UT in the cross-hairs

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They’re trying to kill UT.

Or at least, they’re trying to slowly bleed it dry beneath our eyes.

In 2008, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a local conservative think tank, released a list of seven proposed reforms — sorry — <a href="http://texashighered.com/7-solutions">“breakthrough solutions”</a> to Texas higher education. In reality, these proposals would radically transform higher education in Texas so as to make state funding entirely reliant on newly fabricated metrics. Perry, the foundation and their cohorts are exploiting an economic crisis to fast-track a partisan agenda without the appropriate scrutiny.

For example, one proposed reform would have the state create “student-directed” scholarships that would give every Texas student a scholarship (which would be neither need nor merit-based) to attend any Texas college or university, be it public or private. Presumably, the proposal was dubbed a “student-directed scholarship” because such nomenclature sounds better than what they really are: higher education vouchers.

Higher education vouchers are a radical idea that would have disastrous and far-reaching consequences. Unlike public secondary education, admittance to colleges and universities is determined by merit, not residence. College vouchers as proposed by the foundation would take state funding out of top-tier institutions such as UT and Texas A&M and send that money to lower-achieving schools, be they community colleges or private institutions of low esteem. It’s seeking the lowest common denominator for statewide higher education.

Several of the proposals center on “bonuses” that would be paid to professors based primarily on the number of students instructed and on student satisfaction surveys. Essentially, a professor teaching a 250-seat introductory class would be greatly advantaged over one teaching a high-level 15-person seminar. This system would compel teachers to teach larger, lecture-based classes at the expense of small discussion-oriented seminars, even while the University has spent years trying to lower class sizes across campus.

Another proposed reform would force institutions to create “results-based contracts” with students. Essentially, these “contracts” would require universities to enumerate — in addition to the already-required syllabus and reading list — class sizes, starting salaries and graduation rates. These requirements alone would be incredibly burdensome, but the foundation also suggests that they should include the “educational value added,” an input as vague as it is unquantifiable.

The particular language reflects a larger trend amidst all seven proposals. Most of the proposed reforms center on language promising to measure “quality” or “effectiveness.” However, in this usage, teaching “efficiency” does not mean a better-run university so much as it means a university that is more reflective of the values of the foundation and Gov. Perry. Establishing these custom-crafted metrics would do little besides facilitate an academic witch hunt so that policy decisions could be justified with manipulated or manufactured data.

Last month, the UT System Board of Regents hired Rick O’Donnell, former director of Colorado’s higher education department who also served as a research fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. While at the foundation, O’Donnell published a paper claiming that higher education research in Texas “has few tangible benefits.”

An investigative piece by the <a href="http://www.texastribune.org/texas-education/higher-education/whos-behind-proposed-reforms-to-texas-higher-ed/">Texas Tribune published last week</a> raises additional concerns by highlighting the links between O’Donnell, the foundation and the Board’s newest regent, Alex Cranberg, also from Colorado.

Cranberg, a major political donor in his former state, supported O’Donnell during a failed Congressional run in 2006.

While we do not yet know enough about Mr. Cranberg’s positions on education to fully know his intentions, we hope that Perry’s newest regent has not been imported to serve as a point-man for the foundation’s ill-conceived proposals.

Perhaps the most troubling proposal, and that which makes Mr. O’Donnell’s appointment so worrisome, is one which seeks to separate research and teaching budgets so as “to encourage excellence in both.”

Splitting budgets for these two areas fails to recognize the overlap that research has on the instruction side of education. It assumes that any research cannot be instructional, nor can any education-centered work provide research opportunities. Many undergraduates, and certainly most graduate students, came to UT expressly because the University has a reputation as a premier research institution.

Similar reforms have already begun to be implemented at Texas A&M, with poor results. The Association of American Universities, the organization of elite national research universities that designates “Tier 1” status, <a href="http://www.theeagle.com/am/AAU-tells-A-amp-amp-M--to-resist-reforms">has expressed concerns</a> with the foundation’s proposals after they were enacted at A&M, calling them “ill-conceived calls for ‘reform’” and show “little to no understanding of the nature of graduate education.” By embarking on the same path, UT could jeopardize its status as a Tier 1 institution.

The current budget cuts have already had a measurably negative impact which long-term consequences on the University’s reputation will not be known for several years. If the University were to lose its Tier 1 status the public fallout would be both immeasurable and near irreversible. As stewards of this University, our Regents need to look toward maintaining the elite status of our school in the face of reduced funding, not promoting partisan “reforms” that would further degrade that dwindling prestige.

— Dave Player for the editorial board.