Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tackling Higher Ed Reform in Texas

If someone asked you to spearhead the reform efforts for the State of Texas in higher education, what would be your starting place? For conservatives, the answer likely would be with the money expenditures and results of the expenditures.

Just show me the money. Then show me the results.

Much has been written of late about the hiring of an assistant to the Regents of UT and his inquiries into the money and results equation, as it relates to higher education reform in Texas.

Since 1999, then Lt Governor Perry began working on the issue. Yes, twelve years ago Perry appointed the first reform committee. Since 2008, when the game changed with the economic conditions of the country and the big tuition hikes proposed, Governor Perry has reached the point of being tired of the same old excuses given by those beholden to the status quo. Why is reform so controversial now?

Big time universities promote and hire on research records. Quality is defined by what others think of your last research paper, if you are a professor. By others, I mean peers. It's called peer review. Quality universities are defined by how prestigious the journals are in which you have published papers. This mindset shuts out meaningful accountability.

Students and their success are almost incidental.

Tenure at an institution of higher learning is a sweet deal. For most tenured facility this means a six figure salary for teaching two classes per semester. The rest of a professor's time can be spent on research. This is common for all top universities, not just for the University of Texas. High premium is placed on journals that no one reads.

Ratings, for example like that of some national publications that do an annual university ratings survey, are meaningless. There is little to do with customer service because it is a journal culture. The customer, obviously, is the student.

In the 1960's, 70's and 80's, when Democrats from rural Texas ran politics in Austin, a sort leash was put on UT and on Texas A&M, too. If UT wanted to get control of the purse strings, the institution was quickly shut down in that quest. Then came tuition deregulation in 2003 with GOP blessings. This gave UT a blank check and the predictable happened - Regents at UT began setting tuition and hikes went through the roof. The result is that now college students are knee deep in debt.

The 2003 experiment resulted in a large middle class tax increase and it has failed. Today's student graduate of UT is $22,000 in debt for pursuing a degree. Despite this, today Governor Perry says that the jury is still out on the question of tuition deregulation.


Governor Perry has appointed new Regents and tasked them with tuition and cost reform. This is a result of him trying to work within the system from 2003 to 2007 without success. In 2008, when a big hike in tuition was proposed, he balked. One Perry appointee, UT Chairman of the Regents, Gene Powell, is under attack for pressing for reform by the Texas Exes organization, who are campaigning against him now.

Lt Governor Dewhurst has appointed an oversight committee in the state senate but its composition is puzzling. No senator was appointed to this committee that has come out against tuition deregulation. None of the appointees are considered strongly conservative Republicans and certainly not the Democrats appointed.

Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have created a new Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency. It will be chaired by Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas.
The members from the Senate will include Dallas Republican John Carona, Lubbock Republican Robert Duncan, Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger, Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis and Austin Democrat Kirk Watson.

The House members will be Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, San Antonio Democrat Joaquin Castro, Dallas Democrat Eric Johnson, Brenham Republican Lois Kolkhorst and Waxahachie Republican Jim Pitts.

It is odd, this appearance that Lt Gov Dewhurst is working against Gov Perry.

A study published by Texas Public Policy Foundation shows the need for a broader rating of quality in higher education. More concentration is needed in the classroom and on student learning. There is a need to find a way to reward good teachers who do not do research.

As the parent of a son pursuing a college degree, I would like to see some common sense prevail. Stop with the unnecessary special oversight committees and kid glove treatment of tenured professors. Reward good professors, yes, even those who do not concentrate on research. Service the students - teach them.

Show me the money and then show me the results.

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