Higher-Ed Accountability—Doing to Higher Ed What They’ve Done to K-12?

Some of the same folks who have helped make K-12 accountability in Texas so excessively dependent on simplistic metrics of achievement are looking to do a similar disservice to our state’s institutions of higher education. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, for example, an Austin-based right-wing think tank, has been pushing an approach to “productivity” in higher education—embraced by Gov. Rick Perry–that would stress incentive-based faculty pay (using student evaluations as a key metric) and a turn toward online, on-the-cheap instruction, among other dubious ideas.

But significant pushback against this agenda has developed, as evidenced by testimony at the initial hearing last week of the state legislature’s new Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency. For example, Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, challenged the notion that corporate, assembly-line “output” metrics are feasible for institutions of higher education. He said:

“The temptation…is to subject research universities to the corporate model: cut costs, reduce personnel, apply financial tests in evaluating faculty, measure quantity, not quality, demand greater productivity. But research universities are not for-profit companies, and while that does not exempt them from the need to be efficient, it does require us to ask some fundamental questions, the most important of which is this: What do we want universities to produce? That is the essential question:  What should they produce?  Thousands of cheap degrees–cheap in content as well as dollars? Warrants certifying that their graduates are ready for jobs, any jobs? Research grants, no matter what department faculty members belong to, patents and licenses, whatever the discipline?

“Such criteria are superficial and ill-suited to universities. They reduce the classroom to an assembly line, the library to a book repository, and the laboratory to a for-profit business. And they fail utterly to differentiate among disciplines that range from philosophy to plant science, from economics to engineering, from music to law. Above all, they do not address what universities turn out: people, not products, thinking individuals, not cogs in a machine, new knowledge and new ideas, not mute objects. You can’t measure universities with a blunt instrument.”
Some of the September 21 hearing’s toughest testimony against Gov. Perry’s approach to higher-education accountability came from one of his own supporters. Pamela Willeford, who served under both former Gov. Bush and Gov. Perry as chair of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said:  “Although I am a long-term supporter of the governor, I am very concerned these are bad ideas and would be harmful to our universities.”

Melinda Hill Perrin, a philanthropist and member like Willeford of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, also challenged the “simplistic, prescriptive” Perry agenda for higher education, and she said the coalition had to be formed in defense of Texas’ leading universities because their own boards of regents—appointees of Gov. Perry—were “absolutely silent” in the face of attacks that “denigrated our faculty and institutions.” Hill Perrin attributed the regents’ silence to “muzzling.”

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the Laredo Democrat who co-chairs the joint oversight committee, picked up on that theme, saying she was “aghast” last spring when university officials greeted proposals “slashing and burning” higher-ed budgets with bland pronouncements that they would “make it work.” The senator then offered this blunt assessment of what was going on:  “Only later was I told privately, and only because many of us had been asking questions, they had been ‘muzzled’ and ordered to deliver that kind of testimony, and told not to complain, in fact the term was ‘not to whine.’ And I was shocked. I will tell you that I lost respect for some officials because people I considered powerful and intelligent and well-educated didn’t speak up, just as you mentioned, and I believe that is their responsibility. Higher education in Texas should not be a system of puppets and puppeteers.”