Texas A&M: There’s room for improvements
By GLENN DOWLING Special to The Eagle
Recent criticism leveled at the A&M Board of Regents by former A&M President Ray Bowen and loyal supporter Jon Hagler was largely justified and supported by most informed and interested readers. Clearly, political forces were at the heart of tensions between the system chancellor and A&M president which created unrest and angst within the ranks of the A&M faculty. Be that as it may, to label this recurring debate as only “politics” would overlook some important realities that contributed to the call for greater efficiencies and accountability.
• Oversight — The Board of Regents of The Texas A&M University System has provided effective oversight at crucial junctures in the life and history of Texas A&M. At other times, actions by a few, perhaps well-intended, regents negatively have impacted the university.
During this period of tightening budgets and crucial decisions, the board has the opportunity to implement and support sound educational practices for the wise allocation of resources. Setting goals and soliciting faculty input would be more productive as opposed to “importing” and advocating unconventional techniques for achieving efficiencies.
• University administration — High turnover at the top has plagued A&M. The lack of continuity and loss of “institutional memory” often results in freewheeling growth in financially favorable times. Top administrative personnel budgets have almost tripled in real dollars since 1982, while student enrollment has increased 42.5 percent. Tuition and fees increased almost seven fold (in real dollars) in the same period — caused mostly, but not entirely, by reductions in state support.
• Faculty contributions — Although faculty members are not the problem, they often become the chief target of scrutiny when resources are limited. Overall, A&M faculties are teaching slightly above the state average. Teaching loads vary significantly among colleges and within departments, however. Three commonly used measures of teaching loads — weekly contact hours, semester credit hours and classes taught per semester — are neither well understood nor highly regarded by regents, legislators and the general public.
None of these measures reflect the discipline and level (undergraduate, master’s or doctoral) of courses and, alone, are not effective measures of teaching. Therein lies the ambiguities and primary source of criticism.
• Management information — There is a plethora, an “overload,” of management information available to administrators and regents.
This deluge of information, without proper briefing and context, can become incomprehensible. Accountability reports are abounding with facts, yet contain little verbiage explaining trends, excesses and under-performance. Operating budgets are now so voluminous and convoluted that only trained staff can fully decipher their content.
The university administration has information and the tools to evaluate teaching loads among colleges and departments to achieve greater parity. It further should undertake an intensive review of the university’s corporate structure with the goal to consolidate, trim and curtail excesses.
The Board of Regents, by focusing on its central role of providing oversight and direction, should require concise and introspective executive summaries. It should develop institution-specific goals and performance indicators and require annual face-to-face accountability sessions to ensure goals are met and effectiveness achieved. Further, faculty should launch an intensive self-study to develop a sound set of benchmarks for teaching, research and service. This should be supported by an effective evaluation system, and a far-reaching communications program to better inform the Board of Regents, the Legislature and the general public.
Although the faculty is not the problem, the faculty can be a big part of the solution.
•Glenn Dowling is a retired associate vice chancellor of The Texas A&M University System. He currently is a higher education consultant.
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