Friday, May 10, 2013

Rick Perry Goes To The Head Of The Class To Help Set Right-Wing Anti-Intellectual Higher Education Policy


It's been a very sad thing for any state that winds up with a GOP/Tea Party-controled legislature, especially when they also have the governor's mansion. Most of them are the states with the worst economic results, worst education results, worst health results and worst environmental results. I don't want to get into a chicken or egg debate about it now. I just want to go beyond the discussion we started last night about the North Carolina Republicans'-- both the Tea Party legislature and Puppet Pat the Governor-- War Against Education... and beyond Alison Brito's useful list yesterday of the the 5 worst teabagger ideas coming out of the North Carolina legislature. Other states are in just as bad shape.

Take Texas... please. We all know more than anyone needs to about their crackpot drugged-up governor, Rick Perry-- a walking wounded, deranged closet case. One of the most severely gerrymandered states in the country, Texas has a House with 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats and a Senate with 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats. Rick Perry and some cronies from Texas A&M have come up with a 7-step program to turn higher education in that state into a corporate joke. They want to gear universities-- not just the crap schools like Texas A&M and Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary but serious universities like the University of Texas in Austin-- to serve the needs of Big Business. Perry and his rabidly anti-intellectual Board of Regents would like to turn the state higher education system into a giant low-budget trade school.

This isn't going over all that well, not even in the state legislature, where many of the members are proud of Texas' higher education system and are responsive to Texans who are up in arms over Perry's proposals. Machree Gibson, chairman of the Texas Exes, UT's mammoth alumni association: "I just don't understand why they want to dumb down a public institution of this magnitude." What Perry's brand of "reformers" have done is to divide up all professors based on how much money they bring into the school. The categories sound like the way Republicans rate campaign donors. If professors are setting up costly research labs that don't result in quarterly returns, they're considered laggards. Only hucksters can thrive in this kind of atmosphere.

Justin Pope put together a lot of valuable background material for HuffPo back in February:
Public research universities, with a mission of both teaching and research, date back 150 years. They produce 70 percent of scientists, engineers and physicians, and two-thirds of U.S. campus research-- the value of which isn't always obvious in advance. "During the Second World War, it was radar and atomic energy that came off of these campuses that saved us," said James Duderstadt, the former University of Michigan president who helped lead a recent National Research Council study of the sector. Before the war, those technologies "looked like the most abstract, frill research."

But lately these globally ambitious institutions have strained against the reins of what some call an anachronistic system of state control and funding. Duderstadt calls them "critically endangered." Another recent report, by the National Science Foundation, found state support for the 101 major public research universities fell 20 percent between 2002 and 2010.

Those institutions are "the backbone of this nation's knowledge economy," Duderstadt said. "If the states turn their back on them, they're committing a grievous act against the national interest."

UT-Austin, the flagship of the 216,000-student UT system, is among the biggest With more than 52,000 students, the university has 3,166 faculty, plus more than 10,000 professional staff. About 10,000 students also have jobs in labs, classrooms, libraries and elsewhere on campus. Recent discoveries range from lithium-ion batteries to the two largest black holes in the universe. It's also spun off hundreds companies and helped make Austin a tech hub, which in turn benefits the university. On Thursday, UT announced a $50 million gift to establish a medical school from the family foundation of Michael Dell and his wife. Dell dropped out of UT-Austin to start his namesake computer company in Austin.

Thirty years ago, Texas taxpayers funded more than half the university budget. This year, the state contributes about 13 percent, or $295 million.

In-state tuition at public research universities has increased 43 percent beyond inflation over the last decade, to more than $15,000. UT-Austin remains considerably less-- around $10,000 per year.

Yet while state funding cuts have been devastating, Duderstadt says universities and their growing legions of well-paid administrators haven't always helped their cause with the public. "They're just totally deaf, dumb and blind on how the crazy things they do on campuses convince the American people that they don't have any ability to control costs," he said.

In Texas, an ascendant group of critics with Perry's ear thinks the flagship university has lost sight of a key mission: affordable and efficient undergraduate education.

"We've gone too far in the direction of research at the expense of our students," said Thomas Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think-tank with ties to several of Perry's regents. He cites a (much-disputed) study arguing the research of most UT-Austin faculty isn't top quality, and that reassigning some research-focused faculty to teach more could halve tuition. That, he says, could also decrease class sizes and boost completion rates.

In fact, most of UT-Austin's endeavors beyond basic teaching are supported by non-state sources-- $700 million annually in outside research funding and $300 million in philanthropy.

Still, in spots on campus one could wonder if this isn't more car than Texas taxpayers need. The law school's faculty is highly regarded in academia-- and very well paid. But could it use fewer theorists, and more practitioners? What about the seven museums, like The Harry Ransom Center, which has spent millions buying literary collections like Jack Kerouac's notebooks, and recently spent $30,000 to preserve dresses worn by Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind?

Powell, the regents chairman, insists he supports UT-Austin's research mission and values its reputation.

But "we are a public institution that (is) paid for by the citizens of the state of Texas," Powell said. Texas has "a lot of students who cannot afford an institution that is a very high-priced, Ivy League-type institution."

In the broader debate, the two sides are separated by a common language-- terms all agree are worthwhile in the abstract, but which carry associations that delineate a cultural divide.

Does "academic research" call first to mind tweedy professors expounding on poetry in journals nobody reads? Or scientists curing diseases and spinning off businesses?

Is "productivity" common-sense practices for cutting through academic inefficiency and lowering costs? Or code for replacing the nuanced work of nurturing young minds with crude, assembly-line widget-making?

In "affordability," some hear a self-evident, primary mission for any university. Others hear "cheap."

Affordability is a top Perry priority, and he's pushed Texas universities to offer a complete four-year degree for just $10,000-- about what UT-Austin currently charges per year.

Re-elected with strong Tea Party support to a third term in 2010, Perry has appointed all 60 regents of Texas' six public higher education systems, including UT and Texas A&M. He and his regents have encouraged Texas public universities to expand enrollment and online offerings.

But critics say they're destroying quality for quantity. Early alarm bells rang with a push from Perry's Texas A&M regents for business-like metrics for faculty productivity, reporting how much they "made" or "lost" for the university. Worries grew when the UT board briefly hired a consultant with ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation who was openly skeptical of academic research's value.

So when Powell made his "Chevy Bel Air" comments, shortly after becoming chairman in February, 2011, the car metaphor struck a nerve.

The Texas Exes president e-mailed alumni warning "the mission and core values of our beloved University are under attack." A high-profile group of state business and political leaders called the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education was launched, roiled by a study from another conservative group arguing that UT-Austin could get by with one-third its current faculty if they taught more efficiently.

Last spring, a fight over tuition became a litmus test for competing visions of the university-- and even higher education itself.

Perry let it be known that despite sharp state funding cuts, UT-Austin shouldn't ask to increase tuition the coming year. On campus, many saw the move as a first step toward imposing a $10,000 degree.

The feeling was a university offering a $10,000 degree couldn't be great. It couldn't be a Cadillac.

Powers breached protocol, requesting a 2.6 percent in-state increase anyway. The board turned him down.

"It was viewed as a personal attack on the campus," said Alan Friedman, a longtime faculty senate leader. More than a swipe at the faculty's job performance, he said, "it's that they don't like the job at all. It's a right-wing backlash against higher education, especially the notion that campuses like this one are controlled by liberals."

But the defeat was an Alamo moment-- a tactical loss that galvanized supporters. Even students saw a tuition freeze as a threat to the prestige of their degrees. When reports surfaced the board wanted Powers out, a Facebook group called "I Stand With Bill Powers" surged past five-figure membership.

Then, the University of Virginia fiasco unfolded. Powers declined to comment, and Powell said he hadn't closely followed what happened there. But by every other account, events in Charlottesville were followed breathlessly in Austin. Virginian's Sullivan was a longtime UT professor and administrator, and widely admired.

If the board wanted Powers out, it reconsidered the PR ramifications. His job now appears safe, though many here still think UT-Austin's reputation remains threatened.

Many observers share Friedman's view that the debates over tuition and research are really about something broader.

"There seems to be a political move, and it's not just in Texas, away from the classical mission of the university-- cultivation of the mind and pursuit of knowledge-- to a concept of a public university as sort of a job corps or a trade school," said Peter Flawn, who came to Texas more than a half-century ago and was UT-Austin's president from 1979 to 1985, then again in 1997-98.

In an interview in his office in the geological sciences building, Flawn, now 86, recounted UT's efforts to build a world-class university in a state with little history of generously supporting education.

Far-thinking governors, like John Connally and Bill Clements, working with UT loyalists in the Texas legislature, grasped the potential of a great research university to diversify Texas away from a boom-and-bust commodities economy, Flawn said. Donors like Dallas investor Peter O'Donnell, who has given more than $135 million to the university, helped retain world-class researchers who would otherwise have been poached away.

"It takes a long time to build a first-class university," Flawn said. "You wonder, how long would it take to destroy one?"

Campus liberals aren't the only critics. Neither the Texas Exes nor the Texas Coalition lacks Republicans. O'Donnell, a state GOP stalwart, has publicly criticized Perry's higher education priorities. Republican former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who previously headed Texas A&M, seemed to do the same in a speech in November, calling the contention that research comes at the expense of teaching "a profound misunderstanding of how universities become great and stay great, and a profound misunderstanding of the higher education enterprise as a whole."

Southern Methodist University political scientist Calvin Jillson says UT grads of both parties occupy an "urban elite" who see UT-Austin's benefits in their communities. But Perry's base among Texas' rural residents sees more "value in a `3Rs' preparation for the job market."

Recent events follow a pattern of "anti-intellectual populism that has assaulted UT regularly over the school's history," Jillson said.

"Political authorities find the faculty and their research interests to be counter to the political culture of the state and therefore dangerous," he said. "The question is always: `Is this what we're paying for with our tax money?'"

Gibson, the first black woman to head the Texas Exes alumni group, sees the dispute through the lens of a growing and diversifying Texas.

"There are a lot of alumni that are upset that their kids can't get in," she said. "They've been coming here for generations. But there are so many more people in the state of Texas now." She also sees a racial element, with some resenting the university's diversity efforts, notably its recent defense of racial preferences in admissions before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lindsay, from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, says lower-income students get grants, and high-income kids can afford to pay. But "it's the middle class that's being squeezed." He adds, "none of us wants to compromise one bit" on UT's research mission. But he doesn't think making some faculty teach one extra class does so.

"To somehow say if we do that, we're somehow not going to discover a cure for cancer, I think they get a little hyperbolic about it," Lindsay said.
Rick Scott (R-FL) and Scott Walker (R-WI)-- not to mention Puppet Pat (R-NC)-- are also driven by the same intense hatred of students and professors that drives Rick Perry, and are also eager to wreck their states' higher education systems. Conservatives, of course, have never seen any sense in teaching the children of the working class liberal arts-- just stuff that makes them better cogs in the corporate wheel. The idea of teaching the masses to think for themselves is nothing short of horrifying to a conservative. In fact, to conservatives this kind of thing is positively anathema to their world view of what public universities should be doing:

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At 3:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Be watching for W's nephew, George P. Bush (aka, one of "the little brown ones"), to work his way into a Bush-Perry governor's race or a Bush-Abbott (attorney general religious crackpot) governor's race. The Bigger Bushes and the Putrid Perrys don't get along or see eye to eye - the Bushes are way more secular and pragmatic. Perry's even further right and more warped then the Bushes. And that's saying something! The Bushes own Texas but have to reestablish it and don't like that they have to, which motivates them further. That's why Jeb traded George P. from Florida to Texas.

At 6:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to excuse Rick Perry, but there has been an accelerating movement to turn universities into corporations, and this applies to private as well as public universities.

It has to do with money, not education. duh.

This was part of an email sent by a deanlet in charge of developing online courses...

~~~The issue that this raises is more about the draw of the (online) course beyond just the consortium schools.... I know this is an issue at other universities. If we develop a combined course, this could be a great money-maker because of the demonstrated need.~~

The "combined" course this person wants won't work. It has nothing to do with the curriculum, but everything about $$$.

Online $$$ is where the UVa events started.



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