Texas Public Policy Foundation

(From left to right) Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, Chairman Gene Powell, and General Council to the Board Francie Frederick listen to the Board of Regents decisions at their meeting this past Thursday.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

In late August of 2011, both Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System, and Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System, laid out new visions for their systems.

Though McCall’s “Picking Up the Pace” plan came first, Cigarroa’s “Framework for Advancing Excellence” garnered the most attention. He has been invited to the White House to discuss it — twice. Cigarroa’s is also more comprehensive and specific in its goals, but both lay out similar thematic plans, such as implementing strategies to reduce students’ time to degree completion, improve graduation rates and increase philanthropic giving to their universities.

In the past week, both chancellors had occasion to review their progress with their respective boards of regents.

Generally, both leaders gave rosy reviews to the progress in their systems. For example, McCall noted that collaboration across his system is on the rise, and Cigarroa observed that the UT System had strengthened and clarified its post-tenure review. Institutions in both systems have implemented $10,000 degree programs, as Gov. Rick Perry called for in early 2011.

But there is still room for improvement. In his new “Setting the Pace” report, while discussing graduation rates, McCall notes, “We still need to better understand why those who leave our institutions without earning degrees do so.”

A framework update put out by the UT System points out that much progress remains on the goals to expand health education and opportunities in South Texas, though Cigarroa recently announced the system’s intention to graduate its first medical school class in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 2018.

The UT System framework grew out of months of turmoil sparked by disagreements over how the regents should go about reforming higher education. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, was the source of some of the most controversial proposals to the state’s higher education policies.

The TPPF endorsed the framework when it debuted, and stood by that endorsement as its anniversary approached. But Thomas Lindsay, the director of the TPPF’s Center for Higher Education, cautioned against losing sight of improving how much students actually learn in college as the framework is implemented.

“We cannot speak credibly of ‘advancing excellence’ in public higher education without taking first into account whether and how much students increase their knowledge as a result of investing four years in college,” he said in a statement. “While increased graduation rates, online learning advances, sponsored research, increased advising and the like are important goals, to focus on these rather than the central goal of student learning serves little purpose.”

But at Thursday’s UT System regents meeting, the framework was clearly a source of pride. “From what I understand, the chancellor’s framework is quickly becoming a national model,” said Gene Powell, the chairman of the board of regents.

“It is a work in progress focused on continual improvement,” Cigarroa said in a statement. “Some initiatives have been completed; for others, we have created the infrastructures that will yield substantive results over time.”

Lindsay did not specifically comment on McCall’s plan for the Texas State University System, which has largely avoided the controversy that embroiled the state’s two largest university systems: UT and the Texas A&M University System.

McCall also marked the anniversary by calling for further improvements in the coming year, including increasing the use of electronic textbooks and examining ways to reduce planning and construction costs for new facilities.

“Now that the pace has been set, we know what we must continue to do,” he said in his report. “The future is the result of what we do now.”

Reporting by Reeve Hamilton of the Texas Tribune.

Higher education coalition voices opposition to affordability center's analysis

The Texas Coalition of Excellence for Higher Education opposes what it calls a "flawed" analysis by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity that undermines the efforts of administrators and professors at UT, according to a press release this morning.

The press release outlines yet another attack on the administrators and especially the UT President William Powers Jr. The members of the coalition believe that the report attacks people like Powers who teach in addition to their administrative duties.

Last month, UT System released salaries of the professors and class enrollment sizes. A cautionary statement warned the readers that data is premature and cannot yield accurate analysis.

Texas Public Policy Foundation said in a recent interview with the Daily Texan that less productive professors and excessive academic research should also be eliminated. Richard Vedder, who authored the CCAP report, based his analysis on the data and concluded that increasing class enrollment can halve tuition. The coalition said his analysis also condemns administrators who also teach for being unproductive.

"In addition to President Powers, two vice provosts and 11 university deans, including the deans of the colleges of Architecture, Nursing, Communication, Pharmacy, Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, among others, as well as many associate deans, department chairs and directors fall in the bottom quintile of the study, when sorted for the simplistic measure of productivity," according to the press release.

The Coalition formed this month seeks to oppose some of the proposals supported by Gov. Rick Perry, the TPPF and Vedder.

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.”

The University released a second productivity report Friday, continuing its battle of numbers against critics of public higher education.

Authored again by Marc Musick, sociology professor and associate dean for student affairs at the College of Liberal Arts — and now the University’s go-to number cruncher — the report analyzes faculty productivity through the lens of teaching and externally-funded research.

Among the report’s major findings is that the amount of money faculty members bring in through teaching and research is more than double the amount of money the state contributes to faculty salaries and benefits.

The report uses the same subset of data used by Rick O’Donnell — former senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former UT System adviser — in July to categorize various UT and Texas A&M faculty members as dodgers, coasters, sherpas, pioneers and stars based on their teaching loads and research. It is also the same data used by Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, in a report in May that references low teaching loads among UT faculty members as the reason for increases in tuition.

In many ways, Musick’s report is meant to serve as a handy pocket guide for University officials to spew off UT’s faculty box score as they continue to address productivity critics. It does a fair job in identifying the nuances of the University that can be the root of misinterpretation and in acknowledging the shortfalls in using narrow variables to paint the full picture.

However, Musick’s report does nothing to shake the stigma of intractability that hounds higher education institutions.

For starters, while UT and A&M were at the center of the higher education controversy earlier this year, the real targets of criticism were all higher education institutions in the state. Moreover, with elected officials like Florida Gov. Rick Scott praising Texas’ controversy as good for higher education reform and with the Cato Institute hosting a conference called “Squeezing the Tower: Are We Getting All We Can from Higher Education?” this Friday in Washington D.C., this is very much a national debate.

In this way, UT is opting to not start anything that changes the world but rather remain in a stance of self-defense. By withdrawing into report-publishing protectionism and hoping to pass four-year graduation rates as a sign of progression, the conversation remains in the arena of the loudest critics.

A further problem is that higher education — especially faculty members — remains vulnerable to outside criticism. Words such as “clockless,” “overpaid” and “elitist” are tossed out shamelessly at faculty members whose only real protection is the already much-criticized institution.

At the root of this problem is a disconnection between the institution and its faculty members and the most potent force of defense: the community. When the extent of a university’s engagement with so many members of its neighboring community is limited to touchdowns and interceptions on Saturdays, the foundation of potential support for its academic mission is marginalized.

In the end, dancing to the songs of faculty productivity distracts us all from asking the real questions that address what public higher education actually provides to the public. 

Don Evans, former chair of the UT System Board of Regents, testifies about policy practices in front of the Joint Oversight Committee for Higher Education.

Photo Credit: Fanny Trang | Daily Texan Staff

The UT-Austin president and UT System chancellor’s jobs are safe, according to a statement made by the UT System Board of Regents chair during a Monday forum designed to address questions regarding a recent research controversy.

The state Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency met with current and former chairs of the state university systems for its second meeting on Monday. The committee formed this spring following controversy surrounding a conservative think tank’s seven solutions to higher education.

The think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has suggested that public universities measure teaching efficiency more systematically and has published policy statements that support splitting research and teaching budgets in order to place more scrutiny on research funding. Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, committee co-chair, said it does not seem like the board has policy independence separate from the think tank.

“My concern is that they were the only one who had such an influence and that they hijacked the higher education agenda,” Zaffirini said.

Zaffirini said there were rumors about interest in firing UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. and Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

“They are both very much respected and loved by members of the Legislature,” Zaffirini said.

Zaffirini said she had been told the university presidents had been muzzled by the Board of Regents.

“This session I was absolutely shocked at the limited communication from regents and presidents about the impact in reductions in funding,” Zaffirini said. “The directive was don’t whine, don’t complain and that they could deal with those reductions in funding.”

UT System Board of Regents chair Gene Powell said the rumors are unfounded.

Powell said he did not know of any muzzling and only mentioned how the chancellor should approach the Legislature.

“I said I would like for the chancellor to present these problems in a positive light,” Powell said.

She said chairs should not micromanage the universities they serve.

When asked about the controversy, Powell said the discussion allowed for the UT System chancellor’s Framework for Excellence action plan.

“There were a lot of people looking at what was happening and [jumping] to conclusions,” Powell said. “What we really care about is, what was the end result?”

Zaffirini said she has seen many confidential emails of UT System regents that concern her, and she did not think any of them should be marked confidential.

Powell said Rick O’Donnell, a former researcher for the Texas Public Policy Foundation who was fired amid research controversy, was the most qualified to be hired as a special advisor to the Board of Regents.

“I would say that it was a mistake on my part,” Powell said. “I got very good reports from those people and it turned out t not work.”

Powell said he did not want to reveal who gave him the recommendation about O’Donnell because they had not given him permission to identify them.

“They sure had an impact based on their recommendation,” Zaffirini said. “It falls under the charge of not only governance, but of transparency.” 

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank, hired Tom Lindsay as director for their Center for Higher Education.

The think tank has suggested that public universities measure teaching efficiency more systematically and has published policy statements that support splitting research and teaching budgets in order to place more scrutiny on research funding.

Before taking the new position, Lindsay served as the provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Dallas from 1999 to 2004 and as president of Shimer College, a liberal arts college in Chicago, from 2008 to 2010. He was removed as president of Shimer by its governing board when he changed the school’s mission statement. Between his time at the two schools, Lindsay served as deputy director at the National Endowment for the Humanities, where he worked on a $75 million program to encourage the study of American history and culture.

The Daily Texan: Why did the Shimer College faculty unanimously oppose the change in mission statement?
Tom Lindsay: I rewrote the mission statement to stress the relationship between education and liberty and that didn’t go over well with some folks. I rewrote it to reflect the fact that education at the highest, aims to free the mind from unexamined assumptions or prejudices. Some among the faculty took the emphasis on freedom as ideological. It wasn’t political freedom that I was saying was the highest purpose, it was intellectual freedom.

DT: What is the main goal of the Texas Public Policy Foundation?
TL: It’s trying to increase affordability, accountability and transparency with the chief goal in mind to recommend measures to increase accessibility to a college education for students who can’t afford it. I think that’s the biggest issue the state is facing.

DT: What role should research play at Tier 1 universities like UT?
TL: I think that it should play a big role. I’m someone who’s been published for many years and I know the value of research and I want to see that continue.

DT: What is the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s stance about the role of research at universities?
TL: My understanding as I looked at the dialogue, TPPF has not been against research. It has been to recognize great researchers and great teachers. There are those gifted few who are excellent at both and you want to do what you can to support them.

DT: What do you think about the future of higher education in Texas?
TL: I’m very optimistic about the future of higher education in Texas. I’m very impressed coming in here from the outside with the seriousness with which the dialogue has progressed. I know that when you’re in the middle of it people focus on the heat, but I think a lot of light came from it.

DT: How should community colleges fit into higher education?
TL: We’re not going to be able to answer the call to increase college graduation rates without full use of our community colleges. We need to work as a state to create a smoother transition from community colleges to four-year colleges.  

Printed on Friday, October 14, 2011 as: Think tank director defends education, research ideas

Last Tuesday, the much-maligned Texas Public Policy Foundation released a statement from their new Director for Higher Education Research, Thomas Lindsay. The Texas Public Policy Foundation is the Austin think tank, which produced the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for improving higher education earlier this year and precipitated a major controversy.

Lindsay has had a long career in higher education and was most recently president of Shimer College, a small liberal arts college in Chicago which follows a “Great Book” curriculum. However, Lindsay was voted out of the position by the college community after strongly supporting a mission statement many believed to be charged with libertarian ideology. Lindsay also criticized what he called the “peerless” ability of institutions of higher education to circle the wagons and resist change.

More recently, Lindsay has fanned old flames by calling the notorious and now-comatose “seven solutions” a “good start,” according to the Texas Tribune. Lindsay’s hire portends more of the same from the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Fortunately for UT, renewed cries of waste will likely be too little, too late. While the storm of controversy lingers on, UT has responded and is addressing the criticism directed at it. Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s Framework for Advancing Excellence in Education and UT President William Powers’ insistence that must UT improve its four-year graduation rates signify a system and campus that are serious about reform. If there is any wagon circling, it is only designed to ensure that the right people — University administrators, faculty, staff and students — are the ones making the changes. UT has received the “reform” message, stopped arguing and started working.

And if outsider commentators wish to continue beating their war drums on an empty battlefield, we should pay them no mind.

Printed on Friday, October 14, 2011 as: TPPF's higher education baggage

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.

DT Spotlight: Role of Research

Editor’s note: In recent months, research at the University has come under the critical eye of individuals and groups, Texans and non-Texans, and in- and outsiders of the higher education community. This is the first part of a five part series to explore different the impact of UT research in a range of disciplines.

UT’s research and new discoveries set it apart as a tier one research university, but that mission has come under attack from groups and individuals including the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Gov. Rick Perry.

According to the University’s website, research brought $644 million to the University and $2.8 billion and 16,000 jobs to the state of Texas.

“Our scientists and scholars, from many disciplines but united in the common purpose of advancing knowledge, made strides toward the future with discoveries in energy, biomedicine, supercomputing and the humanities,” said Juan Sanchez, vice president for research on the website.

Brent Iverson, professor and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry chair, said his research encompasses chemistry and biology. Iverson and his colleagues are working to create proteins that are used to fight cancer and autoimmune disorders.

“We are working on ways of making new treatments more effective and thus less expensive,” Iverson said.

During his freshman year as an undergraduate, Iverson was inspired to become a scientist by his professor who was a renowned researcher. It is not accurate to talk about research and teaching as separate subjects, Iverson said.

“In fact, research at UT is conducted largely by students at all levels and serves as the most important element of their scientific educations,” he added.

The research experience students receive, in addition to classroom instruction, helps them be more prepared to enter the workforce, Iverson said.

Natural sciences junior Radhika Kumar said she has been working to identify properties and potential applications of nanoparticles to replace more expensive metals in industrial applications.

The experiments teach students to get out of their comfort zone and rely on their observations rather than instructions from a piece of paper, Kumar said.

“You use information you have learned in class and interpret it in order to have the best technique for your experiment,” Kumar said.

Richard Vedder, economist from Ohio State University, said in an interview with The Daily Texan last week that some types of research, particularly those in humanities, do not serve society in any meaningful way.

“People [are] writing hundreds of articles about self-esteem,” Vedder said. “[It has] sort of an anti-intellectual quality to it.”

The College of Liberal Arts does research that examines a wide variety of cultures and human behavior, said Dean Randy Diehl.

“Without that, we wouldn’t be a tier one University,” he said.

Esther Raizen, the college’s associate dean for research, said research in humanities is not different from scientific research in its fundamental goal of advancing human knowledge.

“Like in other disciplines, the impact of humanities research is not immediately observable, not guaranteed,” Raizen said.

Professors in the College are engaged in research that spans different cultures, languages and political and social areas, she said.

Associate sociology professor Andres Villarreal is researching the impact skin color bias in Mexico has on a person’s socioeconomic circumstances, educational attainment, occupational status and income, Raizen said.

She said students also develop great academic and research skills by becoming involved in field work. According to a 2010 survey of the student body, students with research experience generally have higher grade point average.

“Students who enter college with lower SAT scores or class rankings show significantly marked improvement if they engage in research,” she said.

Printed on 07/07/2011 as: Faculty emphasizes research as necessity for academic growth

“The higher education experience is not akin to shopping on iTunes or visiting Banana Republic.”
— Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and the college’s executive leadership team, in a response published online Wednesday.  The administrators recently launched 7solutionsresponse.org to rebut the controversial seven “breakthrough solutions” to higher education in Texas authored and advocated by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“Research shows that when student ratings play a major role in evaluations, instructors tend to be more concerned with managing student impressions of them than with quality teaching and resort to easy grading, course work deflation and grade inflation.”
— The administrators, criticizing a proposal to put greater emphasis on student evaluations when allocating bonus pay for faculty.

“Teaching is evaluated using multiple methods including students’ Course Instructor Survey (CIS) ratings. All written comments submitted by students about a faculty member’s teaching over the prior three years are reviewed.”
— The administrators, explaining how student evaluations are a valid indicator of teaching quality when evaluating professors for tenure.

“Everyone seems to be portraying the seven breakthrough solutions as tablets we carried down from Mount Sinai. They are ideas on paper. We think they are very good ideas, but if other people have better ways to accomplish those objectives, we are open to having a conversation.”
— David Guenthner, spokesman for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, in an interview with The Texas Tribune last month, in response to criticism of the organization’s proposals.

“The report and website were produced by faculty and staff in the dean’s office and Liberal Arts ITS in addition to our regular duties and without any extra compensation.”
College of Liberal Arts spokesman Gary Susswein, responding to concerns about the costs and time to produce the report and launch the website, according to the Austin American-Statesman.