T is for Texas…and Transparency

When Taurie Randermann, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, discovered that her course on “Communication and Religion” was actually about Wiccans, Heaven’s Gate, and other fringe cults and religions, she kicked off a major change in the way that Texas’s colleges and universities inform students about classes.

Taurie shared her experience with a Texas state legislator—Lois Kolkhorst, (R-District 13)—whom she works for. Kolkhorst, disturbed by her story and already seeking ways to make higher education more transparent, drafted a bill requiring public, online access to course information.

This past June, Texas governor Rick Perry signed that bill into law. It mandates that the syllabus of each course, the faculty member’s curriculum vitae, student evaluations, and other information all be posted on the Internet by the fall 2010. The bill also requires that this information be no more than three clicks away from the institution’s homepage.

Texas is the first and only state to have such legislation, but the law reflects a growing national concern with the lack of transparency in state universities. Students are choosing courses blindly, and the public doesn’t know whether classes are academic or ideological. Because the law includes posting student evaluations, it goes even farther than the one proposed for the University of North Carolina by the Pope Center—and may even raise personnel privacy issues.

By some accounts, the law got its start at the Governor’s Higher Education Summit held in May 2008. Texas Governor Rick Perry introduced a number of ways to lower the costs of Texas’s higher education system. Perry wanted to make big strides with such things as measuring the productivity of faculty and shifting state appropriations to student vouchers. Posting syllabi may be small in comparison but it is a step in the direction of greater transparency.

Kolkhorst, who picked up where the summit left off, said in an interview, “Having course syllabi available online is an easy way to give students access to information about courses. All other major investments made by young people allow some level of transparency about what is being delivered for payment.” Education should be no exception, she said.

Texas’s legislators passed the bill unanimously. Elizabeth Young of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who testified on behalf of the bill, said the strong bipartisan support reflects legislators’ desire for “adequate accountability measures” and recognition that the public wants to be sure that “money is being spent appropriately.”

In 2008, the Pope Center proposed something similar to the Texas law. Senior writer Jay Schalin urged the University of North Carolina to encourage greater transparency by requiring professors to post syllabi. In his paper proposing the change, Schalin said that such a move would be beneficial in four ways: It would allow students to make better course decisions, foster comparisons between institutions, allow for the sharing of information between professors, and ensure greater accountability from faculty. He noted that Duke University has adopted a similar system.

Possibly because of the Pope Center’s proposal, at least some colleges in North Carolina are including more online information about their courses. N.C. State interim provost Warwick A. Arden said that the university’s new system requires displaying information that is “much the same as what is commonly associated with course syllabi.” Chancellor Harold Martin of NC A & T said, “I believe the Pope Center recommendation is a great idea and I am supportive of it.”

Meanwhile, at some Texas schools—the process is moving right along. “Currently, we are right around a 70 percent compliance rate,” said Michael Moore, senior vice provost of the University of Texas at Arlington. UTA has compiled many of its courses’ syllabi onto one website for students and the public to view.

At the University of North Texas, too, “most of the information already is online,” said Buddy Price, the school’s media director. It is accessible to the public as well as to students. UNT will have “no problem complying” with the law’s fall 2010 deadline, he said.

Other school officials are less optimistic. Valerie Paton, a vice provost of Texas Tech University, said the deadline poses a “significant challenge” to the university, given the volume of records and associated costs. Paton said that Texas Tech had already started to digitize syllabi before the bill’s introduction.

And not everyone is happy with the new law. Some professors are nervous about the provision requiring that student course evaluations be available online. Until now, student evaluations have been closed to the public.

Moore of UT-Arlington says that providing course evaluations is “controversial” because faculty believe the evaluations “may not be the most accurate way to gauge instruction.” Making them public could affect a faculty member’s reputation and career. Another concern is that students will game the system—taking the easiest courses based on evaluations.

Jay Schalin of the Pope Center agrees with the professors’ doubts. In his view, student evaluations of professors “should be considered as personnel records—making them public is too intrusive.” Posting “anything beyond” course syllabi “is unnecessary and very likely to lead to the sort of gaming that the professors are concerned about,” he says.

Even so, Texas is moving ahead of North Carolina and the rest of the country by providing greater public access to the workings of higher education. Though the ivory tower remains shielded, Texas’s new syllabi law provides at least a small window on its inner happenings.