Texas faces challenges in higher ed as market evolves

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What will the future of higher education in the State of Texas look like?

A battle continues to rage in Texas between Gov. Rick Perry, academics and state legislators. Perry and his allies, including former University of Texas professor Jeff Sanderfer, want to reshape the way public universities operate. According to them, the university model is antiquated and the education system needs to function more like a business, rather than a public institution.

The chief problem according to Perry and his allies is that the UT system, and in particular the University of Texas at Austin, relies too heavily on research and that not enough focus is placed on teaching students and keeping higher education affordable for Texans.

In 2008 after convening a special conference with the Texas university regents in an attempt to create “$10,000 degrees,” Gov. Perry released his “seven breakthrough solutions.” The recommendations are based after Sandefer’s model that faculty be evaluated on professor salary, how many students they teach and how much money in external research funding they bring to the school. Perry’s proposal uses that model and institutes a free-market approach to teacher incentives.

Rick O’Donnell, a controversial former special adviser to the University of Texas System, released an analysis in 2011 that slammed UT faculty and publicly placed them into five categories: coasters, dodgers, sherpas, pioneers and stars. The evaluation also used Sandefer’s model for ranking professors.

Coasters made up 32 percent of UT professors, who taught an average of 112 students per year and brought in an average of $185,000 in research dollars. The stars were a small group of 30 that raked in an average of $713,000 in research funding per year and taught an average of 503 students.

UT Austin president Bill Powers has been the biggest critic of Perry and the Board of Regents. This resistance has led Perry’s regent appointees to be highly critical of Powers and allegedly seeking to oust him as UT president.

The state legislature has stood behind Powers. Members of the Texas Senate recently passed Senate Bill 15, which places limits on the the Board of Regents powers in the firing of a UT president and provides clear rules for the roles of regents and institutional leadership.

The struggle on the future of Texas higher education has been going for over two years. While the disagreement between regents, the Governor and academics continues, Perry will have the final word. The bill, if passed through the full assembly, will ultimately land of Governor Perry’s desk. It will be up to him to sign off on the new protocols and to enact them into law.

What does that mean for the future of higher education in the Lone Star State? Will a more business-like approach improve the efficiency of the university system, or will it degrade the sterling reputation of a trusted institution?