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Rick Perry's War on Higher Ed in Texas

John Willingham: Rick Perry is waging a quiet war against our current system of higher education, which makes him a lot like some previous governors. He may win, but we’ll lose.

In April of this year, Paul Burka, one of the best and most knowledgeable writers about Texas, wrote in his regular column for Texas Monthlymagazine that “Rick Perry is waging a quiet war against our current system of higher education, which makes him a lot like some previous governors. He may win, but we’ll lose.”

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Since then, the “quiet war” has become more of a public brawl. The Perry-friendly Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) have criticized the state’s flagship universities (University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M) for wasting taxpayers’ dollars on research that generates no revenue and on salaries for professors who don’t teach enough classes. Many of the center’s criticisms have appeared in media outlets across the country.

If the recommendations of the TPPF and the CCAP are implemented, faculty in the humanities and social sciences especially will find that their research will be encouraged only if it contributes to the university’s bottom line.

On June 15, a “powerful and diverse” bipartisan group of two hundred highly influential Texans announced formation of “The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.” The group includes two former presidents of UT Austin, Larry Faulkner and Peter Flawn, and a former president of Texas A&M, Ray Bowen.

But in a battle that began when some supporters of Perry began pressuring regents and administrators to adopt extremely conservative business practices to measure university performance, the most intriguing fact about the new Coalition is that many of its founders are former Perry appointees, including former UT Regent H. Scott Caven, Jr., who also worked for Perry as a member of his transition team when Perry replaced George W. Bush as governor in 2001.

Other prominent Republicans affiliated with the Coalition include former Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff, whose son defeated Bryan dentist Don McLeroy, known across the country as the combative social conservative who served a term as the Perry-appointed chair of the Texas State Board of Education.

The senior Ratliff’s work with the Coalition brings a highly-regarded, bipartisan problem-solver to the conflict. Ratliff, as a Republican, was named chair of the Senate Education Committee by the late, legendary Lt. Governor Bob Bullock.

In making its announcement, the Coalition made it clear that they believe the current critics of the University of Texas and Texas A&M ignore the paramount role of quality—indeed, excellence—that leading universities must cultivate and maintain.

“We are alarmed,” the Coalition stated, “that some recommendations being floated by others—from dramatically expanding enrollment while slashing tuition, to separating research and teaching budgets, to seceding from a recognized and respected accrediting organization (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools), are a prescription for mediocrity that would have severe and negative long-term consequences for our state.”

Texan governors have a long history of attacking higher education in the state, and most historians, even those working outside of academia, regard those events as some of the most shameful in the state’s history.

In 1917, James E. “Pa” Ferguson vetoed the entire appropriation of the university after the board of regents refused his order to fire faculty members whom he found personally objectionable. The UT community galvanized and led the counter-attack against Ferguson, already suspected of embezzlement and misapplication of public funds.

Ferguson was indicted, the state House voted to impeach him, and the state Senate convicted him on nine articles. He never held office again, but his wife, Miriam, served two non-consecutive terms as governor, campaigning on the slogan that Texans “were getting two governors for the price of one.”

In 1940, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel won a surprising victory over Miriam “Ma” Ferguson after O’Daniel claimed on the campaign trail that he had informed President Roosevelt of a communist conspiracy in Texas. When O’Daniel took office, the conspiracy seemed to evaporate. But in 1941, conservative allies of O’Daniel on the board of regents tried to force University of Texas President Homer T. Rainey to fire four professors who were sympathetic to the New Deal.

Two years later, the regents themselves fired four non-tenured faculty members who had defended federal labor laws at an anti-union meeting in Dallas. Later, the regents told Rainey that if their goal of limiting tenure would discourage faculty applications from out of state, then that would be all the better for Texas. The regents then decided to purge the third volume of John Dos Passos’ USAtrilogyfrom the sophomore English reading list because the volume, The Big Money, was considered subversive.

Rainey boldly defended the novel and presented other grievances at a meeting of the faculty in late 1944. The regents fired him less than three weeks later. The American Association of University Professors censored UT for the regents’ actions, and it took nine more years for the university to recover. Thus, from 1941 to 1953, the university was in a state of continual turmoil, much to the detriment of the students of Texas.

Given this disgraceful history of political meddling, why would Rick Perry—or any Texas governor, for that matter—invite comparisons with “Pa” Ferguson or “Pappy” O’Daniel by waging a political war against the University of Texas? Even more curious is that the Perry-friendly critics also have Texas A&M, Perry’s alma mater, in their sights for allegedly being too focused on research.

The history of these conflicts underlines the central role of narrow political ideology in the attacks on the university, as opposed to any genuine desire for reform on the part of most of the partisan critics. The two main groups that are leading the current attack are committed to a very conservative economic view, one that values the measurable outcomes of “productivity” and “satisfaction” and considers those outcomes to be as applicable to universities as they are to business operations.

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An influential link between the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity is Dr. Richard Vedder, an economist who is a senior fellow at the former and director of the latter. Vedder has produced a report using raw, unverified UT system data; he asserts that most UT faculty are not teaching as many classes as they should, and that they are spending too much time on research that often yields no revenue.

Vedder is also an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a center favoring the Austrian school of economics. Although some conservatives with a libertarian bent embrace the tenets of the Austrian school, it is not considered in the mainstream of economic theory, in part because its practitioners doubt the importance of econometrics, a central feature of mainstream thought. The Austrian school, rather, believes that the exercise of subjective choice pursuant to private goals is a hallowed principle, notwithstanding notions of the public good or equality.

“This obsession with equality is very destructive to the human race,” Vedder said in an interview with the von Mises Institute. “I have never understood the appeal of a goal like ‘equality’.”

On December 21, 2010, Vedder commented in Forbes magazine that “there is no doubt in my mind today that governmental subsidies to higher education are excessive—our nation would be better off if we spent less. Indeed, I suspect no governmental spending commitment at all would be preferable to the situation today (although the optimum may be greater than zero).”

“As we increasingly recognize that higher education is largely a private goodprimarily conferring benefits on its users,” he continued, “we will back off our huge governmental financial commitment to colleges and universities...” [Emphasis added.]

The work of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and the Texas Public Policy Foundation shows a clear preference that universities serve that “private good,”and argues that the way to know if universities are meeting that goal is to apply private business criteria: price, customer (student) satisfaction, pay after graduation, and the monetary return on university investment (research that brings in revenue).

A university that follows this model should operate like a commercial enterprise with commercial measures and goals. The quality of such a university would derive from its ability to meet these goals. Other traditional goals of a public university—public service, equal opportunity—are of minimal importance and not worth the resources allocated to them.

To see an illustration of these business criteria, as applied to national college rankings, look at the annual Forbes America’s Best Colleges List, created by the CCAP. There you will find that there is nocategory for undergraduate academic reputation, probably the single most important category for assessing academic quality. (Of course, academic reputation is strongly associated with faculty research and publications, including work in the humanities, which generates little or no revenue.)

A recent UCLA survey of more than 200,000 freshman shows that undergraduate academic reputation was the most important factor for these students when they were choosing a college. Yet the strongest component in the Forbes rankings is “Postgraduate Success,” which is measured by the salaries of graduates as reported by; membership in “Who’s Who”; and by alumni representation on a list of corporate officers chosen byForbes and the CCAP.

It is interesting that Forbes would allow use of “Who’s Who” listings as a measure of college success. In 1999, Tucker Carlson, a Fox News commentator, wrote an article for Forbes called “The Hall of Lame,” in which he used several examples to show how inclusion in “Who’s Who” publications did not require notable achievement.

UT and A&M supporters were already strongly questioning the CCAP recommendations and data for weeks before the new Coalition was formed. In the online magazine The Texas Tribune, Joseph Daniel Ura, an assistant professor of political science at A&M, took a close look at data that the CCAP used in its hurried attempt to portray UT professors as laggards when it comes to teaching.

Ura found that the CCAP report is seriously flawed. (One conservative UT regent with an appreciation of carefully analyzed data has called the report “simplistic.”) In measuring the productivity of professors by the number of students taught (and by the research dollars they bring in), CCAP counted part-time adjuncts, and regular faculty whose teaching loads had been reduced in proportion to other duties, as if they were full-time faculty teaching a full load. A professor with half-time administrative duties who teaches one or two courses shows up in the CCAP report as a full-time instructor teaching only one or two courses. This flaw multiplied across hundreds faculty will of course show a low level of productivity.

Ura’s work is very scientific in substance and tone, but it likely struck an emotional chord among other faculty as well as administrators at A&M, who are reportedly uneasy about some of the TPPF and CCAP “reforms” now being tried there. UT’s president, William C. Powers, Jr., has offered additional refutations of the CCAP data and strenuously defended UT’s commitment to both undergraduate teaching and scholarship.

John Willingham

The biased use of data underscores the dominant role of political ideology in yet another attack on two institutions that have fought their way to Tier-1 status and worldwide respect since the dismal days of the early fifties. Let us hope that history takes a different turn now than it did then, and that all those involved remember that the Texas Constitution mandates the creation of “a university of the first class”—not a university of the business class.

John Willingham

John Willingham is a regular contributor to HNN. He has an MA in American social/intellectual history from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Edge of Freedom, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.

Republished with permission from The History News Network