April 18, 2011
Dear Regent Hall:
Per your request, here are my views of the continuing discussions in the media and elsewhere regarding the Regents’ task forces and my work to support them.
As you know, I was hired six weeks ago to serve as Special Advisor to the Board of Regents. I accepted this role because I believed that my previous experience as head of higher education for the State of Colorado would allow me to assist the Regents as they seek answers to (1) how to advance excellence to ensure that more Texas students graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to find a job in the 21st century economy, (2) how to serve more students by expanding access to the many educational assets of the U.T. System, and (3) how to encourage innovation in policy, program and resource management at every level to make a four-year college education more affordable. Every day, even after subsequently being informed of a new title and reporting structure, my work has been focused on following-up on these vital questions that you and other Regents are actively
Even though I have become a part of the story, these are the issues that take up most my time on a 24/7 basis. In my experience in public life, it often happens that attention to big issues and big ideas often get deflected to personalities or institutional squabbles (e.g., turf wars). It is unfortunate but true. But I am not deflected from the real issues, which do not revolve around personalities or politics. The real story is how massive shifts – demographic, financial, technological and attitudinal – are transforming the higher education landscape across America. There is also the question of the role of competitive proprietary institutions providing post-secondary degrees and what that means for state-supported institutions.
I have always taken the view that it is the responsibility of leaders to define reality. That comes first, before you can do anything. While some opinion leaders are allowing their attention to be deflected from the real issues, the facts remain: Almost every state continues a long-term decline in taxpayer funding for colleges and universities. Students and parents cannot afford another tuition increase, and it’s wrong to saddle graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. More low-income and first-generation students want to attend college. Employers continue to raise concerns about the quality of education students receive. New technologies are transforming how students learn and teachers teach, but it is not clear we are taking full advantage of these assets that can help us increase access, improve quality, and reduce per-student costs.
These massive shifts coupled with these facts make this a critical time to ensure all nine of our academic campuses are deploying the latest learning technologies and modern management techniques. The question is, how will our universities thrive in this rapidly changing landscape and make more affordable the very best learning in America, making Texas first for students and employers?
Unfortunately, in the last few weeks, that central question has been lost in a torrent of personal and political attacks, which continue to escalate.
Some have attacked white papers I wrote, which were intended to spur a dialogue on how to measure the return of taxpayer dollars invested in research. As we’ve previously discussed, the role of a think tank white paper is to spur debate, while the role of a leader in government is to act – as I did in Colorado where my track record as a leader who understands and values research, including basic research, was crystal clear, including the high value I place on the many important roles of research universities.
Recently it was discovered that one of my white papers suffered from a production snafu the result of which caused problems within the text and footnotes. The think tank that published the paper has acknowledged the errors occurred during their publication process. I have also noted that this and all my whitepapers are the result of collaborative projects where many hands touch them during the research, writing, editing and publishing phases. So there are many opportunities for error. Still, because I was the project leader and because my name is on the piece I accept ultimate responsibility. I have no doubt that those who want to deny or mute the need for higher education reform are busy pouring over the dozens of advocacy pieces I have published in my career, using a fine tooth comb to identify areas where I could have been more precise with footnotes, quotations and other items. It seems that some want to retroactively apply the standards of a scholar and the academy to work I did years ago, yet none of my writings were for academic journals and I am not a scholar, and I have never claimed to be; I am an average citizen who cares deeply about improving higher education, and I have expressed those views in public many times – in writing, while running for Congress, in testimony before the state legislature.
Errors are part of life…even professional life. That’s why academic books have “errata” pages and newspapers publish “retractions” when inadvertent errors occur. I have acknowledged “errata” and offered retraction and correction. Notwithstanding, those who want to delay and deflect are unwilling to move on. Instead, taxpayer money is now being wasted on a review of this issue, forcing me to hire an attorney to defend myself. I think students, parents and taxpayers care far more about reforms and innovations that can expand educational opportunities at an affordable price than they do about digging into reasons that admitted errata crept into a report from a project years ago.
Things I have written and said have been attacked. My associations with former colleagues and organizations have come under intense scrutiny. One of the core principles of our universities is the idea of free inquiry – including the freedom to ask tough questions. I have simply exercised that same freedom of inquiry as I work to assist the task forces in trying to find answers to the questions Regents are asking. And the questions being asked are pretty fundamental – e.g., how to strengthen our universities to better serve students, parents, economic competitiveness and the pursuit of knowledge and discovery.
So, why the uproar? How is it that someone who has been on the job just 49 days, with no decision- making authority, has become an object of such scorn and caused such tumult that, in the words of the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, it “shook the foundations of UT”?
Here’s my answer. Immediately upon starting my new job, on your behalf and that of the other Regents, I began to ask for data that would inform the task force members on how student tuition dollars and taxpayer money were being spent. Despite the fact that these data belong to the public, that by law it should be available to every citizen (and certainly to the Regents), and that the Regents governing the University of Texas are duty bound to ask for these data and had done so, the release of such data was resisted at the highest levels of the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas System.
Rather than release these data, we were met with what some have called a well-orchestrated public relations campaign of breathless alarms, much like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Generous donors and loyal alumni have been understandably (and needlessly) disturbed by dire warnings about a “loss of prestige” and “destroying research.” But given that the Regents are simply exercising their fiduciary responsibility to ask questions and request data about faculty productivity, I believe these were false alarms, meant to divert attention away from questions about how tuition and taxpayer money are being spent and to delay reforms that might arise out of the Regents’ task forces.
If there has been any damage to the reputation of the University of Texas, it has not come from the Regents’ task forces or my work for them. Any damage that has occurred must be laid at the feet of those who have diverted attention to secondary issues and then encouraged the uproar. Whether university norms were violated with regard to spreading false rumors or if there was the improper use of political influence by university employees, as some have pointed out to me may be the case, I leave to others to inquire.
I am concerned, however, that data I have reviewed, which has not been released to the public, shows a growing number of student tuition and taxpayer dollars are being paid to professors and administrators who seem to do very little teaching. And let us not forget, in a public opinion research study last year, 87 percent of Texans said that that universities’ top priority should be educating students, with only 6 percent stating that conducting research should be the top priority.
My belief is that these data, which rightfully belong to the public, should be fully released, not only so the task force members may analyze it but also so the public and outside experts may do so as well. The chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee recently raised concerns about university business being done “behind closed doors, as secretly as possible. And if there’s any arena in which that is wrong, it is higher education.” I concur with her sentiments and believe that the business of the task forces should be done with complete disclosure according to the transparency rules the Regents have adopted for this effort.
Only then will people be able to know, in the words of former U.T. Austin arts and sciences dean and Boston University President Emeritus John Silber from yesterday’s Austin-American Statesmen, if “the cost of education is largely a function of the reduction of productivity in the faculty, and also the huge engorgement in administration.”
I know there are many inside the universities, the hard working people who serve students and taxpayers, who are also concerned with a decline in faculty teaching. I know this because I have been privately encouraged by many of our faculty members to continue following-up on the questions Regents are asking even though they fear speaking out in public. One brave man who was not scared to speak up was Dr. Murphy Smith a long serving scholar teacher in accounting, who among his specialties is an expert in the area of financial reporting and fraud. Although I have never met Dr. Smith, he reached out to me and authorized me to share his letter, which I attach.
Notwithstanding the personal and political attacks of the last six weeks, I want to thank you and the other Regents for the opportunity to work every day on the central question that has driven all my higher education work during my career: trying to discover ever better ways to ensure that as many students as possible have access to the highest quality college education at the most affordable cost, so they are prepared for successful careers and meaningful lives. The task forces that you and Regent Pejovich chair are doing some of the most important work in the country in terms of answering that question.
It is an honor to be able to assist you and it is my firm belief that we are on track to ensure that all nine of our campuses continue on their path of excellence and that the University of Texas System becomes the finest public university system in America – one that is of the highest quality, serving an ever growing and diverse Texas population, and affordable for all families.