Texas Coalition for Excellence

Alumni launch online campaign and video alleging Regent mismanagement

A group of prominent University donors and involved alumni have launched an online campaign criticizing the recent behavior of the UT System Board of Regents.

Alumni Charles Tate, Joe Jamail and Julius Glickman founded the campaign, entitled “Wake Up, Longhorns,” after two years of disturbing actions taken by the Regents, Glickman said. The campaign encourages concerned citizens to contact state representatives.

“So many of the recent acts [by the Regents] can be categorized as taking us from excellence into mediocrity,” Glickman said. “That’s what this is really about.” 

Glickman cited pressure from the board to increase enrollment while refusing a request to raise tuition as just one of several examples of mismanagement. 

Jamail, Tate and Glickman are all members of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, an organization formed to “promote excellence, accountability and progress” in the state’s universities. Tate and Glickman also sit on the coalition’s executive committee. Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said the two organizations have similar goals but are not connected. 

“Concerns over the micromanagement of the University by the board are a shared concern,” Sarver said.

Cost. Affordability. Four-year graduation rates. These buzzwords continue to fly around in the state higher education debate. One group is looking to turn focus to another buzzword ­— excellence.

The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education met for its first in-person meeting Friday. The group formed in June as a response to the higher education debate and to critics like The Texas Public Policy Foundation.

TPPF is a conservative think tank that has criticized the importance of research at state universities and emphasized the importance of teaching in efforts to get students through the University at a faster rate. This debate has alarmed some faculty and administrators at universities like UT Austin and Texas A&M, who worry about maintaining tier-one research status.

Jaime Grunlan, Texas A&M mechanical engineering associate professor, spoke at the members-only coalition meeting and with The Daily Texan afterward.

At the meeting Grunlan talked about his concerns with TPPF’s influence, including what he calls the privatization of public education. He said TPPF puts value on the profits more than the quality of the education.

“Their goal is pushing people through — a diploma mill,” Grunlan said. “It’s as if they’re saying we want all the benefit that you create as a university, but we don’t want to pay for any of it.”

Grunlan said the state workforce would also suffer with more TPPF influence on UT Austin and Texas A&M because companies would leave Texas in search of recent graduates who are better prepared.

About 100 of the total 323 coalition members attended the meeting that included multiple university leaders who addressed the coalition.

“I was very impressed by the commitment by leadership at UT,” Grunlan said. “I was disappointed by the lack of support by the leadership at A&M.”

He said TPPF has a great influence on the Board of Regents at both the UT System and the Texas A&M University System. UT System Regent Brenda Pejovich serves on TPPF’s board of directors.

“They own the regents,” Grunlan said. “It’s a complete conflict of interest, but it’s legal.”

Grunlan said the coalition wants requirements for regents before they are appointed by the Governor to reduce these conflicts of interest.

“We don’t want people who are part of an organization who have one agenda,” Grunlan said. “This is a very dictator-like regime.”

Tom Lindsay, TPPF’s center for higher education director, said the foundation wants to improve four-year graduation rates and lower tuition. Lindsay said the concern about diploma-mills is valid, but said he does not know anyone who would dilute educational standards to increase graduation rates. Lindsay said questions about quality would be resolved with an external evaluation that tests students at the beginning and end of their college career.

“How much value have our public universities given our students?” Lindsay said. “Universities need to stop complaining that people are asking them questions and they need to start addressing the needs of their students.”

Lindsay said TPPF’s concern is not whether universities should or should not do research, but whether the education is competitive in the global marketplace.

“Research and teaching are both essential at a tier-one university, but I think no matter what university, teaching has got to come first,” Lindsay said.

Student Government President Natalie Butler spoke at the coalition meeting about the affects of the higher education debate on the next generation. Butler said she thinks the general student population is informed of the debate, but is not engaged. She said the biggest issues for students align with the concerns of the coalition and include the cost, value and excellence of higher education.

“This group of people really loves the universities that they came from and they want to protect their legacies,” Butler said. “We need to realize that higher education is an investment in our state’s future.”

Now that Harry Potter has finally defeated Voldemort, we can return to dealing with the other You-Know-Who. We’re talking, of course, about Rick O’Donnell and his funding-eaters at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

In June, more than 200 alumni and other individuals concerned with the ongoing debate over Texas higher education banded together to form the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education. Calling themselves a “powerful and diverse group of Texas business, philanthropic and community leaders,” the coalition has published several press releases, primarily in direct response to prominent criticisms of the University. For example, former UT System adviser Rick O’Donnell published a new report last week attacking faculty productivity and workload. Within hours, the coalition published a scathing retort, centered around ad hominem attacks on O’Donnell while largely glossing over the report’s findings and recommendations, saying only that the ideas “have been previously rejected through analytical and knowledgeable review.”

So far it seems the coalition’s primary purpose is to do just that, to rebut the latest attack on the UT status quo. Albeit, it is a worthwhile battle in many regards. Several of the proposals offered up by the TPPF in the form of the “seven breakthrough solutions” are misguided and short-sighted “reforms” that would have an extremely negative impact on the quality of education offered by UT. The problem, rather, is that the ongoing debate over the role of research at UT seems to be the only battle the coalition wants to fight. Rather than being advocates for improving the University, the group has been content to serve as a public relations firm, vigorously defending the University administration with a circle-the-wagons mentality.

That protectionist mindset might not be such a glaring issue if the status quo were not so ghastly itself. Since 2004, when tuition was deregulated, the cost of attending UT has risen 40 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation over the same period, including constant tuition hikes both before and during the recession.

And while state appropriations have remained relatively stagnant, University operating costs have continued to rise every year since the mid 1990s. Now that the budget reductions have been finalized, it is almost inevitable that the University will seek to raise tuition next year.

Our University’s president has been quick to cite the fact that while state appropriations once accounted for a large percentage of the University’s funding, they now only constitute around 14 percent of the budget. What doesn’t get mentioned is how the University’s operating costs have exploded over the same time period. Until the recent budget reduction, the state wasn’t giving us less; we were just spending more.

If this coalition really is more than the University administration’s pet watchdog, then it’s time to show some teeth. The University’s president has a fully staffed public affairs office to write press releases and defend the systems and structures they have created. The administration can fight its own battles.

The real question is whether this coalition is willing to stick up for students, some of whom won’t be able to afford the next round of tuition hikes and will subsequently be forced out of the University. Among the endless back-and-forth over the value of research and faculty workloads, the debate has largely glossed over the most important constituency involved: the students. Whether those students should be viewed as consumers in a market-driven industry or sages thirsting for the attainment of knowledge is a matter of personal opinion and, quite frankly, irrelevant. What is relevant is just how much tuition is going to increase by next year and how many classes and faculty will be cut.

Over the past year, the ongoing debate regarding the future of Texas higher education has devolved into a dichotomous struggle between two polar ideologies. Both sides claim to have students’ best interests at heart, yet neither is acting like it. One camp seems perfectly content to continue the tuition hikes and budget expansion of the last 10 years, thereby recommitting UT to the bidding war that higher education in this country has become. Meanwhile, our “reformers” seem set on bleeding the University down to a community college. And while downgrading the quality of education offered by the University should not be an option, upgrading UT via a Harvardesque price tag is an equally unacceptable outcome.

The next year promises a new set of difficulties for this University, both for its leaders and constituents. Now more than ever, students need their most vocal advocates to recognize the implications of larger tuition hikes before the die is cast. Balancing UT’s budget on the backs of students is not an acceptable outcome.

Dave Player for the editorial board.

The author of a report that decries UT-Austin faculty workloads said he doesn’t believe his conclusion about the University needs to change, despite new and verified faculty data released by the UT System.

Last week, the UT System released updated data detailing faculty salaries, class sizes and tenure status, an update on system data released May 5. A report from the Center for College Affordability & Productivity noted, based on the original UT System data, that 20 percent of UT-Austin faculty teach more than half the student body.

Richard Vedder, an economist from Ohio University and author of the report, said UT would be able to significantly reduce inefficiencies and tuition if the remaining 80 percent of the faculty, who teach smaller and fewer classes, increased their teaching loads. Vedder said the new data list one group of senior administrators as non-instructional faculty, differentiating them from other faculty who teach one or two classes a year. The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education said last week Vedder’s report considers that group among the “least productive” faculty members.

Vedder also said there is great disparity in faculty teaching loads because most professors are teaching smaller classes and doing research as well. Some research is not cited by anyone or is only published in obscure journals, which fails to serve society, he said.

“People [are] writing hundreds of articles about self-esteem,” Vedder said. “[It has] sort of an anti-intellectual quality to it.”
He said unless the impact of the research is extremely high, professors shouldn’t have flexible teaching schedules — rather, they should increase the number of students they teach each year.

English professor Jerome Bump said he is doing research that involves students going out in the community and rescuing animals that are sentenced to death because nobody is willing to adopt them. These students work with Austin Pets Alive! and write small biographical advertisements on Craigslist to save animals, Bump said.

“This assignment gives students an ethical motivation to write,” he said. “It strengthens the foundation of ethics, which enhances the ultimate ethical virtue: compassion.”

He said people like Vedder are out of touch with the origins of the University. One of UT’s graduation requirements is that students take at least one course with a leadership and ethics component. These courses develop a sense of ethics and morality in students, which Bump said is so essential and beneficial for society.

“[This] means creating leaders in society that democracy cannot function without,” he said.

Bump said the sense of morality is far more important to cultivate than learning how to make mobile homes, which Vedder would most likely consider more important than humanities and arts.

“The minute you stop valuing arts and humanities, you’re instantly doomed,” said Student Government President Natalie Butler.

Butler, a communication and liberal arts senior, said nobody knows the value of any research until someone starts doing it. Research done in liberal arts can help students develop good writing and research skills, she said.

Gordon Appleman, UT alumnus and member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, said it is highly unusual for the UT Board of Regents to request data that will cast the University in a negative light.

“These people seemed to be intent on harming the University,” Appleman said. 

A report by The Center of College Affordability and Productivity classifies high-level administrators as the least productive members of the University, according to a Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education press release.

The coalition, which formed in June, came out with a statement Tuesday saying the center’s analysis casts the University’s senior officials in a negative light. The report used preliminary data released by the UT System in May and used it to propose solutions that would significantly undermine education, according to the press release.

“A number of people who have been involved in Texas with higher education like myself have examined what [these] proposals are, and we don’t like it very much,” said former UT president Peter Flawn, who serves on the executive committee of the coalition.

People who support this analysis are characterizing the value of education using numbers, statistics and percentages that do not capture the full quality of research and education at the University, Flawn said.

Richard Vedder is an Ohio University economics professor who authored the center’s report. Vedder said President William Powers Jr.’s administrative salary is excessive at about $1 million a year. Powers earned $746,738 last year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Vedder said Powers teaches one class a year and has a student interaction of about 100 hours. He said if professors taught more students per year, tuition could be reduced significantly. Powers and other senior officials represent only one percent of the faculty, and if you took them out, the analysis would remain the same, Vedder said.

“As a professor of 40 years, it seems to me that a person can do a good bit of research while still maintaining [a high] teaching load,” he said.

Powers said he is not as well-paid as some of the other university presidents in the country. As president, he said he works about 80 hours a week.

“In most schools, presidents and deans do not teach at all,” Powers said. “I teach my freshman seminar, [which] I am not required to do, but I think it’s good for the curriculum.”

Some people don’t understand that increasing class sizes can be dire for students and their academic experience, he said.

Powers publicly criticized the Seven Breakthrough Solutions — written by Jeff Sandefer and endorsed by Gov. Rick Perry — in an op-ed published this month. Powers said he wants to continue a vigorous conversation about solutions to the challenges facing Texas higher education.

Printed on 06/30/2011 as: Powers speaks out against evaluations of UT administrators

A new coalition of education advocates seeks to counter efforts by Gov. Rick Perry and state boards of regents that members say could dilute the quality of education in Texas.

A press release Wednesday announced the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which has 200 founding members. Student Government President Natalie Butler serves on the group’s 20-member executive committee. Other prominent figures include former lieutenant governors Bill Ratliff and Bill Hobby, former UT System Chancellor Dan Burck, former University President Peter Flawn and former regents such as H. Scott Caven, according to the press release.

“We are concerned by some ideas of the governor, Board of the Regents and Texas Public Policy Foundation,” Butler said.

Those entities have put forth suggestions to reduce research funding so that only self-supported research would be allowed at universities, she said. Reports also talk about doubling class sizes to halve tuition, which would significantly undermine the value of education for students, Butler said.

“We are going to share our vision of higher education that is at odds with some of the things being discussed,” she said. “The group will be working to put out accurate information about things that the University is doing.”

Jenifer Sarver, the group’s spokeswoman, said it is a grassroots effort to bring positive ideas forward, but that the Coalition doesn’t have a formal structure or organization.

“We do not have a blueprint of what it looks like [yet],” Sarver said.

It is important to realize that this is a group of senior individuals with experience and expertise to make right decisions for higher education and they are committed to making this a priority regardless of their political affiliations, she said.

“I think it’s a real testament when people from both political parties can come together,” said UT Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty.

Gene Powell, the chairman for the UT System Board of Regents, said he strongly encourages groups and organizations to present positive ideas for the 15 UT System universities and medical institutions. The Board welcomes people to express opinions concerning higher education within the UT System and the institutions it serves, he said in a statement to The Daily Texan.

“The Board looks forward to hearing this new group and working with them in the areas of quality, access, accountability and transparency, which are important to all of us,” Powell said.

Texans dedicated to high standards in research and teaching at Texas public universities formed the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.

The group’s more than 200 founding members include businesspeople, former university presidents and system chancellors, philanthropists and other education experts, according to a press release. They aim to advance job growth and innovation by maintaining and improving higher education standards.

“Texans want to lead, not follow; we want the world’s next great discovery to come from Texas, and we are committed to supporting the high quality research and teaching that will allow that to happen,” said the coalition in a statement. “High quality universities are engines of economic growth and incubators of creativity.”

The coalition comes at a time of tension between higher education administrators and the state’s boards of regents. Gov. Rick Perry and some Perry-appointed regents advocate a separation of research and teaching as well as other moves such as larger class sizes to increase efficiency that UT President William Powers Jr. said will undermine the quality of the University and inhibit its mission. The coalition’s statement echoed Powers’ sentiments.

“We are alarmed that some recommendations being floated by others ... are a prescription for mediocrity that would have severe and negative long-term consequences for our state,” the statement said.

The “volunteer advocates” who comprise the committee will “encourage continued transparency, progress and reform” and demand the continuance and growth of diverse educational opportunities across the state, according to the release.