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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

For universities' sake, let's keep politics away

Kenneth Ashworth, Local Contributor | Austin American-Statesman
Monday, Sept. 19, 2011

Gov. John Connally created the Higher Education Coordinating Board more than four decades ago to try to curb the intrusion of politics into Texas colleges and universities.

Upon appointing the board members, he asked them not to accept his appointment if they could not take a statewide overview and rise above politics, put aside regional loyalties, and curb their desires to promote the interests of their alma maters. As with the university regents he appointed to boards, he asked them to exercise their best independent judgment in giving policy direction to the schools they governed and to keep politics out of education.

Connally's charge to his appointees fit the American model for university governance. In Europe, universities are governed by their faculties. But the United States decided early on that the corporate model should be used to govern our colleges and universities. Ever since, boards of regents or trustees have been the supreme authority on our campuses.

But the trustees and regents of the nation's best and greatest universities promptly learned that they needed to share governance with their faculty members. Those colleges whose boards ignored and overrode their faculties saw their best faculty leave to join other schools more tolerant and accepting of their ideas. On the most outstanding campuses there developed among regents, faculties and administrators a close partnership of authority, consultation, mutual guidance and exchange of ideas.

Effective regents and trustees quickly learned they were not "top-down" directors put in place to unilaterally issue orders about how their campuses were to be run. They learned to consult with faculty on policies and management. The more enlightened boards came to see that they had a role to defend as well as to explain the university. They needed to serve on the one hand as a moat to protect the citadel of learning and on the other as a bridge to help the community understand the role of the university and its contributions to society.

As Connally said, "I want you to be the spokesman for higher education in Texas — to lend encouragement to our institutions, to praise their progress, support their steps toward excellence, to applaud their imagination and initiative in imparting knowledge."

Recent efforts to redirect and "reform" Texas higher education imposed from the top down, precisely the kind of politics Connally wanted to curb, have been introduced to the campuses. And the historical lessons of how to make universities outstanding through shared governance have been ignored or even ridiculed. The politics being insinuated from the governor's office and from regents the governor appointed is damaging Texas universities.

National rankings of universities is based largely on reputation. And nothing lowers the standing of a university faster than word spreading across the country that a school is losing its independence and autonomy, that outside politics is controlling the institution, that the faculty has lost its role in participating in campus governance, that thought is best in lockstep, that dissent is denigrated. Institutional reputations in the making over scores of years can be undone quickly, and they can take decades to rebuild.

In Texas, it is undeniable that campus faculties recently have been unjustifiably demeaned as being out of touch, criticized as selfishly involved in unproductive research and uninterested in students, and ignored when new policies and directions are adopted and promoted for running the universities. Among all states, Texas has the reputation for the most egregious and frequent political interference in higher education. Current intrusions merely underscore the bad record the state bears in this regard.

In the 1920s, Gov. "Pa" Ferguson insisted that professors he objected to be fired or he would veto University of Texas appropriations. Then there was Gov. W. Lee O'Daniel's insistence that the regents fire professors whose views he objected to, ending in firing the president. And regents whom the governors appointed carried out their orders and did their dirty work. Then the heavy-handed control of UT-Austin under board chairman Frank Erwin followed during the troublesome 1960s and '70s. Each of these episodes extended over years and eroded progress being made to develop nationally recognized universities.

Now, once again, Texas higher education is being watched and discussed by faculties and administrators on campuses across the nation. How damaging will this latest round of political incursions be? How deep and lasting will the interference be? How will campus reputations be affected? How badly will faculty recruitment and retention be hurt? How long will it take to rebuild?

Regents would do well to heed Connally's advice to his appointees: "Leave politics to the politicians and administration to the administrators."

Ashworth is a former commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

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