A&M faculty express outrage over proposals to regents
At Thursday’s meeting of the Board of Regents, Texas A&M University faculty members expressed outrage at political interference in the school, saying that it is shameful that one of the state’s flagship universities appears to be being directed by business leaders associated with a conservative think tank favored by Gov. Rick Perry.
Jamie Grunlan, an engineering professor who helped author a letter signed by more than 800 faculty members who are upset at the direction of the university, said A&M will be destroyed if it continues to be directed by guidelines set by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank closely allied with Perry. Grunlan said that despite frequent “trashing” of A&M faculty by TPPF, there has been no response from regents.
“The lack of anything is just deafening,” he said.
He asked the regents to publicly defend the university and its faculty, and to move away from being guided by the Seven Breakthrough Solutions, ideas proposed by TPPF fellow and major Perry donor Jeff Sandefer, that include separating research and teaching budgets and giving professors cash bonuses on the basis of student evaluations.
“All evidence suggests we’re a school to be followed, not to be tinkered with,” said Gunlan, pointing out the national ranking A&M has achieved in many fields.
He asked the regents to distance themselves from the “solutions” and from TPPF. Board Chairman Richard Box told Grunlan to read remarks he had made earlier in the session about the “solutions, and then get back to him.
Earlier in the meeting Box had said: “Much has been made of these proposed reforms, perhaps too much. As best I understand, they’re simply suggestions, a potential framework for a conversation.”
After Grunlan’s appointed speaking time ran out, he asked regents to immediately end the program by which professors are rewarded monetarily according to student evaluations, a program that is a part of the TTPF “solutions.” Box cut him off, and Grunlan received a long standing ovation from a crowd of faculty members as he dashed out of the board meeting.
Grunlan’s letter is not the only one regents have received decrying the solutions The Distinguished Professors, an elite group of faculty, and the Council of Principal Investigators, made up of scholars who have received prestigious outside research grants, also have written regents in recent days .
“The seven solutions will ruin A&M” said Nancy Amato, a computer science and engineering professor who is a member of CPI and one of the letter writers. “They want us to be a diploma mill. A university can be killed very quickly.”
Spencer Johnston, a genetics professor in the entomology department, said that the “solutions” are misguided in that they want to make the students into customers. “The students are not our customers, they are our product,” Johnston said. “We have a duty to educate them.”
He said he is concerned that regents are not including faculty members on the search committee for a new chancellor, and that regents are skirting the issue of why Chancellor Mike McKinney suddenly announced his retirement. E-mails indicate that McKinney may have been forced out because he did not push the Seven Breakthrough Solutions strongly enough. Regent Morris Foster, who was board chairman until March, will head a group of four regents who will search for the next chancellor, but no faculty will be included on the search committee.
Susan Bloomfield, a health and kinesiology professor , and an original signatory of one of the faculty letters, said that her base concern is that the regents are using the “seven solutions” as a primary guiding principal.
“Administrators and regents are not providing any public answer to numerous editorials which paint a very simplistic picture of how we value faculty,” Bloomfield said.
Johnston expressed concern that the combination of state budget cuts — which regents announced would mean a loss of 41,000 scholarships for the A&M system — combined with political interference in the university, would damage both students and faculty.
“We have an elite body of faculty with externally funded prestigious grants.” he said “They can go anywhere they want to. If this continues, we will lose them.”
He said that regents need to realize that an education is about more than giving students an opportunity to earn higher salaries.
“Each rung of education is like standing on a ladder,” he said. “You see more. It makes your world bigger. It isn’t just that we want students to make more money. We want to make their world richer.”
(Image by Matt Mahurin)