Higher education follies

Grouch Marx in HorsefeathersThe politics of higher education in Texas gets stranger every day. Two years ago I was surprised that Rick Perry and other state leaders were so anxious to pump millions of dollars into the goal of turning another Texas university into a “Tier 1” school. Now, Perry and his appointees seem to have decided to chip away everything that makes a school a Tier 1 university.

It was just two years ago that Rick Perry signed a bill creating funding for additional Tier One schools. The bill (HB 51) seemed like an expensive proposition for a state that was struggling to fund schools at their current level while meeting the Governor’s ambitious goal of putting another half million Texans in higher education. Tier One schools are much more oriented toward research. That means highly paid faculty who spend a lot of their time doing research and teaching small seminars in high-powered PhD programs. Still, the legislature supported the bill and Perry seemed to embrace the idea that another research university was a good investment in the economic development of the state. Personally, I would have preferred that the money went to schools that emphasized teaching more. Still, it’s not the worst idea a legislature ever had.

What a difference two years make.

Perry and his appointees now seem to have their doubts. Much of this seems to be driven by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. I’ve noted the failings of the TPPF’s grasp of higher education reform in the past. Unfortunately, the TPPF and others seem assume that research universities like UT and A&M are not a good investments and other schools in the state are just smaller versions of UT and A&M. The TPPF criticize schools like UT for their light teaching load and heavy research emphasis. At the same time, they don’t advocate for those schools that have heavy teaching loads.

People come from around the world to attend our universities. Texas’ own students are clamoring to get into UT, A&M, and other schools in the state. The market is offering its endorsement of these schools. Why is it okay for government and special interests to tinker with success?

Perry's wrecking crew shows up at the state's universities

So, what’s with Perry? Two years ago he is ready to write some big checks for elite institutions. Now his administration is trying to undo the very research functions that made these schools elite universities.

Part of the problem is that too many Texas politicians are hooked on  simple comparisons of Texas to other states. Texas currently has three Tier One universities: UT at Austin, Texas A&M, and Rice. The problem is… ? California has nine. New York has five. That puts us in third place–way back in third. Our Governor seems to have a special dislike for looking up at the scoreboard and seeing Texas behind California in any regard. The politics of standardized testing in the state has demonstrated that the state’s leaders want numbers regardless of the validity of these numbers. They just want the state to look good. The approach seems to me like some car owners I know who spent much more time polishing the front bumper than worrying about what is under the hood. It’s not always fun to spend time and money working on the basics. It is, however, necessary.

Another part of the problem goes back to basic politics. HB 51 held out the promise of a prestigious Tier One institution to various regions. North Texas wanted one. West Texas wanted one. South Texas wanted one. Houston wanted a second one. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board had designated seven institutions as emerging research universities poised to claim the new top-tier title: UT Arlington, UT Dallas, UT El Paso, UT San Antonio, Texas Tech; the University of Houston and the University of North Texas. Basically, No Region Left Behind. Of course, only one school would get this money. In the short-term the politics may have worked. However, the bill has come due.

While there is some strange politics going on in Texas higher education, I have to give credit to Rep. Dan Branch and Sen. Judith Zaffirini. Both have worked hard at higher education. I don’t always agree with their approaches. However, they’ve both seemed focused on higher education beyond the boundaries of their districts and they’ve both shown steadier leadership than others.

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