Perception dominates higher education

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At last weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival, a panel of higher education leaders were asked if the creation of more tier-one research universities was simply a mechanism for institutions to boast their reputations.

The Legislature created the tier-one research fund in 2009 to incentivize emerging research institutions to pursue top-tier status. While left somewhat vague, tier-one status is generally defined by a combination of quantitative and qualitative benchmarks including number of Ph.D.s awarded, size of endowment, commitment to graduate education and quality of libraries.

At the panel, University of Houston Chancellor and President Renu Khator and UT-El Paso President Diana Natalicio represented two of the seven emerging institutions vying for the funds. While denying that chasing the temptress of tier-one was simply a matter of reputation, both went on to speak about reputation anyway.

Khator listed all of the educational achievements UH received after being designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a top-tier research institution. Natalicio said no matter how many first-generation or low-income students UTEP graduates, those students still need to compete with other degree-holders and that tier-one status adds value to degrees.

The battle for research prestige underlies the defining power of perception in higher education and the contortionist efforts universities put forth to create that perception.

For one, research prestige is the new way public universities can survive. Of the top 25 public universities, only the College of William and Mary, University of Connecticut and Clemson University are not members of the Association of American Universities, which is considered by many to be the top conglomeration of public and private research institutions in the country.

Whether research trickles down to students — or even comes at the expense of students — is not questioned. Last year, the pursuit of tier-one status at Texas Tech resulted in the resignation of the university’s long-time honors college dean, Gary Bell, who questioned the costs of tier-one and told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, “Research is being so emphasized that teaching is being eclipsed.”

Athletics have come to play a part in the public university perception as well. Of the top 25 public schools, only the College of William and Mary and the four smaller University of California schools do not play in a major athletic conference. Athletics is seen as a way of increasing name recognition for schools competing as a national university.

It’s the reason why Khator sent an e-mail to President William Powers Jr. earlier in the year with a gentle reminder about UH’s athletic and academic standings compared to other Big 12 institutions, according to the Houston Chronicle. It is also why UT-San Antonio launched a football program this year, according to The Texas Tribune.

Over the years, our system of valuing degrees comes closer and closer to how we value stocks. New tools attempt to quantify and churn every quantifiable and churnable nugget available. The countless benefits of data are overshadowed and mistrusted because of their use for external judgment rather than internal improvement. Four out of the state's six university system chancellors are former politicians who were brought in for their ability to sell their institutions.

Perception lies at what bothered UT administrators the most over the last year. With an already established brand within the state, UT’s battle is not for recognition. But a carefully constructed image meant to catapult the University toward the top of the nation’s best public universities fell apart due to pressures from within.

It was not simply questions surrounding efficiency, graduation rates, faculty productivity and academic research in their own rights but rather that the questions morphed from an academic conversation into a nasty battle in front of the public’s eyes. The issues pitted the state’s flagship against its own governing body and illustrated an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism and instability to the entire country.

Mom always said to not care about what others think. But in higher education, that’s all that seems to matter.

— Shabab Siddiqui for the editorial board.