Columnist Frank Bruni Looks at the Politics of Funding Public Higher Education!

Dear Commons Community,

Frank Bruni in his New York Times column today examines the issue of public higher education funding that is being debated in many of our state capitols.  He starts at the University of Texas by asking:

“Do we want our marquee state universities to behave more like job-training centers, judged by the number of students they speed toward degrees, the percentage of those students who quickly land good-paying jobs and the thrift with which all of this is accomplished? In the service of that, are we willing to jeopardize some of the trailblazing research these schools have routinely done and the standards they’ve maintained?

Those questions are being asked and fostering acrimony on campus after campus, the one here in Austin chief among them. In public remarks over the last few years, Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, has called Texas both the “epicenter of public debate about the function” of higher education and “ground zero” in a welling crisis.

Rawlings is referring to the tension between the nine regents who set policy for the University of Texas at Austin, all of them appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, and the university’s president, Bill Powers. The regents’ apparent animosity toward Powers, whose most recent request for a modest in-state tuition increase they denied, reached a point where state lawmakers passed several resolutions in February making their support for him clear. That was a slap at the regents — and, by extension, at Governor Perry. And while it reflected political factionalism, it also tapped into a philosophical divide. The regents, Perry and a conservative think tank with great sway over the governor have all called for, or mused publicly about, reforms at the university that many other Texans have deep and warranted reservations about.

The reformers want professors evaluated by how many students they teach and how many research dollars they attract, metrics that favor large classes and less speculative, visionary science.

They want the school to figure out a way, despite huge cutbacks in public funding, to offer students a four-year degree for a sum total of $10,000 in tuition, which is a small fraction of the current cost and seemingly impossible without a diminution in the quality of instruction.

They want expanded online classes. And they want programs tailored more precisely to the job market of the moment.

Powers says he’s open to much of this — to a point. “I and every other university president I know has made efficiency and affordability and using new teaching systems a high priority,” he told me when I met with him last week. The issue, he added, is how to do this while still “educating students at the highest level.”

Bruni provides other examples in Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina.  He concludes that there is more to this than higher education efficiency:

“Scratch the surface of some of the efforts to reform state universities and you find more than just legitimate qualms about efficiency and demands for accountability. You find the kind of indiscriminate anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism popular among more than a few right-wing conservatives.

It’s worth noting that Governor Perry has dismissed global warming as “one contrived, phony mess” and that many of the voices calling most loudly for change at the University of Texas are from the Tea Party fringe.

In other words there’s some crude, petty politics in all of this. And as we tackle the very real, very important challenge of giving young Americans the best and most useful education possible in an era of dwindling resources, that’s the last thing we need.”

Politics indeed!


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