Thursday, September 03, 2009

Texas bill has national education implications

Texas bill has national education implications
By John M. Crisp
Posted September 3, 2009 at 12:02 a.m.

Down here in Texas, the state legislature meets every two years and passes a set of new laws, some good, some bad, some peculiar. Texas House Bill 2504 fits in the last category, but it’s worth consideration for the light that it reflects on our attitudes toward higher education in our nation as a whole.

Some of the bill’s provisions are so ordinary that many colleges and universities are already in compliance with them. For example, it requires all faculty members at public institutions in Texas to post on the Internet a syllabus for each of their courses. I’ve done this for years, and so have most of my colleagues.

The bill requires that a curriculum vitae for each instructor be posted on the Internet as well, including postsecondary education, teaching experience, and significant professional publications. Fair enough.

But then the bill begins to drift in odd directions: for each of their courses college and university teachers are required to post “a general description of the subject matter of each lecture or discussion.”

This provision implies unawareness of a trend of several decades in higher education away from canned lectures toward more dynamic learning experiences that can’t necessarily be predicted accurately several months in advance.
Indeed, plenty of old-fashioned lecturing still takes place in college, but the wisdom of inscribing the concept in law is doubtful and doesn’t reflect much understanding of modern higher education.

Even though the bill is supposed to be revenue neutral, it bears provisions that will tax college and university resources. All institutions are obligated to charge an administrator with the task of ensuring compliance, and every other year a written report is required for the governor and other officials.

There are many more requirements and specifications, but when one discovers that the bill stipulates the maximum number of links away from the institution’s homepage that the prescribed information may reside (not more than three, which presents a significant webpage design issue in itself), one wonders why government is intruding so deeply into the details of higher education.

The bill was sponsored by Republican Lois Kolkhorst and drew support from groups like Young Conservatives of Texas and Americans for Prosperity, and it achieved a lot of traction by relying on words like “accountability” and “transparency,” two principles that are hard to vote against. Without much fanfare, the bill won unanimous support in the Texas House and Senate and its provisions go into effect next spring.

But the bill has implications for higher education as a whole in our nation. Without establishing that anything is being hidden — higher education budgets are public documents, after all, and course syllabi are readily available — Rep. Kolkhorst comes down hard on the side of “transparency.” Unfortunately this emphasis reinforces the vague unwarranted mistrust of higher education that is traditional in Texas and throughout much of the nation. What exactly are they hiding behind those ivied walls and why does it cost so much?

Kolkhorst hasn’t identified any specific problem that her bill aims to resolve. She admits that she doesn’t know what will come of HB 2504, nor is its purpose clear. But she makes no effort to obscure the ideology behind the bill: she says openly that with more information “free market principles” will “take over” at colleges and universities.

And there’s the problem: the bill pretends to be about information but it has a patent political agenda, an unquestioning allegiance to “free market principles” that are largely unsuited to higher education.

Frankly, these principles haven’t worked that well in health care or the oil industry, either. But higher education is one endeavor that should be preserved from the pressures of profit and loss, a place where some people are still paid to think about and teach philosophy and literature and music and art, even if they don’t serve the bottom line. HB 2504 hopes to change that in Texas; the rest of the nation should be wary, as well.

John M. Crisp teaches English at Del Mar College. E-mail:

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