Ronald Trowbridge

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Umbridge, the meddling powermonger turned High Inquisitor, ousts beloved Headmaster Albus Dumbledore on dubious grounds in order to advance her own agenda. A similar episode took place at Michigan’s Hillsdale College in 1999, when vice president Ronald Trowbridge led the effort to fire the university’s president. According to a 1999 National Review article, Trowbridge, similar to the like-named Umbridge, had only circumstantial evidence, but, he said: “Circumstantial evidence is the most damaging evidence there is, because it’s the most difficult to arrange.”

Before he retired from full-time work, Ronald Trowbridge worked as chief of staff to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, a university professor, a vice president of Hillsdale College, and a director for both the Fulbright Program and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He is now a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin think tank with a mission statement emphasizing “personal responsibility,” “free enterprise” and “limited government.”

Trowbridge leads the growing ranks of conservatives focused on the inefficiencies of public universities. In numerous reports and editorials, he advocates for the privatization of university services, more comprehensive proof of professors’ productivity, reductions in research funding and heavier teaching loads for tenured professors.

In his article, “Victory by Compromise,” posted last September on the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s website, Trowbridge applauds UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s “Framework for Advancing Excellence” action plan. Passed by the UT System Board of Regents in August 2011, Cigarroa’s plan includes an extensive online database of professors’ teaching loads, research grants, student evaluations and more. Trowbridge’s measurements of professors’ success not only emphasize accountability but also prioritize efficiency and financial gain over the academic value of their research.

Trowbridge’s arguments showcase conservative policymakers’ underlying mistrust of any work that doesn’t generate a profit. “A professor is always going to say, ‘My research is important,’ but that may or may not be true,” he said in a recent interview. “You need to ask if you do your research, does it have any influence on the outside world, does anybody care, does anybody read it?”

To illustrate his point, Trowbridge brings in the Bard. “In the last 20 years, there have been 29,000 articles on Shakespeare in the world,” he says. “The question is: Do you really need another one? The scholar is going to say ‘absolutely yes,’ but I really wonder about that.”

English professor and Liberal Arts Honors Program director Larry Carver qualifies as an “absolutely yes” scholar. “Every generation has to discover its own Shakespeare,” he says. “The reason we reread it is not so much about generating anything particularly new, but learning about ourselves.”

Gordon Appleman, UT alumnus and member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education’s executive committee said, “The argument that some academic research is not worthy of financial support is symptomatic of the short-sighted philosophy held by some so-called higher education ‘reformers’ that a measurable return on investment must be immediately evident to be valuable.”

Trowbridge’s solution to the problem: “If you privatize you entirely avoid anybody politicizing the school … the university is able to select its own Regents, and the school can do anything it wants to do,” he says.

This approach also opens the door for politicization by private funders, including corporations and the predatory banks.

Trowbridge deflects accusations of hypocrisy. His dissertation on influences of Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle inspired a book, but then he concluded, “If I published the book, almost no one would care and almost no one would buy it.

In the end, Trowbridge represents only a small part of a larger trend toward molding the university experience into a more cost-effective, four-year dash. His attempts to streamline higher education is reminiscent of one of Dolores Umbridge’s more troubling proclamations during her tenure as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor: “It is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be sufficient to get you through your examinations, which after all, is what school is all about.”

Oliver is an English and sociology major from New Braunfels

UT and Texas A&M found common ground on the importance of academic research during a higher education conference Friday.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, hosted the conference to stimulate debate on the direction of higher education reforms. Ronald Trowbridge, a senior fellow at the foundation, spoke with UT’s President William Powers Jr. and A&M Faculty Senate representative Robert Strawser.

Trowbridge said faculty should be held accountable for their teaching methods and academic research through evaluations of their performances. He said the public should encourage policy makers to inject efficiency measures into how universities spend public money.

“I want what was done to Rick O’Donnell, the scrutiny there, to be put right back on Powers and Strawser and the trustees and the governor and everybody in this state,” Trowbridge said. “I want it to be an open act of honesty and debate.”

O’Donnell left the UT System prematurely after alumni, donors and lawmakers publicly expressed concern over teaching-centric reforms he espoused as a researcher at the foundation and adviser to the Board of Regents.

Powers said Texas’ two major public research institutions need to adapt pathways through the universities for student benefit and to reform business practices to ensure efficient use of their resources.

“If the issue is change, then we embrace it and have been doing it for a long time,” Powers said.

He said the debate is over what functions to value as universities implement efficiency measures. Powers said the University exists to produce new knowledge and new leaders who apply that knowledge.

He said recent debates initiated by alumni on higher education reforms stem from the desire to preserve the core of the University’s mission, which some proposals threaten by devaluing academic research.

Powers said the 21,674 scholarly articles published on Shakespeare since 1980 illustrate the continuous reinterpretation of how great works of literature apply to each generation. Trowbridge, who stated the number first, said the articles represent waste in academic research that more transparency would eliminate.

Applying free-market logic to public aid to higher education allows universities to expand spending in pursuit of prestige and rankings, while losing focus on the quality of their instruction, Neal McCluskey and Matthew Denhart said in a separate two-person panel discussion. McCluskey is an associate director for the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, and Denhart is an administrative director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

They said continually increasing student costs have created barriers to access to education. The aid money that gives many students their only possibility of attending college also drives inefficiency and higher costs, they said.

“If you’re using your own money, you are going to demand you are getting something of value for it,” McCluskey said. “Students are using other people’s money for higher education. That means they have greatly limited incentives to say, ‘Be very transparent about what I’m going to get for my education.’”

He said federal aid, mostly in the form of student financial aid and research funding, has almost tripled per pupil since 1985, but state and local aid, mostly paid directly to institutions, peaked in 2000 but is now below 1985 levels.

Journalism professor Robert Jensen said quantifying educational gains as products degrades and ignores what successful educational outcomes look like.

“Education is not a producer providing a product to a consumer,” Jensen said.

In a guest column in The Texas Tribune on Friday, Ronald Trowbridge, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, outlined the TPPF’s position that universities are prioritizing research over teaching.

Citing a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute, Trowbridge stated that from 1980 to 2006, 21,674 scholarly articles were published on Shakespeare and then asked, “Do we need the 21,675th?”

At a panel discussion on Friday on higher education reforms, which included President William Powers Jr., Trowbridge stuck to his script and read from his column in The Texas Tribune. However, in a seemingly unscripted moment, Trowbridge looked up from his paper and asked: “Why don’t they instead read the plays?”

Trowbridge neglects to examine what actually goes on inside the classroom. Never in my experience as an English major at UT have professors forced research upon me. Trowbridge could have discovered this had he glanced at a couple of English class syllabi. The vast majority of classes require readings of these “plays,” novels and poems — never any scholarly articles. After reading the actual texts, our professors prefer that we discuss the texts in class rather than lecture on what others have had to say about them. It is then our responsibility to interpret the texts in some original way and compose an essay — one that with time and dedication could very well become the 21,675th scholarly article on Shakespeare. As students, we need those 21,674 articles on Shakespeare to inform us and guide us in our search for an original thesis.

While researching for term papers, it was always rewarding to encounter scholarly articles and books published by my professors. Their research and publications emphasize their qualifications and makes me proud to be studying at UT. To have an authority on the text take the time to seriously discuss the text with you and guide you through it leaves a lasting impression. After finding those publications, my professors have always been there to discuss their relevance with me and offer any additional help with composing a strong, original argument. Never have they been too busy with their own research to skip their office hours or to accommodate me at another time.

As a senior English major at UT, I take offense at Trowbridge’s assertion that another scholarly article on Shakespeare would contribute nothing to academia. If that 21,675th Shakespeare article is unnecessary, then I ask myself, what is the point of an English major at all? The essence of the English major is to critically engage these texts and consider them in a new light, not exclusively read others’ opinions about them. Perhaps Trowbridge should consider attending a few classes himself before leveling ignorant charges at the academy.

Editor’s note: On Friday the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) hosted a panel to discuss several issues pertaining to Texas higher education, including a set of controversial reforms published by the foundation. Former TPPF staffer Rick O’Donnell generated controversy when he was hired as an adviser by the Board of Regents in February and was subsequently fired last month. UT President William Powers, Jr. attended on behalf of the University. The following quotes were reported by The Texas Tribune.

Discussing higher education

“The big bulk of what we do is undergraduate teaching, and that needs to undergo revision and change as well. If the issue is change, we embrace it and have been doing it for a long time.”

— UT President William Powers Jr., at the panel, responding to criticisms of the role of research within the University

“I agree with almost everything Bill said. I agree with almost nothing Dr. Trowbridge said.”

— Texas A&M accounting professor Robert Strawser who sat on the TPPF’s panel on behalf of A&M’s faculty senate

“I’m not certain what that means.”

— Strawser responding to a question on “results-based contracts,” one of the TPPF’s seven “breakthrough solutions.”

“A recent study issued by the American Enterprise Institute reveals, for example, that from 1980 to 2006, 21,674 scholarly articles were published on Shakespeare. Do we need the 21,675th?”

— Forum attendee and TPPF senior fellow Ronald Trowbridge in a column published in The Texas Tribune. Trowbridge, who has been critical of what he calls an overemphasis on research by universities, cited several points from his column throughout the forum.

“Football coaches, who work with bodies, are subject to intense accountability. Professors, who work with minds, are not. Go figure.”

— Trowbridge calling for increased accountability measures for professors in his column.

“How is research actually practiced throughout all academic disciples in a research university? My suspicion is that no one fully knows and that the assumption is that all research is valuable.”

— Trowbridge, reiterating his criticism of the status quo regarding university research.