Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Perry's higher education policy taking on a tea party flavor

Monday, May 30, 2011

Rick Perry had been governor of Texas for all of 13 days when he announced in January 2001 that higher education would be his top legislative priority. He called for voucher-style funding, an expansion of online learning and a dramatic increase in student financial aid.

More than 10 years later, reinventing public higher education remains a work in progress for the state's longest-serving governor.

That effort has taken an unusual turn lately, with prominent alumni, donors, business leaders and university officials questioning Perry's initiatives and those of his appointees to university governing boards. The governor, for his part, has accused critics, whom he did not name, of lying.

"The big lie making the rounds in Texas is that elected or appointed officials want to undermine or de-emphasize research at our colleges and universities," Perry wrote in a recent column in the American-Statesman. "That disinformation campaign is nothing more than an attempt to shut down an open discussion about ways to improve our state universities and make them more effective, accountable, affordable and transparent."

The GOP governor's higher education message has long had a populist tone, but it has taken on a tea party flavor of late. That's not surprising inasmuch as he has cultivated a political profile since the early days of the last gubernatorial campaign that emphasizes smaller, cheaper and more economically minded government, said James Henson , director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

At a time of declining state funding for colleges and universities, for instance, Perry has urged governing boards to develop $10,000 bachelor's degree programs and freeze tuition for four years.

"From a political point of view, the governor is on fairly safe territory being critical of the status quo in higher education," Henson said, adding that his approach appeals to his voting base more than to traditional Republicans, some of whom have been critical of the Perry administration on higher education.

Perry's pronouncements could mesh with a strategy to position him for a presidential or vice presidential candidacy, Henson said. The governor said last week that he would think about running for president.

"Conservative think tanks, which I think he listens to and trusts, have been very suspicious of the tenure system and the research mission of a lot of tier one universities," said Daron Shaw, a professor of government at UT. "It's not bad politics (to challenge the status quo), given his constituency and perhaps long-term interests."

Debate over the future of public higher education in Texas reached a full boil in March when Gene Powell, Perry's choice for chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, hired a $200,000-a-year adviser who had written dismissively of much academic research. The adviser, Rick O'Donnell, was dismissed after charging that officials were suppressing data on professors' salaries and workloads.

O'Donnell previously worked for charitable foundations run by Jeff Sandefer, a Perry donor and architect of several Perry-endorsed recommendations, including bonus pay for teachers based solely on student evaluations. When the Texas A&M University System adopted such a bonus system, the Association of American Universities called it a simplistic approach.

Some of the governor's appointees to the UT board, including Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich , have pressed the nine UT academic campuses to pull together extensive data on faculty salaries, workloads, research grants and other measures of productivity — an exercise that UT President William Powers Jr., the Ex-Students' Association and others have faulted because it does not account for the quality and impact of professors' work.

Powell has both defended the regents' right to request such information and criticized an analysis of the draft data by an Ohio University researcher, who concluded that 20 percent of UT-Austin professors instruct most of the school's students.

The broad outlines of Perry's higher education policy, with an emphasis on affordability, access and accountability, first emerged on Jan. 3, 2001 , when he began crisscrossing the state to promote proposals from his Special Commission on 21st Century Colleges and Universities, a panel he established in 1999 while he was lieutenant governor.

The most important recommendation called for overhauling the way public colleges and universities are funded. Instead of appropriating money to schools, the state would place it in the hands of students.

This is a bold idea," Perry said at the time. "It essentially means that the State of Texas will guarantee a scholarship to every Texan who qualifies in an amount that would cover average tuition, fees and books at a public institution of higher education."

The proposal never got serious traction, but it continues to surface occasionally. Voucher-style funding was one of seven "breakthrough solutions" outlined by Sandefer and embraced by Perry at a May 2008 summit of public university regents.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based group with close ties to Perry, helped organize that meeting and continues to tout the breakthrough solutions. Sandefer, who is on the foundation's board, was a member of Perry's special commission.

Emails released under an open records request show that the governor, Sandefer and Sandefer's father, J.D. "Jakie" Sandefer III, pressed regents at public university systems to adopt the recommendations after the 2008 summit. The Dallas Morning News, citing unnamed sources, has reported that retiring A&M Chancellor Mike McKinney was pushed from his post by regents because he failed to be assertive enough in implementing the breakthrough solutions.

Some of Perry's early proposals have become state policy. At his direction, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Education Agency have worked together to enhance college readiness standards for public schools. Public colleges and universities regularly report graduation rates and other measures of academic performance. Schools get some of their funding on the basis of such performance.

Other proposals remain under discussion.

The special commission recommended that schools collaborate to deliver online coursework, adding that if the effort fails the state should consider creating a virtual university. Coordinating board officials echoed part of that recommendation recently when they suggested that schools could cut costs and improve quality by developing common online programs rather than separate ones for each campus.

Spending on Texas Grants, the state's main financial aid program, has risen considerably over the years with Perry's backing but not enough to keep up with population growth. Thousands of needy students who meet eligibility requirements don't get a grant. The shortfall will worsen during the next two years under a budget agreement reached by state legislative negotiators.

Although all members of the state's higher education governing boards are Perry appointees, he hasn't always gotten his way when it comes to the boards' selections of university leaders. A&M regents picked Robert Gates for president of the College Station campus in 2002 rather than the governor's preference, then-U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas. UT regents named Francisco Cigarroa chancellor instead of Perry's choice, former state Sen. John Montford.

Perry's quarter-century of political life has seen him morph from New Deal Democrat to Ronald Reagan Republican to a kind of tea party insurgent. The latest transformation has opened a rift between him and some longtime allies.

Perhaps the sharpest criticism has come from Peter O'Donnell Jr., a Dallas investor, philanthropist and former chairman of the state Republican Party who donated $30,000 to Perry's campaign in 2009-10. O'Donnell, no relation to the former UT System adviser, said the governor apparently does not understand that ill-considered changes in UT System policy could impair recruiting of top professors and threaten the model of public higher education that depends increasingly on philanthropy.

Moreover, the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., a Nobel laureate and leaders in higher education and philanthropy gathered on the UT-Austin campus recently to emphasize the importance of university-based research.

Perry has championed research with an economic development flavor. The state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in medical, scientific and technological research since he became governor.

But Perry hasn't said much about the importance of research in the humanities, arts and social sciences. And he is donating proceeds from his book, "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington," to the Public Policy Foundation, which looks askance at much academic research.

Perry, who has said he doesn't agree with all of the foundation's positions, named two of its board members, Phil Adams of Bryan and Pejovich of Dallas, to the A&M and UT governing boards, respectively.

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