Trustees | Trusteeship

Sound and fury from the education establishment

THE STATESMAN   |  April 28, 2011 by Michael Poliakoff

Having to give up illusions and pretensions is strong medicine for higher education. So the sound and fury in Texas bears witness. The accountability initiatives at Texas A&M and the recommendations of the Texas Public Policy Foundation are bold, and there is indeed a legitimate argument that they push too far. On Friday, the Policy Foundation will host another high-level conference that will undoubtedly provoke vigorous discussion among lawmakers and in the media. But the truly alarming aspect of the controversy comes from the ferocity with which the opponents of reform want to shut down the discussion. That both Texas A&M (TAMU) and University of Texas- Austin (UTA) are outstanding institutions is incontrovertible, but neither at the Texas flagships nor anywhere else in American higher education is the status quo acceptable.

Robert Berdahl, the president of the Association of American Universities, the elite group of 63 research universities, of which TAMU and UTA are members, has broken the protocol of staying out of his members’ governance issues. He called on TAMU’s Chancellor to “resist these ill-conceived calls for ‘reform’.”

Berdahl is outraged by the proposal to budget research and teaching separately. He continues: “the linkage between teaching and research” has been “central to the success of American research universities.” Yes. But as a recent article published by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science relates, “The reward systems at research universities heavily weight efforts of many professors toward research at the expense of teaching … teaching responsibilities in many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines have long had the derogatory label ‘teaching load’.”

Research on faculty scholarly productivity, in fact, shows that a significant number of faculty at research universities—whose relatively light teaching load is predicated on research productivity—haven’t published very much, either. The founder of Academic Analytics, a tracking system for research productivity, reports, “in most fields for which journal publishing would be expected fully 20% of the faculty associated in Ph.D. training programs have not authored or co-authored a single publication in one of the 16,000 journals indexed in a three year period. … Returning to rough cost estimates, if 20% of Ph.D. faculty are not publishing as expected this represents something close to $2 billion in university investments in scholarship for which the return seems to be nil.” The sad truth, as any academic insider will tell you, is that there are tenured faculty whose contributions to teaching AND research are substandard. The Texas Board of Regents has every right—indeed an obligation—to review data that will accurately give them productivity information. And anyone remotely concerned about the future generation of American engineers and scientists would welcome some sunshine on the quality of teaching at research universities.

Does the TAMU accountability initiative, which computes the financial contribution of faculty in terms of research grants and teaching productivity have it absolutely right? No—it needs some fine-tuning, which is exactly what TAMU Chancellor Michael McKinney has committed himself to do. Some academic fields garner foundation and industry support, while others, indispensable to higher education, do not. These issues remain to be worked out. But the Guardians of the Status Quo certainly don’t have it right, either.

Even without a recession, academic programs need to be prioritized: students should not bear the cost of inefficiency. Between 2004/05 and 2009/10, TAMU’s tuition went up 20.9% and UTA’s increased 37.1%. That represents a 19.7% and 35.8% increase, respectively, in the share of median household income in Texas.

Texas State Legislator Dan Branch has proposed three bills affecting higher education. House Bill 9 would tie funding of public higher education to degree completion, enrollment, degrees awarded to at-risk students and degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. House Bill 10 would tighten academic requirements for need-based financial aid, adding incentives for stronger high school performance. House Bill 1460 requires students to have a degree plan by their third semester and to take ten percent of their credit hours through off-campus learning, such as distance education. By 2013 faculty would be required to increase their teaching load by 10%.

Where exactly is the problem? Representative Branch has asked for transparency about degree completion, an incentive system for high school academic excellence (already in use in other states), some prods for students to complete their degrees efficiently, and, for faculty, a slight increase in teaching load. If the new legislation passes, faculty at the College of Arts and Sciences at UT-Austin would have to add at most a half-credit course per year.

As the state struggles with a financial shortfall—a challenge that others face across the country—there’s a lesson here. Crises offer opportunities. Rather than shooting the messenger, it’s time for trustees to ask questions, get answers, and do the best for Texas students and taxpayers.

Michael Poliakoff is policy director of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.


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