Texas Makes an Appalling Mess of Education ‘Reform’

July 09, 2014

[Updated (7/9/2014, 5:20 p.m.) to reflect the announcement that William C. Powers Jr. will step down next year.]

Another year, another ham-handed attempt by a governing board to fire a successful public-university president. What has happened to responsible governance of our flagship research universities? First the University of Virginia, now the University of Texas at Austin, two superb institutions with notable stature and excellent leadership.

In the former case, the Board of Visitors retracted its decision to terminate Teresa Sullivan when confronted by mobilized faculty members and public outrage. In Texas, a last-minute agreement has enabled UT-Austin's president, William C. Powers Jr., to retire on his own timetable, but it followed an unfortunate effort by the governor, Rick Perry, and the system chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, both lame ducks, to force his immediate departure.

What is going on here? Several things at once: Major universities are larger and more important than ever in the economy and cultural life of their states; too many politicians and their board appointees want, therefore, to shape them as their ideology sees fit. This often means treating universities as businesses in which productivity and efficiency are the primary goals, and the academic and research principles that have been so important to our country’s leadership in talent and innovation are sacrificed to utilitarianism. "Accountability" is the watchword—everything that can be counted is counted, and everything that cannot be counted doesn’t count.

In UVa’s case, a few board members tried to commit an overnight June coup without even holding a board meeting. In Texas, the battle between the governor and President Powers has been long and public and bitter, but in the end, on July the Fourth, it came down to the same intention: to remove a highly accomplished and popular president who has consistently stood up for academic values, for faculty autonomy, for excellence in research, and for making effective undergraduate teaching a high priority.

It is tempting to see the Texas case as one of clashing personalities and egos. Tensions in university systems are, after all, legion and easily understood, given short lines of authority and competing campus priorities. But underlying the long conflict between the governor and his board on one hand, and President Powers on the other, is something much more fundamental, as well as pertinent to the current condition of public higher education across America: a clash between conflicting views of the purpose of universities in society.

Starting in 2008, Governor Perry, with the help of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, began to promote an agenda for higher education that centers around transparency and accountability, and that treats universities as businesses and students as customers. Through his support for proposals such as the "seven breakthrough solutions" for higher education, the governor advocated requiring universities to publish balance sheets that measure how much money individual professors generate and cost the university, by counting research dollars and the number of students taught; awarding faculty members bonuses based solely on student evaluations; pressuring universities to create a "$10,000 degree," with no standards stipulated; and requiring universities to post faculty members’ salaries and benefits, the number of students they teach, the results of teaching evaluations by students, and the grades faculty members give out.

Transparency and accountability are laudable goals and sound good as populist slogans, but, to be applied effectively to universities, they need academic substance and depth. We are all concerned about the cost of college. But we cannot separate cost from value. Cheap does not mean good; it just means cheap. The real question is, What is the value of one’s education?

With "customer satisfaction" as the goal, along with undue emphasis on the production of large numbers of graduates, the agenda is clear. Texas has, under Rick Perry, led the way in reinventing the university as a business. This factory model does not distinguish among types of universities, does not concern itself with quality, except as measured in the most superficial manner, and treats professors not as professionals but as piece workers. Since Perry has now appointed nearly every regent of every governing board in Texas, and has replaced many university administrators with his friends and supporters, he has had his way with most of the state’s higher-education leadership.

But not with William Powers Jr. Powers has for years repeatedly and respectfully stood up to the governor, defended academic values, and enunciated the core principles that have helped make American research universities the best in the world. Those principles include academic freedom, institutional autonomy, shared governance, and a commitment to high quality in teaching and research. And Powers has built a loyal following among UT’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni, as well as major Texas leaders who know what a research university is, its value to a state and the nation, and what it takes to build and sustain one.

Universities are not factories turning out products—they are places where the goal is knowledge, not profit. They do produce major economic benefits in the form of research discoveries that lead to patents and new businesses and economic development on a grand scale. But those are byproducts. The main purposes of the university are the creation and dissemination of knowledge and the development of graduates who become the next generation of informed citizens and leaders in many sectors of society.

Knowledge is a matter of quality, not quantity. William Powers knows that—and he espouses it, effectively and publicly. Fortunately for us all, he will continue to do so for the next academic year.

Hunter R. Rawlings III is president of the Association of American Universities.