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Think tank at center of A&M criticisms is also helping shape statewide higher ed reforms

Texas A&M University has drawn harsh criticism for controversial initiatives connected to the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Meanwhile, the same conservative think tank has had a hand in developing statewide higher education reforms currently under consideration by the Legislature.

Budget-crunched colleges and universities could soon receive new state mandates –- influenced by a ‘students-as-customers’ approach to higher ed -– transforming their funding models, grant systems and professor accountability measures in the name of ‘productivity.’ The legislative suggestions emanate not only from TPPF but also from ideas presented by a specially formed committee with financial and professional ties to Gov. Rick Perry, as well as to TPPF.

House Higher Education chair state Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas), who routinely is a featured speaker for TPPF, is the author of three higher ed bills that resemble TPPF legislative recommendations.

Branch’s House Bill 9 would alter the way public colleges and universities receive state funding by factoring in degree completion rates, in addition to enrollment rates. The outcomes-based funding model accounts for annual increases in graduates, degrees awarded to at-risk students and those graduating in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Under HB 10, low-income students applying for the Toward Excellence, Access and Success (TEXAS) Grants –- the state’s major need-based grant fund –- would face more stringent academic requirements to receive assistance. Priority will be given to high schoolers who have accomplished at least two out of the four following prerequisites: 1) completed college preparatory courses, 2) passed or are exempt from the college readiness benchmark, the Texas Success Initiative (TSI), and 3) have graduated in the top third of their class or have maintained a “B” average upon graduation or 4) have completed an advanced math course.

More generally, Branch’s HB 1460 aims to increase cost-efficiencies at public universities overall, with a focus on undergraduate degrees. The bill requires students to have a degree plan after completing 30 credit hours and calls for 10 percent of all semester credit hours to be earned through off-campus activity, such as online courses and internships. Additionally, Branch, who did not reply for comment at press time, calls for greater accountability, requiring institutions of higher education to submit annual progress reports on student success. The bill puts professors on watch, requiring a written report to be sent to state legislative officials detailing the workload difference an average faculty member undertakes each year, compared to the 2010-2011 school year. Starting in 2013, the average faculty member will be required to load on 10 percent more instruction than what similar institutions are undertaking this school year.

The legislative proposals introduced by Branch align with the productivity-centered recommendations set forth by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board last fall. A THECB report, drafted in September, listed seven key legislative actions directly paralleling much of the language used in Branch’s bills, including efficiency standards, the TEXAS Grant priority model and funding formula changes. The recommendations, spurred by a 2009 directive from Perry to promote cost-efficiency measures, were crafted by a 20-member advisory committee composed of business and education leaders. With input from Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes and staff, the committee members were chosen internally by THECB chair Fred W. Heldenfels IV and former vice chair of board leadership Brenda Pejovich (who is now a University of Texas Regent appointed by Perry), THECB spokesperson Andy Kesling said.

Of the 20 members of the specially formed THECB committee tasked with drafting a master outline for the future of Texas higher education, two -– Pejovich and Ernest Angelo, Jr. –- are on the TPPF board. Additionally, 11 out of the 20 members have donated more than $500,000 combined to the Perry campaign since 2000. Major donors include Nye ($253,000); Texas Governor’s Business Council chair Woody Hunt ($245,000); Pejovich (nearly $50,000); Texas Tech University Regent Frederick Francis ($25,000); and THECB chair Heldenfels ($18,500).

In addition to the Regents, deans and chancellors of small and large colleges, John Murphy — a regional general manager for Wal-Mart — helped craft the higher education priorities, as well as Erle Nye — a former A&M Regent chair who some may remember from his involvement in a whistleblower lawsuit against TXU Corp., the multi-billion dollar energy corporation he led as CEO.

(Shortly before the company plummeted, Nye is reported to have dumped thousands of stock and received a stock bonus of $4.3 million, leading company insiders to allege Nye and his colleagues intentionally misled shareholders, the Texas Observer reported in 2004. The TXU suit was settled in 2005, and Nye collected stock bonuses worth $16 million and now serves as a chairman emeritus of the energy company.)

While granting real estate, oil-and-gas and big-box retail leaders authority to guide higher education policy may strike some as questionable, the committee’s measures have been wholeheartedly embraced by the business community, receiving approval and promotion by the Texas Association of Business and Governor’s Business Council.

The blueprint for those reforms can be traced back even further to when they debuted during a May 2008 summit hosted by TPPF. Seven ‘solutions’ for higher education were presented to university Regents from around the state that emphasized a performance-centered, or ‘outcome’-based, measures of success and promoted cost-efficient and a ‘students-as-customers’ approaches to education.

TPPF-inspired ideas have caused controversy at A&M, where, as an example of one early initiative, faculty are eligible for up to $10,000 in performance incentives based on anonymous student evaluations. Professor Peter Hugill, who is president of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors, is a vocal critic of TPPF reforms, telling the Texas Independent on more than one occasion the organization is essentially playing politics with higher education policy.

Recently, a letter from American Association of Universities head Robert Berdahl to A&M System Chancellor Mike McKinney was made public by the Texas Tribune, wherein Berdahl expressed disapproval of TPPF’s influence. Berdahl sharply questioned the think tank’s ‘ill-conceived’ reforms that demonstrate “little or no understanding of the nature of graduate education.”

McKinney, a Perry appointee and part of the THECB advisory committee, rebuked Berdahl’s criticisms in a letter of his own. According to the Bryan-College Station Eagle, many of McKinney’s retorts focused on Berdahl’s former role as president of UT-Austin.

“With all due respect, he didn’t know what he was talking about,” McKinney told the Eagle.

“Let’s see. He was president at Texas and chancellor at Berkeley,” McKinney also told the Eagle. “I’m at A&M.”

Meanwhile, UT professors are taking preemptive action against reforms, self-organizing a panel to defend their interests.

Although some of the reforms presented in Branch’s bills differ from ones enacted at A&M, the think tank’s legislative recommendations are reflected in the legislation.

According to a 2010-2011 “Legislative Guide,” TPPF recommended that lawmakers:

“Change the funding process for public universities by switching from a university-centered approach to student-centered, graduation-focused funding. By doing so, Texas can create a market in higher education that incentivizes universities to minimize costs and maximize instructional quality by putting state appropriations in the hands of students who can choose from competing public, non-profit, and for-profit institutions.”

Furthermore, TPPF advised legislators to “institute more reforms that tie university funding to student success results, such as number of degrees issued, student satisfaction, employment outcomes, and student assessments,” as well recommending improved accountability measures.

Critics have said the group lacks a basic understanding of the complexities of higher education and also claim the think tank laces their approach with political ideology.

Perry has close ties to TPPF, donating proceeds of his recent book “Fed Up!” to the organization, and the 14 TPPF board members have returned the favor in campaign cash, donating nearly $1.5 million to Perry’s fund, the Texas Independent previously reported.

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