Battling perceptions, avoiding drought

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Monday’s Faculty Council meeting featured concern regarding an article by the Austin American-Statesman titled “Do college ratings of professors make the grade?” published two weeks ago. The article explores the post-tenure review process at UT and illustrates inadequacies by highlighting faculty members who received poor reviews but were not fired by the University.

President William Powers Jr. said during the meeting that articles such as the Statesman’s negatively affect UT in its attempts to attract the best faculty. He asserted that all of the challenges higher education faces can be worked through as long as the University is able to continue to recruit and retain faculty.

In the perception-dominated higher education beauty contest, University officials feel that even the Statesman’s pimple delivery can put it on uneven ground in the competitive pursuit for brand-name faculty members.

As a public university in a transparency-driven state, UT is subject to very broad interpretations of the Freedom of Information Act, making everything from comments in an internal post-tenure review process to wide disparities in faculty salaries fair game for the media and the public. And while information accessibility and open dialogue seems compatible with the spirit of higher education, UT’s dilemma is that it competes in the same market with private universities.

As public universities across the country battle with budget cuts and other forms of internal instability, private universities remain relatively impervious to misdirected calls for change and continue to reinforce the traditional model of higher education. That explains why the top 20 universities on US News and World Report’s Best Colleges of 2012 include no public institutions.

UT’s biggest fear is that even its most perfectly choreographed recruitment rain dances can no longer pour in, or even keep, the breadth of talented faculty that it wants to keep, making most outside commentary seem like a misstep.