National higher ed experts skeptical of ‘breakthrough solutions’ from conservative Texas think tank

Posted on: March 18th, 2011 by Patrick Brendel No Comments

Image by: Matt MahurinPolicy experts from two national higher education organizations are expressing skepticism about the “breakthrough solutions” proposed by a conservative think tank and being considered at Texas universities. They say the reforms — aimed at improving universities’ accountability, productivity and transparency — do little to address the real challenges facing Texas institutions, namely, educating the state’s growing low-income and minority population.

“When it comes to the big issues in Texas, looking at demographic trends, it’s about preparing the young adults of that state for postsecondary studies to ensure access to these institutions and that they can afford going to the college or university they desire. That’s the issue,” said Daniel J. Hurley, Director of State Relations & Policy Analysis for the American Association of State Colleges & Universities (AASCU).

“The issue is not, at least as I see it and from what I know, a question of whether or not the curriculum is rigorous enough at the university level,” Hurley said. “Looking at these seven solutions, they miss the target of what should be the top priorities in the state, or any state for that matter.”

Richard Novak, who is Senior Vice President for Programs & Research for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), concurred with Hurley that the biggest higher ed issue in Texas is closing performance gaps between low-income minority students and students from more privileged backgrounds.

“We need to get them to and through college for the good of the state,” Novak said. “All this conversation about quality at UT and A&M is just a sideshow.”

“If there were some kind of huge, damning evidence that graduates of Texas public universities are just not living up to the degrees and credentials they’re receiving, of poor academic integrity, that would be a different conversation,” Hurley said. “Nowhere have I seen any evidence of that.”

Novak noted that new (and already controversial) University of Texas System adviser Rick O’Donnell — who formerly worked for conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation — was executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education from 2004-2006, when that state implemented its voucher program for college students, splitting funding for university teaching and research (which happen to be two of TPPF’s proposals). Novak said the Colorado initiatives generally aren’t considered great successes. (Read more about the voucher program in the Colorado Independent.)

Hurley’s and Novak’s opinions come after a series of scathing critiques from Texas A&M University faculty, the president of the American Association of Universities, and a prominent UT alumnus. Additionally, Texas Monthly Senior Executive Editor Paul Burka recently wrote in a column that “Rick Perry is waging an undeclared war on higher education” through the governor’s appointment of regents to carry out TPPF reforms.

AASCU membership comprises 420 public colleges and universities, including 30 campuses in Texas and the Texas State University System. While not including the flagship universities in Austin or College Station, AASCU does have seven member institutions that are part of the A&M System and five that are part of the UT System.

AGB, meanwhile, has more than 1,200 member institutions (both independent and public) plus public college and university foundation boards, including 41 entities in Texas, such as the Texas A&M Foundation, UT System and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Rather than lambasting TPPF’s ideas as ineffective or detrimental, Hurley and Novak both emphasized that their main concerns are the reforms would not help with Texas’ real problems. They did, however, single out some of the proposals for comment.

For example, Hurley and Novak both expressed skepticism about measuring teaching effectiveness and giving bonuses to faculty based on student evaluations (the first initiative the A&M Board of Regents implemented at A&M-College Station and subsequently at the other A&M campuses).

Rewarding teachers for positive student evaluations can turn into a “popularity contest” and raise concerns about the possibility of grade inflation, Hurley said.

“If I were a board member, I would feel uncomfortable about so much reliance on student assessment,” Novak said.

He said, while student evaluations are an important part of a faculty member’s classroom assessment, the TPPF proposals show an “overreliance” on the evaluations, which are often “unreliable.”

“I’m not a big advocate of bonuses being paid to people for doing their jobs. I think it can create perverse incentives for doing so,” he said.

Regarding the proposal to split research and teaching budgets, Hurley said there are pros and cons to the idea. “It’s not helpful to completely separate out those two functions,” he said.

Another TPPF proposal, replacing direct state funding to universities with a voucher system, was passed by the Colorado General Assembly in 2004 and implemented starting in 2005 — when new UT adviser O’Donnell was head of higher education in that state. Colorado’s “College Opportunity Trust Fund” project also replaced direct state funding for research with performance-based contracts between the state and its universities, Novak said.

“The vouchers really didn’t affect student’s choice because it didn’t affect where the students were admitted. It didn’t make much of a difference as to where they wanted to go,” he said. “There was less there than meets the eye.”

Hurley said, “The voucher idea for higher education is just nonsensical.”

(As the Texas Independent has reported, new UT Regent Alex Cranberg is a major K-12 charter school advocate in Colorado.)

Novak said university regents should be careful about reacting too quickly to reforms or buying “lock-stock-and-barrel” into proposals, but also should push for needed changes in conjunction with university administration and faculty.

Gregory Scholtz, Director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure & Governance at the American Association of University Professors, noted his organization was founded nearly 100 years ago due to overbearing “plutocrats” on university governing boards firing professors “willy-nilly.” (Scholtz’s comments were not specifically directed at the situation in Texas.)

As a rule, Scholtz said, regents “shouldn’t get into the day-to-day. They should be more interested in long-term policy issues, rather than the day-do-day nitty-gritty. They should stay somewhat aloof.”

“There’s really a delicate line they walk between being institutional advocates and being instigators for change and reform at the institution. They need to do both, but they need balance,” Novak said. “I do think that in this difficult financial time that universities need to be more productive. And the board, the faculty and the administration need to work together on increasing productivity.”

Overall, Hurley said, “I do think efficiency, productivity and accountability on behalf of institutions clearly need to be part of the discussion. Again, I don’t see these seven solutions being the best portfolio of strategies in that regard.”

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