The Magazine

Perry and the Profs

He picked the right fight.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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The reforms attacked the establishment from multiple angles. They would require schools to expand their websites to make vast amounts of new information available to students. For the first time, professors would be required to post course syllabi online. To suss out slackers among the faculty, schools would post every teacher’s salary and benefits along with the average number of students and course hours they taught every year. A summary of student evaluations would be posted too, and the average number of As and Bs professors handed out, to guard against grade inflation. Before choosing a particular school or enrolling in a major, students would be given a list of the specific skills or knowledge that they could expect to learn, as well as the average starting salaries of students who had graduated from a similar course of study. 

Perry also suggested separating teaching budgets from research budgets, as a way of encouraging teachers to teach and researchers to do research. Tenure would be granted only to teachers who spent a large majority of their time teaching; a defined percentage of tenure jobs would go to researchers, who would concentrate on pure research. A system of cash awards and other incentives would compensate professors who successfully taught a large number of students.

Any businessman in a profit-seeking enterprise would see ideas like “pay for performance” as unremarkable, but they overwhelm the delicate sensibilities of people who have spent their professional lives on campus, where the word “nonprofit” is meant to act as a firewall against the unpleasantness of commercial life. “Texas Governor Treats Colleges Like Businesses,” headlined the Chronicle of Higher Education​—​a sentence sure to induce aneurysms in faculty lounges from El Paso to Galveston. The outrage was deafening, especially when university regents began acting on the recommendations. The Texas A&M system, for example, which includes a dozen schools, posted a spreadsheet on its website evaluating teacher performance on a cost-benefit basis. 

“Very simplistic and potentially very dangerous,” an official of the American Association of University Professors said. “This is .  .  . simplistic,” said the dean of faculties at A&M. “Simplistic,” said the Houston Chronicle. A group of former regents and wealthy school boosters organized a pressure group to oppose -Perry’s reforms. The group hired Karen Hughes, a close aide to the second President Bush, as press spokesman. The rage at Perry from within the establishment has taken many forms: You think it’s easy stealing someone’s college transcript?

The protests might have been more effective except that Perry, for the last decade, has been seeding Texas higher education with like-minded reformers (cronies too). By 2009 he had appointed every regent in the state. The chancellor of A&M who issued the cost-benefit report, for example, was a former chief of staff of the governor. At least three campus presidents have been pressured to resign in recent years, to make way for Perry appointees​—​all Republican businessmen. A particularly popular (and vocal) vice president of student affairs at the University of Texas was removed and replaced by .  .  . a retired Marine Corps general.

The appointees weren’t as pliant as Perry might have wished. The implementation of the reforms has been difficult and at times dilatory. Perry barrels on. In his state of the state address this spring, he urged administrators to develop a four-year bachelor’s degree that would cost less than $10,000 “including textbooks.” The discount degree, he said, would be a “bold, Texas-style solution” to the problem of rapidly rising tuition. (The average in-state cost of a four-year degree in Texas, including books, is roughly $30,000.) After the goal was declared impossible by Perry’s critics, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board published a plan to lower costs dramatically: greater use of online classes and “open-source” course materials, accelerated or staggered student schedules, fuller integration of four- and two-year colleges, and more. 

 

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