fraction of my views on university research – and it was made clear by regents and me that they had no intention of changing UT’s mission as a premier public research university (a change I don’t and never supported).
A three-year-old think tank white paper wouldn’t be enough to shake the Texas flagship to its foundations. What wasn’t really being reported in the media is that regents, as is their fiduciary responsibility, had begun to ask for data on the performance of faculty and other parts of the university. Among some powerful administrators and faculty was a tremendous fear that the regents, or me on their behalf, were going to perform a “red and black study” that looked at the profit and loss to the university of each faculty member, similar to one done by Texas A&M. And while I applaud A&M for bringing transparency to faculty performance by publishing this data, in my judgment their analysis wasn’t going to be useful as either an analytical or management tool at UT.
Yet no matter how many times I or regents said there was absolutely no intention of doing a red and black study, we received tremendous push back at every turn regarding the collection of the data, who would have access to it, and how it would be analyzed. Why? I believe some resisted the collection and analysis of faculty performance data because they knew it would reveal in stark numbers what many have suspected for a long time: there is a group of highly privileged faculty within the university living on lifetime sinecures with extremely light workloads, very comfortable six-figure salaries, months of vacation each year and costing students and taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. See Higher Education’s Faculty Productivity Gap for an analysis of what the data reveals.
In the midst of a statewide controversy, I answered a regent’s question as to what I thought was the cause of the earthquake. I stand by what I said at the time, that most of the fear mongering was a diversion from the fact that some very senior administrators did not want faculty performance data to be made public. And as this letter from the chairman of the board of regents makes clear, performance certainly wasn’t the issue.
Yet that alone can’t explain what happened. The deeper answer lies not in the data per se, but in the fact that the regents even asked for the data – or, more accurately, that the regents decided to actually govern the university, as is their constitutional, fiduciary and moral responsibility.
The Second Iron Triangle
For all those watching this across the nation, let me be clear that what happened isn’t unique to Texas. It is a fundamental question of who runs universities. Is it the legislature, the administration and faculty, or the board of Regents who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate?
I was first introduced to the theory of the iron triangle as an undergraduate history/political science major and have seen it many times in public life, particularly when I served as executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Affairs. It is the idea that a government agency, special interest groups and legislators are in cahoots to serve their own interests and not necessarily that of the public. “An often-used example of the term is with reference to the military-industrial complex, with Congress (and the House and Senate Committees on Armed Services), defense contractors, and the U.S. Department of Defense forming the iron triangle.”
For decades in American higher education, there has been iron triangle linking (1) the higher education committee members in the legislature to (2) the education special interest groups in the community, who are often wealthy donors and powerful alumni or trade associations representing faculty (AAUP) or administrators (AAU) and, (3) the faculty and administration inside the university.
The iron triangle tends to work like this: The faculty wants to be left alone to teach and research what interests them (not necessarily what most prepares students for productive careers and meaningful lives) and administrators (who generally come from the faculty) live in fear of a vote of no-confidence from the faculty, so they focus on raising money and the institution’s prestige. Alumni and wealthy donors want to see their name on endowed chairs and buildings, as well as boost prestige, so they are happy to back the agenda of administrators. Legislators, meanwhile, are eager to have universities expand in their districts as economic development programs, eventually get buildings named after themselves and love tickets to bowl games.
This iron triangle almost dares regents to actually govern their university. Most often, across the country and not just in Texas, regents are quickly co-opted and make peace. But sometimes a regent or a legislator will have a different idea on what higher education needs than what the iron triangle thinks is best (which is just leave us alone and give us more money). That’s when higher education pushes back, often hard.
Last year, when Texas A&M took the important step of bringing transparency to faculty performance by publishing detailed data on faculty productivity, the American Association of Universities, which represents the interests of university presidents, quickly dashed off a letter telling A&M it had better stop. Imagine, a trade association telling a university how it should or shouldn’t evaluate its own faculty’s performance.
This year, when it was clear that there were now UT regents who wanted to ask hard questions on how the university could better serve students and taxpayers, the iron triangle pushed back again, this time swiftly and often brutally. Alumni groups and major donors were spurred to loudly and publicly bash the regents. In maybe the most revealing insight into the iron triangle at work, the chair of the senate higher education committee actually complained that the regents weren’t merely cheerleaders:
In the legislature, we’re used to dealing with regents who love their universities, who bleed orange or red or whatever their colors. These new regents appointed by Perry don’t seem to have any school spirit. They seem suspicious and cynical. They haven’t taken time to understand what the status quo is; they just want to change it. 
What’s amazing about this statement is that all the regents had done was appoint task forces, composed largely of themselves and campus presidents, to study how the university could try to break the other iron triangle by serving more students with a higher quality education at a more affordable cost. In the public or private sector, responsible board members study performance data and ask tough questions, make policies, and hire and fire senior leadership – they don’t just go along to get along or act as rubber stamps.
Eye of the storm
While my mission at UT was to try to help break the typical higher ed iron triangle of costs, access and quality, I soon found myself standing right in the middle of the other iron triangle of administrators, special interests and legislators, taking incoming fire. That’s ok, it’s what happen sometimes to those who are fighting an entrenched status quo.
Echoing the words of Margaret Thatcher, the problem those who enjoy enormous privileges at taxpayer expense have is that they must win every time, but those who want to put students, parents and taxpayers first only have to win once.
As I relate in these two short video interviews, I believe we’ve actually won, because faculty performance data is now public and as students, parents and taxpayers see what it shows about costs and productivity, they will succeed in getting needed reforms put in place. This process has already started because the conversation in Texas, even among the members of the second iron triangle, is now squarely on how we get more bang for our buck by breaking the first iron triangle.
- Perry’s Office Criticizes UT Administration’s Defense of Status Quo (timesoftexas.com)
- McKinney Denies he Was Pushed Out By A&M Regents (timesoftexas.com)
- UT Controversy – Chairman Powell says, Data is Needed to Help Regents Be Good Stewards of Taxpayer Dollars (timesoftexas.com)
- Let the Open Debate on Higher Education Flourish (timesoftexas.com)
- Former UT adviser O’Donnell Says Zaffirini Mounted a Campaign to Demonize the Regents (timesoftexas.com)
- A&M Administrators, Faculty Discuss ‘seven solutions’ (timesoftexas.com)
- Texas A&M System Regents Say TPPF Not at Fault For McKinney Departure (timesoftexas.com)
- UT Board Chairman Disputes Fired Official’s Account (timesoftexas.com)
- Zaffirini Attacks UT Regent Alex Cranberg for “Facilitating Informed Decision-Making (timesoftexas.com)
- “Dream Team Coalition” Steps Up Smear Campaign Againts Regent Chair Gene Powell (timesoftexas.com)