Texas Standoff

Higher education reform doesn’t come easy. Lots of people like things the way they are, no matter how bad things really are.

In Texas, Republican governor Rick Perry’s five-year drive to reform the 16-campus University of Texas system is getting a great deal of pushback after some initial successes. While resistance is to be expected when charting a new course, in this case it is coming mainly from his own party, clouding what should be a fairly simple system of governance.

Much of the political controversy centers on the relationship between the Perry-appointed Board of Regents for the University of Texas system and Bill Powers, the president of its flagship, the University of Texas at Austin. The Regents have put pressure on Powers in a variety of ways, especially with a demand that he and his staff refrain from deleting emails

Many prominent Republicans, including Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, have sided with Powers. At first glance, the friction appears to be little more than a “spitting contest” between personalities; a Texas legislator, Rep. Jim Pitts, called the Regents’ email request a “witch hunt.”

But that perception, along with Pitts’ comments, masks matters of great importance. To begin with, there was enough of the appearance of impropriety at the UT-Austin law school and its foundation (which raises funds for the law school) to warrant the Regents’ email request. Among other things, former law school dean Larry Sager obtained a $500,000 “forgivable” loan from the foundation without going through proper channels.

Powers eventually fired Sager for his financial misdeeds, but according to the Texas Tribune, “the practice of the foundation providing forgivable loans to faculty members—largely at the dean’s discretion—actually began in 2003, when Powers was dean of the law school.”

But the investigation into the UT law school is secondary to the underlying cause of the animosity: the Regents are leading a national movement to regain control of public universities for their rightful owners: state taxpayers. 

To do so, they must sever the many complex and longstanding ties and traditions that comprise the status quo. As can be expected, that hasn’t sat well with the establishment; some key officials, such as Republican House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Governor Dewhurst, have condemned the Regents’ aggressive activities as micromanaging the university. The squabble has grown so heated that the Republican-controlled state Senate has passed a bill (Senate Bill 15) that, if it makes it through the state House of Representatives, will greatly limit the power of the Regents. According to Ralph Haurwitz of the Austin American-Statesman, the bill states that:

  • Regents will not be able to fire a university president unless the university system’s chancellor recommends it. (Governing boards are currently free to bypass chancellors.)
  • Regents will not be able to vote on budgetary and personnel matters without first getting training on ethics, conflicts of interest and the role of governing boards.
  • Regents’ powers will be limited when the legislature is not in session.
  • Regents “may not unreasonably or unduly interfere with the day-to-day operations.”

Much of the drama over who is in control of the university system resulting from is caused by the way public university systems everywhere have imitated the highly complex form of governance adopted by private colleges and universities.

Private schools are ruled by a fragile balance of power between three competing interests, with trustees (or alumni), administrators, and faculty all vying for control.

In public higher education, governance should be much clearer; the schools exist to serve the state, which means the taxpayers are in charge and represented by trustees (or regents or visitors or governors), who are appointed by elected officials. Yet most state governing boards of university systems have retreated from their rightful role as the representatives of the people through the elected officials who appoint them. In general, trustees’ reluctance to assume power is partly due to an asymmetry-of-information problem: university administrators have full-time research staffs and work closely with the faculty, enabling them to feed the part-time board members only that information that serves their purpose.

Additionally, board members often feel a great deal of allegiance to their alma maters, and see themselves as advocates for that school or its state system. Interpersonal social or business relationships also make trustees less likely to take potentially divisive stands. As a result, public university system boards have long traditions of rubberstamping the wishes of the administrations.

That is starting to change, however. The down economy has forced a new concern for efficiency in public higher education, and the increasingly contentious politics of the nation are spilling over into once-united academic boardrooms. New demands for accountability—both financial and academic—are ripping apart the longstanding truce between the competing interests for governance.

UT-Austin has not been spared these dynamics. Instead, they have been at the center of the upheaval. The school certainly is ripe for reform. Its history department was recently revealed to be so highly politicized that its quality is in question. A discrimination lawsuit, Fisher vs. UT, has reached the federal Supreme Court and may very well rewrite the national affirmative action laws.  Grade inflation has gotten so bad that the legislature introduced an “Honest Transcript” bill intended to address the problem. Plus, it suffers from all the ills of academia in general: rising costs, dropping standards, and a loss of sense of purpose.

Amidst these problems, the Texas Regents, with encouragement by Governor Perry, have tried to take back some of the power that was intended for them. So far, by pushing for greater accountability, increased transparency, and lower tuitions, they have been in the forefront of the national higher education reform movement. 

But their intense scrutiny of UT-Austin has raised the hackles of many Republicans who prefer not to rock the academic boat. They have attacked the Regents in the press and introduced Senate Bill 15 limiting the power of the regents. Under such intense pressure, the Regents buckled and rescinded their email request.

That does not mean they were wrong to request the emails. Sometimes where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and electronic recordkeeping and communications have enable greater transparency that makes sweeping backroom deals under the rug difficult to do.

One example occurred in North Carolina in 2009. The University of North Carolina system had become a soft landing for politicians, their staff members, and their family in need of jobs. A member of former Governor Mike Easley’s staff illegally pressured North Carolina State University to hire the governor’s wife, Mary Easley.

A year later, Mary Easley was given an 88 percent raise to $170,000 a year for what amounted to a part-time job. At first, the university system circled the wagons—but after public pressure and open record laws forced school officials to reveal the email exchanges between the school and the governor’s office, the impropriety was exposed. Mary Easley was fired, and both the chancellor and provost were forced to resign.

The tangled web in Texas mirrors the political divide in the Republican Party nationwide. But it also reflects a division specific to academia, between those who recognize the need for serious reform and those who believe that reform is unnecessary. That is likely a mistake: the public part of Ivory Tower increasingly looks like a house of cards that will either fall or will require extensive propping up in a symbiotic relationship with big-government statists. The Republicans defending the existing system should be careful that they don’t destroy the best hope for reform—a governing board responsive to taxpayers.