To support Gov. Perry on education, Chairman Powell wants to develop a $10,000 four-year degree, increase undergraduate enrollment by 10 % a year and cut tuition in half.
Inefficient professors are the targets in Gov. Rick Perry‘s plan to reform higher education
By Katherine Mangan
Depending on whom you talk to in Texas these days, college professors are either elitist intellectuals oblivious to the financial struggles of their students or hard-working teachers and researchers being pressured to churn out graduates like widgets on a production line.
And no matter where you fall in this increasingly divisive debate, there’s an interest group armed with colorful sound bites, well-heeled supporters, and a conviction that the future of higher education here hangs in the balance.
In recent weeks, the rhetoric of the players in this statewide power struggle has escalated to match the intensity of the blistering Texas heat. Students, alumni, and faculty members have weighed in, along with new coalitions consisting of former university presidents, chancellors, regents, and business leaders.
The political fight largely centers on a series of reforms dubbed the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” pushed by Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin.
The proposals, which are based on the premise that professors spend too much time on esoteric research and not enough time in the classroom, would separate teaching and research budgets, give professors pay raises based on student evaluations, and treat students as customers.
The debate intensified this spring after a series of controversial comments and actions by Gene Powell, chairman of the University of Texas system’s Board of Regents.
In addition to expressing support for the governor’s call to develop a $10,000, four-year degree, he floated the idea of increasing undergraduate enrollment at the flagship campus by 10 percent a year for four years and cutting tuition in half.
And in March, Mr. Powell hired Rick O’Donnell, a former fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, as a $200,000-a- year special adviser to the university’s governing board. Mr. O’Donnell was fired six weeks later after complaining that university officials were suppressing data on how much professors earned, how many students they taught, and how much grant money they received.
Last month the system reached a $70,000 settlement with Mr. O’Donnell, a decision that Barry D. Burgdorf, vice chancellor and general counsel for the university system, said was based on “pure and simple economics” because Mr. O’Donnell had made it clear that he planned to sue the system.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat who chairs the state’s Senate Higher Education Committee, says that rather than cooling the controversy, the settlement fanned the flames when the former adviser came out swinging, accusing university officials of orchestrating a smear campaign against him and the regents who supported his efforts to gather faculty-productivity data, which were eventually published.
“Higher-education administrators and faculty generally like to be left alone,” Mr. O’Donnell said in an interview last month. “These are people who enjoy enormous privileges at taxpayer expense, and someone wants to question how much that costs and what we’re getting in response.”
Senator Zaffirini says the policy foundation and Jeff Sandefer—a board member who wrote the “breakthrough solutions” it promotes —are the ones hiding from public scrutiny. She co-chairs a new legislative oversight committee on higher education.
“They talk about transparency,” she says, “but meanwhile, they’re working with the governor behind closed doors in an attempt to hijack the higher-education agenda.” Mr. Sandefer and foundation executives deny that accusation, and Mr. Perry’s office did not reply to a request for comment last month.
Senator Zaffirini adds that the foundation’s actions could harm the efforts of seven “emerging research universities” to gain “tier one” status.
David Guenthner, a spokesman for the public-policy foundation, scoffs at that idea. “Barely one in five faculty members is involved in research that relates to the university’s tier-one status,” he says. Taxpayers deserve to know why many professors teach less than a full load and “where their research is being published, how many people are reading it, how much is it being cited, or is it, for lack of a better term, a publication for the sake of a publication—or worse, a vanity project?” Read more…