Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Messing with success

Governor's higher ed reform campaign undermines UT and Texas A&M standing.

April 26, 2011

In Houston, we are familiar with and strongly support the University of Houston's advancing campaign to achieve Tier 1 status as a major research university. There are only three such schools in Texas at present: the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M at College Station (both public institutions), as well as our city's private Rice University.

The state Legislature thought enough of the goal to create more Texas top-tier institutions that it created a dedicated fund to aid schools in boosting their research capacities. Yet there's a place in Austin where that effort seems to have been turned on its head: the office of Gov. Rick Perry.

By most academic standards the state's two flagship public universities are doing just fine. Their graduation rates are well ahead of the state average, and their national rankings are extremely high for state-supported institutions: U.S. News and World Report pegged UT 45th in the country and A&M 63rd among all national universities. Not only are they not broken, the schools reside on a very high academic pedestal.

Yet the governor, latching onto the rather eccentric educational philosophies of a major campaign contributor, businessman Jeff Sandefer, has pressed his appointees among the regents of UT and Texas A&M to institute so-called reforms outlined in Sandefer's "Seven Breakthrough Solutions." It's an agenda pushed by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, of which Sandefer is a board member.

Among Sandefer's ideas: rating professors based on the number of students they teach and evaluations by students, separating teaching and research budgets and establishing a Texas-based accreditation system for public universities. The governor held a summit in 2008 in Austin for regents where Sandefer made a presentation. Although Perry claimed the purpose was simply to discuss educational ideas, subsequent emails from the governor's staff to regents made it clear they were expected to swiftly enact Sandefer's concepts.

Texas A&M Chancellor Mike Mc-Kinney already stirred up an academic fracas by implementing several of the reforms, such as listing the amount of revenue professors generated through teaching and research and rewarding those who got good student evaluations. The Association of American Universities, which represents major research institutions, criticized the measures as academically unsound, as did many A&M professors.

That was a prelude to the recent debacle resulting from the hiring of Rick O'Donnell, a $200,000 a year special adviser brought in by UT regents Chairman Gene Powell.

O'Donnell, as a research fellow for Sandefer's foundation, authored reports claiming much of university research is of questionable value and that teaching and research functions should be separated. One of his papers, "Is Academic Research a Good Investment for Texas?" turned out to be rife with errors, and in the ensuing flap O'Donnell was reassigned to another position.

Last week, UT fired O'Donnell after he wrote a letter to a regent accusing top school officials of suppressing data that he claimed showed growing school resources going to professors who did little teaching. A UT spokesman denied the claim, saying that the data is still being compiled and would be presented to the regents.

This academic soap opera need never have happened, and is an illustration of the continuing negative consequences of elected officials injecting politics into the administration of our priceless research institutions.

Gov. Perry, stop messing with UT and Texas A&M.

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