Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Still Messing with Texas

Where to start? Well, let's start at the point where I learned about this controversy:
The firing of University of Texas System special adviser Rick O'Donnell sends a message to Gov. Rick Perry from the legions of University of Texas supporters: Don't meddle with UT.

O'Donnell lost his $200,000-a-year job last week after angering some state lawmakers.
Who, you may ask, was Rick O'Donnell, and why do you care? Well, he was appointed to a position as advisor to the Board of Regents of the UT system (there are several UT's besides the big one in Austin). That's the connection to Gov. Goodhair. And before O'Donnell lost his job completely, he got in enough trouble to be reassigned from his position as an advisor to the UT System Board of Regents:
O'Donnell was reassigned Thursday as special assistant for research, reporting to Scott Kelley, executive vice chancellor for business affairs, said Anthony de Bruyn, a spokesman for the system. O'Donnell will assist two panels advising the regents, one on productivity and excellence, the other on online and blended learning.

O'Donnell will continue to be paid $200,000 a year, de Bruyn said.
The controversy here is best explained by Paul Burka. O'Donnell's "advice" to the Board was to denigrate research in favor of teaching:
Another of the reforms is “split research and teaching budgets.” This may not seem like a big deal. The idea is simply to increase transparency and accountability by emphasizing teaching and research as separate efforts in higher education. But many observers, myself included, suspect that the real agenda is ultimately to curtail the role of research in higher education. Why? Because it costs money. Sandefer has written that academic research consumes two thirds of every dollar spent in American universities. Once the public sees how much more money is spent on research than on teaching, it will demand that spending on research be cut. This is why, to the UT brass, splitting budgets amounts to a frontal attack on the classic model of a research university. “Teaching and research are inextricably linked,” UT president Bill Powers told me. “Splitting the research and teaching budgets devalues the synergy between two essential components that are the essence of a world-class institution.” Like all the TPPF recommendations, the objective is not to improve the academy but to diminish public support for it in its current form.
Note those words Burka used: "transparency" and "accountability." I'm tempted to run down a side trail and point out that their casual use by Burka betrays his political leanings; but that's for another day. To continue the theme a moment, consider that "academic research" is probably code for "soft research," i.e., not the stuff associated with physics, chemistry, oil and gas engineering, etc. The University of Houston, not surprisingly, is noted for its "hard" research facilities. I don't think U of H is under attack at the moment, although Texas A&M, hardly a liberal arts outpost, is suffering its own problems from Perry's other idiotic idea: paying teachers based on student evaluations.

That's a particular hobby horse of mine, but think about it for a moment: if you, the student, know what the teacher is supposed to be teaching you, you aren't a student, you're a peer of the teacher. You don't need to be taught by that person. And if the teacher isn't making you happy, or piquing your interest, or keeping you entertained or interested? Is that entirely the teacher's fault? Is the teacher's job to please you? Or to teach you?

There aren't too many models in history of great teachers who win stirring evaluations from their students. Jesus is constantly shown berating his disciples for their inability to understand him; but that's pretty consistently the model for any teacher/student relationship.

Back to Perry, though; O'Donnell was forced to resign during the last Legislative session (6 months every two years; they're gone for good now) because UT Alumni heard about his proposals for their beloved UT-Austin, (and the system at large) and threw a fit even the Legislature couldn't ignore. Keep that in mind, because Perry's efforts aren't finished, they're just beginning:

The University of Texas and Texas A&M are public universities in desperate need of budget reform to provide transparency and accountability to the students and taxpayers that fund them. The higher education bureaucracy in Texas has created an inefficient system where:

• 22% of Faculty members do not teach a single class per semester;
• The average faculty member spends only 21% of his time teaching and the remaining 79% performing research or administrative tasks;
• The average course load of a tenured faculty member is 1.9 classes per semester;
• Yet despite these statistics, from 1999 to 2009 faculty salaries increased at almost twice the rate of inflation.

Perpetuating this wasteful spending are the “Edu-crats”, a ruling elite of academics focused on doing less, but making more, all the while ignoring the needs of students and caring nothing for the cost born by the taxpayers. Sign below to demand Higher Education Reform for Texas NOW!

We demand:

• An end to teacher tenure;
• That research and teaching budgets are separated;
• Disclosure of the salaries of tenured faculty, the number of students they teach, and the research dollars they bring in.
• That researchers keep 90% of the money their research generates;

Instituting these reforms will elevate the quality of higher education in Texas and ensure that universities prioritize the needs of students, parents, and taxpayers over entrenched, overpaid academics. Please sign below to tell the Regents at the University of Texas and Texas A&M to embrace these reforms!
That's a petition on offer from FreedomWorks, Dick Armey's lobbying group. If you don't live in Texas and/or don't care about Texas' systems of higher education, you might wonder why you should care. Well, maybe because Rick Perry is about to enter the GOP nomination race, and he's already showing up very favorably against Michelle Bachmann.

Does that mean I think Perry could win the nomination? No. I don't think he has a snowball's chance in hell, and would be delighted if he did win it. It would be 1964 all over again, with Perry playing the role of Goldwater. What worries me is that such a radical and destructive idea could ever become mainstream, or even become law in a radical legislature. FreedomWorks got its head handed to it in Texas on this issue, but that doesn't mean it won't try again, especially with the Legislature out of session. The UT Board of Regents is strong, but not that strong; it took the ire of the Legislature to get them to fire O'Donnell. Without the Legislature, they might throw away UT's academic achievements in favor of this insanity.

Which, you may still say, doesn't affect you. On the other hand, if systems like UT and Texas A&M adopt such ridiculous policies, the rot would begin, and the resistance to it might not be as strong as you would expect. And if you think our educational systems across the nation aren't already a problem for us, the Pentagon respectfully disagrees with you:
By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans -- the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow -- we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future. Our first investment priority, then, is intellectual capital and a sustainable infrastructure of education, health and social services to provide for the continuing development and growth of America's youth.
Those are all long-term goals; not a short-term calculus. The appeal of the position of FreedomWorks is to do something right now! that fixes everything for us. That is, of course, no fix at all. It is delivering power to those not worthy to wield it, and who don't have the public interests at heart. The statement of the Pentagon understands the nature of investment, and of the "continuing development and growth of America's youth," a promise that is always in the future. FreedomWorks wants change now!, and for its own sake. That is the radical change of mere destruction. Investment is about planting trees your grandchildren will enjoy sitting under. In education, that investment is made through research and investigation and the freedom to pursue thought that is guaranteed by tenure. The educational system may be imperfect, but it is not so riddled with "waste, fraud, and abuse", or, in the new and improved lingo of FreedomWorks, a lack of "transparency and accountability," that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If change is needed, it is not the radical change of destruction. If we need anything right now, it is more education and more thinking and more research; not less.

Maybe it would be a good thing for Perry to enter the primary race. If he can be associated nationally with this position, sunlight might prove, once again, to be the best political disinfectant.


  1. You characterization is flatly wrong. No one is saying that research at UT is to be abandoned. However, tuition keeps increasing at UT, and students are taking out tens of thousands of dollars of student loans to get the best education possible. The best way to educate them is to put the best educators in classrooms, and that part of Higher Education has been neglected.

    It's not wrong to want the University of Texas to be the best it can be, it is however wrong to look at a system that isn't working for students and think everything is ok.

  2. Funny, but my "characterization" was rejected by the Texas Legislature (as I said in my post). Not exactly a hot-bed of intellectual achievement and academic purity, the Lege.

    If you read Burka's article on the issue (link in the post), you'll note he reports that many of the non-tenured faculty at Texas A&M would be gone tomorrow if they could get the work elsewhere. A&M is much further down the road to the vision Perry and FreedomWorks have for higher education in Texas.

    Yes, tuition is going up; blame the Legislature for that. It was quite low when I was a student at UT. What changed was the willingness of the state to subsidize education, it wasn't because of changes in the faculty. And the concept of "best educators" in colleges and universities has always centered around the best minds available, and those minds are lured to colleges by the freedom to research in their field (as the President of UT said, in my post). The entire university community benefits from that situation, not from teachers hired and fired on the basis of student surveys and how pleased the students are with their grades (which is what is happening at A&M, and why teacher morale is so low).

    If you want to see higher education in Texas run into the ground the way public education has been, then by all means, support the position of FreedomWorks. If you don't, and I don't, then let the outcome they earnestly desire be known.

    I don't think it will get much support, not even in Texas.

  3. I tried to post a comment above but can't get the window.

    It is nudging me farther down the road I've been on since reading that the great Kip Tiernan died. I'm wasting my time arguing on the blogs. Faking it instead of really doing it.

    Anthony McCarthy

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