A few facts about higher education

Recently, the Houston Chronicle ran an opinion piece by Ronald Trowbridge. Trowbridge is a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and the article appeared first on their web site. I wish that the people who gave Trowbridge the title of “Senior Fellow” at the TPPF had done a little research before sending out his article.

Let me highlight are a few the mistakes that Dr. Trowbridge allows to taint the work of faculty throughout the state.

First, he claims that “many of Texas’ professors today teach only two classes per semester” and that their salaries “run in the vicinity of $100,000 for two semesters.  Do “many” faculty have this kind of teaching load and salary? Yes. However, most do not. Dr. Trowbridge has chosen to talk about the highest-ranked, highest paid faculty at a few of our most elite research institutions and imply that they’re typical. They are not. So, the savings he proposes by boosting faculty teaching loads are much smaller than he would like readers to believe.

Trowbridge dodges the issue of whether or not those salaries are deserved. Yes, full professors (those with decades of experience and a record of success) at the state’s top PhD granting institutions average over $100,000 a year. However, if you have years of success teaching the highest level courses offered on the planet (people from around the world flocking to America’s graduate programs), you probably deserve such salaries. There are Nobel Prize winners making a fraction of the minimum salary in major league baseball.  If Dr. Trowbridge feels brave about taking on the most excessive salaries at UT and A&M, let him start at the top and take on the football coaches. After all, C.S. Lewis did say that, “Courage is the most difficult virtue because it is the testing point of all virtues.”

Trowbridge also forgets the value lowering teaching loads to encourage research. Perhaps Dr. Trowbridge felt his own research was of little value to society. However, the state’s leaders have always realized how much the research coming from our universities contributes to advances in science, medicine, and economic development.

Texas needs to consider the competitive position of our universities as they compete with private schools and private companies. Many faculty labor for salaries that their students wouldn’t accept as a starting salary. I think it’s reasonable that the  faculty training students seeking an MBA make a salary competitive with what a new MBA makes.

If Trowbridge actually valued a heavy teaching load, he would have at least mentioned the faculty that had a heavy teaching load. Instead, he attacked the relatively few who have low teaching loads. Many faculty at the state’s two and four-year schools have exactly the teaching loads Trowbridge suggest. Unfortunately, he prefers to pretend that faculty with high teaching loads don’t exist. He probably chose to ignore us because he knew that making the more nuanced argument would be difficult and it would be easier to play to anger and anti-elitist resentment. The irony is that Trowbridge uses a broad brush to taint all faculty in part because of his elitist views. Those of us who teach more and are paid less are not worth his attention.

After complaining that too much of higher education’s budget is salaries and “lucrative fringe benefits” (Ask yourself if you ever met a faculty member who got a Christmas bonus) Trowbridge complains about  “the constant effort to refurbish and build new physical facilities.” I gather that Dr. Trowbridge hasn’t been on my campus lately. Like most schools, we have added significantly to our facilities. However, these additions were to meet the demands of students as we attempted to compete with other schools. Pinning the bill for facilities on faculty reveals a view dramatically out of touch with modern universities. His argument is not with the faculty, it is with the demands of our students.

Trowbridge also likes to parrot the myth that faculty “teach 30 weeks a year, with the other 22 weeks off.” Perhaps Trowbridge didn’t bother to put in time conducting the research needed to sustain his teaching or the scholarship required of university faculty in Texas. The demands of scholarship that drive promotions and pay raises keep most of us working all year. With a heavy teaching load and about 200 students a semester, there’s no much time for me to do research during the semester and I spend the time between semesters catching up (or, trying to).

Trowbridge is almost comical at moments. He complains that all these problems persist because “the academic establishment was like taking on a sleeping giant, armed with extraordinary speaking and writing abilities.” The notion that the political establishment trembles at the approach of a bunch of academics is silly. Politicians have been beating up on academics in “ivory towers” for decades.

Trowbridge and TPPF needed a strawman to attack. They want to insist that higher education is getting too much money. However, the state has been cutting back their share of higher education for years. Cuts to higher education will mean more increases in tuition that they don’t want to take responsibility for. Trowbridge is being paid to pit faculty against Texas families so that a few people in Austin can pretend that cutting state funding for higher education has no consequences.

You might notice that Trowbridge didn’t bother to provide any budget research. He did quote  Speaker Straus’s claim that “more than 60 percent of our state’s general revenue goes to public and higher education.” However, careful readers noticed that Straus was combining K-12 and higher education and using “general revenue” rather that total spending (a larger number). In fact, Legislative Budget Board’s Fiscal Size Up for 2010-2011 reveal that only 12.5% of the state’s budget (or 17% of “general revenue”) is for higher education. Anyone willing to read all the way to page 3 of the report can calculate those numbers. Why would someone rely on such broad categories when precise data was readily available (it took me less than five minutes and I’m not a “Senior Fellow” at a policy think tank)? Clearly, Trowbridge’s research doesn’t make the grade. His research certainly wouldn’t get a passing grade in my undergraduate classes.

It true that spending in higher education has increased over since the last budget. However, Trowbridge should note that Governor Perry was behind this increase with his goal of adding 500,000 new students to higher education. Perhaps, this is another faculty conspiracy implemented through Perry because he fears the power of the might faculty lobby in Austin.

Dr. Trowbridge has used  broad stereotypes and misleading data to create a seriously flawed picture of higher education in Texas. One lesson I’ve learned from his article is to be very careful trusting the research produced by special interest groups like TPPF.

Forgive my rant. I work hard. My colleagues work hard. I’m tired of politicians and special interests attacking my colleagues for political gain. It’s clear from the hateful comments on the Houston Chronicle’s web site that Trowbridge has succeeded in turning citizens against faculty. I’m sure he’s very proud. This may be the greatest accomplishment of his career. It was especially unfortunate that Trowbridge’s stab in the back appeared on a weekend when so many of my colleagues were putting in long hours trying to work through big piles of grading. The only thing worse than spending your weekend grading papers and exams is doing it as so many people criticize you for not working hard enough.

There are significant problems with higher education in Texas and it’s troubling that the TPPF’s “expert” appears oblivious to them. Refuting all the problems in Trowbridge’s article doesn’t allow time here to into those problem. However, it’s clear that his article has sent people on a snipe hunt that will distract Texans fixing what ails higher education in Texas.

Let’s hope that think tanks in Texas do a little more thinking in the future.

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