UT dean’s report pushes back against Perry’s TPPF-backed higher ed reforms
The University of Texas College of Liberal Arts has issued a 17-page rebuttal to higher education reform plans promoted by Gov. Rick Perry and his allies, saying they are mistaken in equating students with customers.
The proposals to reform Texas’ universities, advocated by the conservative, Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, include separating research and teaching budgets, judging faculty on revenue generated and class size taught, and running universities from a customer-service standpoint.
UT-Austin College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl
“The Higher Education Experience is not akin to shopping on iTunes or shopping at Banana Republic” said Randy Diehl, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and author of the report.
The report is a response to the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education,” written by Jeff Sandefer, a major Perry donor and TPPF fellow. It states that the “solutions” would be so detrimental to higher education in Texas that they would leave Texas with only one Tier One university, Rice, which is private and enrolls only about 4,000 students.
Diehl pointed out that research cannot be evaluated on its immediate financial impact, as the value of much research can only be evaluated after generations.
Diehl wrote that the market-driven approach promoted by the governor will not work for higher education. “Put simply, this is the wrong approach,” the report says.
The report includes a nod to reporting by the Texas Independent’s Patrick Brendel, who noted in May that Perry had jettisoned plans to implement TPPF’s seventh solution, to create a Texas-only “results-based accrediting alternative.” Brendel reported that Texas A&M had “quietly” considered switching to a new accrediting entity, in line with TPPF-backed reforms.
Though Diehl’s report concedes that Sandefer’s proposals may be attractive at first glance, Diehl said they will undermine teaching and will result in the university losing its Tier One status. He said he is highly skeptical of the proposal to increase enrollment by 46 percent at UT while creating a $10,000 bachelor’s degree program.
On Wednesday, Texas Public Policy Foundation spokesman David Guenthner told the Austin American-Statesman the report is “interesting,” and questioned how UT paid for it and the accompanying website. A UT spokesman responded that the website was inexpensive as it was paid for in-house.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner responded to the report in a statement:
“Gov. Perry continues to advocate for necessary reforms, accountability and transparency in our state’s higher education system. The status quo that some Texas universities try to protect – with rapidly increasing tuition and four-year graduation averaging just 28.6 percent – is not keeping pace with our state’s needs.
Resisting reform and accountability is an unsustainable recipe for mediocrity and stagnation. Texas deserves better.
The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a collection of big-name alumni and former officials in the UT and Texas A&M systems, joined in the flurry of responses,issued a statement in response to Miner, calling it “unfortunate” that Perry’s spokesman “chose to denigrate Texas universities rather than support their efforts to improve and reform.” The group continued:
By choosing to discount a scientific and research-based analysis of proposals that threaten to undermine the quality of higher education in Texas, the Governor’s spokesman creates the impression that his efforts are about scoring political points rather than improving higher education.
Diehl’s report, like the website unveiled along with it, addressed the solutions point-by-point. The first of the solutions involves changing how teaching is evaluated, by dividing the cost of professors’ salaries by the number of students they teach, ranking individual professors and collecting and reading research articles for “high cost faculty.”
Diehl said these ideas betray an oversimplified concept of teaching and learning. He said research has proven that the idea that “student satisfaction” is a good measure of teaching effectiveness is patently false.
Solution Two suggests rewarding outstanding teachers, based on student evaluations, with $10,000 cash. Diehl said this sort of system could lead to professors focusing on popularity rather than teaching, assigning less work and inflating grades.
Solution Three recommends splitting research and teaching budgets, and paying faculty based on the number of students taught and research grants received. Diehl responded that this would change the mission of the University of Texas dramatically, and would likely devalue serious research. He pointed out that he also is concerned with Sandefer’s suggestion that specialized academic articles with limited readership lack value. He said this outlook could detrimentally affect fields such as mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences, in which seemingly narrow findings have the potential to dramatically change human understanding.
He said research in the humanities is particularly vulnerable to this sort of approach, and pointed out that the American Association of Universities already has warned Texas A&M to avoid such “ill-conceived proposals.”
The fourth solution suggests giving tenure only to those teachers with high ratings on student satisfaction surveys, and reserving about 75 percent of tenured spots for professors who teach large classes. He said that the tenure process already evaluates good teaching, and must be judged by a professors’ peers, not just students. He said that a different, but equally important, type of teaching is required in various class formats like a large history lecture class, a language class with 15 students and a chemistry lab.
The fifth solution involves creating a contract between teacher and students about learning results, which Diehl said would fundamentally alter the student-teacher relationship.
“Curricula are based on the wisdom of traditional educational experience, accrediting agencies and state requirements, not simply the momentary wants of customers. The university has long embraced a student-centered approach to learning. But that does not mean that students should have control over the entirety of their academic learning as these proposals suggest,” the report says.
The sixth solution suggests putting state funds for education directly in the hands of students, which Diehl said amounts to a voucher system. The report compares this proposal to the model used by the former UT Regents special adviser Rick O’Donnell to develop the Colorado Opportunity Fund when he was head of that state’s Department of Higher Education. O’Donnell, like Sandefer, has worked for TTPF. Diehl said that the program in Colorado was generally considered to be a failure, and enrollment in Colorado fell after it was implemented, while minority and low-income students were less likely to attend college.
Diehl did not address the seventh solution, creating accrediting alternatives, beyond mentioning Perry already has said he isn’t interested.
Diehl concluded the report by saying that the “solutions” are based on the idea that colleges and universities should be operated like businesses. He said that pointing to for-profit colleges as examples is fraught with problems, including low graduation rates, disproportionate numbers of students receiving Pell grants and student loans, and more than 40 percent of the student loan defaults in the nation. The four-year graduation rate of for-profit colleges, Diehl pointed out, is just 27 percent.
An even greater concern with the for-profit model, Diehl said, is that Texas’ public colleges and universities were established on the principle that education is a public good and can improve the lives of students and their families to the benefit of the state.
“Higher education should be driven by that public good rather than a profit/loss statement,” Diehl said.
Read more about the report:
[Houston Chronicle: ‘Seven solutions’ draws new rebuttal]
[Texas Tribune: UT Dean Rejects "Seven Solutions" in New Report]
[Austin American-Statesman: UT dean disputes governor, ‘breakthrough solutions’]