Ideological differences divide stances on higher education reform

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The latest post on Forbes' Center for College Affordability and Productivity blog features two policy makers suggesting that UT and Texas A&M sever ties with the state and become private institutions.

Setting our institute of higher learning loose upon the free market, the authors argue, would solve some key issues that public institutions are currently facing.

The post lists five advantages to privatization: freedom from the control of state appointed regents, freedom regarding tuition rates, freedom to set admission guidelines and freedom from government interference in research. The fifth advantage suggests the state funds that previously went to UT and A&M would be put to better use in supporting disadvantaged schools “that draw low-income and minority students.”

The authors of the post, Ronald L. Trowbridge and Richard Vedder, are affiliated with think tanks that routinely promote the restructuring and privatization of public universities.

Trowbridge is a senior fellow at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, which published the controversial Seven Breakthrough Solutions for higher education.

The plan, which is supported by Gov. Rick Perry and criticized by UT, includes separating research from teaching, linking salaries to teaching efficiency and requiring tenure track professors to teach on average “three classes per semester and thirty students per class for the seven or more years.”

Vedder, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, another conservative think tank, is the author of a book arguing that “competition from for-profit universities..., computer-based distance learning, and nonuniversity certification of skills can be a powerful force for needed change.”

While these authors believe they have the answers to the difficult questions public institutions face in the age of budget cuts, others who express differing views may have paid the price for their opposition.

In a situation that seems like an outcome from another possible universe where Bill Powers was pressured to step down by the UT System regents, the University of Virginia regents (or as they call them, the Board of Visitors) announced on June 10 that president Teresa Sullivan will be stepping down after two years into her five year contract.

Sullivan, a former dean of UT’s Graduate School, joined UVA in 2010 to become their first female president.

Sullivan’s top priority after taking office was to streamline UVA’s budget system, and her plan originally had the blessing of UVA’s Visitors. But, as the author of Friday’s Slate article on this scandal points out, “everyone bought in, that is, except for a handful of very, very rich people, some of whom happen to be political appointees to the Board of Visitors.”

Writer Siva Vaidhyanathan reported that Sullivan’s sudden and unexplained departure was demystified by an accidental mass email sent by Peter Kiernan, former board member of UVA’s Darden School of Business School, to supporters of the school.

In the email, Kiernan claimed responsibility for hatching the plan of Sullivan’s dismissal and assured the business school supporters that the head of the Visitorshas things well in hand.”

Demands for an explanation from UVA’s administration led head Visitor Helen Dragas to release this statement regarding Sullivan’s dismissal.

“The Board believes that in the rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia, the University needs to remain at the forefront of change.”

Further explaining the dismissal in an interview, Dragas said “We had a philosophical difference about the vision of the future of the university.”

One thing is certain in this episode of academic drama: conflicting ideological views on a university’s direction during turbulent times are here to stay.

Could the events in Virginia be a portent of what public universities across the U.S. might face if they resist the pressure to adopt market based strategies to solve problems? Only time will tell.