When Universities Get Defensive

Hell hath no fury like the higher education establishment scorned—or even challenged, for that matter.

Some background:  In May 2008, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) convened the Governor’s Higher Education Summit; Governor Rick Perry supported and encouraged the summit. Forty-five regents from the state’s six university systems attended.

At that meeting, Jeff Sandefer, master teacher at the Acton School of Business and former instructor at the University of Texas at Austin, introduced “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for reform of higher education. These solutions aimed at making higher education more effective by measuring teaching effectiveness, recognizing extraordinary teachers, splitting research and teaching budgets, requiring evidence of teaching skill for tenure, establishing contracts with students for accountability, giving state aid directly to students, and using accrediting agencies that measure not only inputs but outputs.

All of these solutions worked toward the end of serving students and found favor in both conservative and liberal publications. The New Republic (“Rick Perry Is a Higher-Education Visionary,” August 25) and National Review (“Faculty Lounge,” October 31) endorsed these solutions because they aid students.

But in June 2011 the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education was formed, comprised of over 200 supporters of the status quo. They opposed the dramatic changes sought in the seven solutions and tried to undermine the study released just a month before, “Faculty Productivity and Costs at the University of Texas at Austin.”

Opening the doors and windows of the ivory tower to establish transparency and accountability to students, parents, and taxpayers has proven to be most unwelcome. A member of the Texas Coalition of Excellence in Higher Education, John Hagler, stated: “Notably absent from this meeting [the summit] was a respect for the current institutional structure of higher education.”

Moreover, in Hagler’s view, the solutions presented at the summit violated longstanding practices and would lead “to a debilitating rupture of the flagship’s academic and administrative autonomy.” The coalition concluded that reinterpretation of the university’s “mission and restructuring of its management for political purposes should never be allowed.”

In other words, any discussion of constructive improvement to universities is dismissed as purely “political.” That is the higher education establishment’s way of fending off important and beneficial changes—declare that the motive behind them must be rooted in political disputes rather than admit that higher education is flawed and needs change.

An Open Letter to the Texas A & M University Committee” issued the same charge of politicization. In it, a group of Texas A&M alumni cited “the extraordinary level of political intervention in our university” and urged “the Board of Regents to resist inappropriate political intervention.”

The Texas Coalition went so far as to contract with the high-powered public relations firm Burston-Marsteller. The public relations campaign tried to turn an argument over educational policy into something akin to a political campaign, with the reformers cast as the bad candidate. Key politicians were quickly swayed. For example, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said that efforts to reform higher education were “an assault on higher education.”

One coalition member, a UT-Austin professor, told the Houston Chronicle that withering state support was the primary reason for huge increases in tuition. That is always the canard that is trotted out, but it isn’t even relevant to the seven suggested improvements. Nowhere did the professor suggest that exorbitant costs to college students might be due to university spending, or to the vast proliferation of university administrators, or to unabated expansion of campus facilities.

Perhaps the largest expenditure that the coalition neglected to mention is the cost of faculty. Professors in general have gone from teaching, per semester, five classes, to four, to three, and now to one or two.  Classes in general are small, and professor salaries run, on average, about $125,000 a year, plus generous fringe benefits.  Someone has to pay for this luxury, but the coalition wants to preserve its comfortable status quo.

A Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education was formed by the legislature this spring.  I attended the first two sessions. They lasted fourteen hours, but virtually nothing was said about students, costs, or even education.  Instead, the committee focused on a defense of the status quo of the university system.  It is revealing that no real proponents of reform were invited to testify.

One regent from the University of Texas and another from Texas A & M had been involved with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, although not in a financial way. The Joint Committee recently launched a study to determine possible conflict-of-interests of regents appointed by the governor.  One member of the Texas Coalition even wanted to deny regents freedom of association.  He testified to the Joint Committee:  “There are two kinds of conflict. One is financial. Then there’s having dual board membership where their purposes are in conflict.” It is inconceivable to me that this lawyer would deny a regent the First Amendment right of “freedom of speech” and the “right of the people peaceably to assemble.” In the fight to fend off change, the system has taken a “no holds barred” approach.

During the controversy I published, as a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, about 20 op-eds in major Texas newspapers (example: “Texas students should not take back seat to research,” Houston Chronicle, March 31). Some responses were downright hostile.  One professor (really) at UT-Austin wrote to me:  “You are not intelligent enough to teach at the University of Texas.”

Two professors from the University of Houston co-authored a response in the Houston Chronicle, an op-ed illustrating, as Edmund Burke put it, that “their passions forged their fetters.” They asserted: “Perhaps if Trowbridge learned how to do current research . . . .”  They can’t know what my research has been. And I’ve published about 200 pieces in my career, including a book on Chief Justice Warren Burger, for whom I was chief of staff.

These two professors concluded, “Trowbridge is advocating an end to research.” Never have I advocated abolishing university research—nor did the seven solutions! Such comments show that some defenders of the status quo will misrepresent opponents’ positions in an intellectually dishonest effort to discredit them.

So do we need reform of higher education? 

Hard evidence documents that it now costs more to send two kids to a university than to buy a nice home. Tuition and fees at the ten largest universities in Texas have risen 120 percent in the past decade.  And the Project on Student Debt indicates that students nationwide graduating in 2012 will on average have outstanding loans near $29,000. Worse yet, many students, even those who graduate (and especially those who don’t), learn little of value during their college experience.

Reform will never come from faculty. Too many will fight tooth and nail to protect their comfortable, well-paid autonomy. Nor will meaningful reform come from administrators, regents, or legislators, because they fear excoriation by faculty.

Reform, therefore, can only issue from the public.  We are approaching the time when the public, fed up with ever rising, exorbitant college costs, will exclaim—“Enough!” But it should expect the higher education system to mount a ferocious defense of its comfortable circumstances.