Texas Profs

May 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Blogs

By Lynn Ashby 2 May 2011

It is rare that I find myself agreeing with Dick Armey. You remember him, the former Republican Congressman from Denton who found he could make a lot more money as a lobbyist. He walks around in a big Texas cowboy hat, although he’s from North Dakota, and founded FreedomWorks which is the leadership and organizer of the no-leadership, no-organization Tea Party. Just how he pulled that off is testimony to his chutzpah and our gullibility. Drawing on his earlier years as a professor at Austin College and the U. of North Texas, Armey recently wrote an op/ed piece weighing in on the battle within UT-Austin and Texas A&M (hereafter UT and A&M) over professors’ teaching vs. research.

But first a bit of sleazy background. The UT regents, all appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, hired Rick O’Donnell, a “special adviser” from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, at $200,000 a year. He was to implement a program of professors doing more teaching and less research, and would report to the regents, not to Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. A&M was to follow a similar path but without a special adviser. The different reactions by the two schools were remarkable. The head of the Texas Exes and friends raised a storm. The UT Council of Deep Pockets (that’s not their real name but they give loads of money to the school and have pull) jumped in with the same outrage. The job was abruptly abolished. However, the Aggies meekly submitted to the program.

Then the tale got really cheesy. E-mails showed, while the special adviser post was opened for applications, O’Donnell’s hiring was already a done deal, and those other poor applicants were so much smokescreen. His learned position paper on higher education was found to be filled with errors and fuzzy facts. He protested he never called himself a scholar. And why, it was asked, when UT is cutting back on staff, profs, raising tuition, etc. is there enough cash to pay some outsider $200,000? A good halfback, sure, but not a hand-picked non-scholar with a political agenda. Obviously a good university needs to teach students well and do relevant research, but state schools have an added burden. The taxpayers of Texas support UT and A&M to educate their children, research takes second place. Or put it this way: let’s have a state-wide referendum on whether these two schools, and all public universities in Texas, should have, as their first priority, teaching students, doing research, or winning football games. (Remember UT has the largest athletic budget of any school in the nation, public or private. The budget is $167 million this year, up from $160 last year.)

Dick Armey, in his article, notes that UT is the highest-ranked university in Texas and has the third-largest endowment in the country. Actually, the endowment is for the entire UT system with 200,000 students. He also points out UT does not do well in the latest U.S. News poll. “It has become more common for Texans to leave the state to pursue college degrees from higher-ranked universities elsewhere.” Armey writes that since 1994 tuition at Texas public universities has increased on average 9.8 percent annually, but has done little to help Texas students and their parents, especially during a recession. Finally, he points to a public opinion survey released by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (from whence O’Donnell came) which found that 80 percent of Texas voters think Texas colleges and universities can be run more efficiently. Then there is tenure, which O’Donnell doesn’t like. It was former UT President Logan Wilson who coined the term, “publish or perish.” Profs are supposed to turn out learned articles in obscure academic journals that no one reads. And, in turn, they get tenure. Name one other job where you can’t get fired, except the Pope. Schools strive to be a Tier One university. Texas has three: UT, A&M and Rice. (UH has just been anointed by one judge of such things.) California has nine. No one can explain exactly what’s a Tier One university, but lots of research is required. The Longhorns qualify. In 2006, two psychologists from UT, Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss, surveyed 2,000 people on why they have sex, and came up with 237 reasons, including, “I was drunk.” It wasn’t quite up there with Sir Alexander Fleming studying bread mold. We see these bumper stickers, “My child and my money go to (fill in the blank),” but where does the money go? The raw product of a college is not something it has to purchase, like metal or plastic or crude oil. Actually, the raw product pays the school, rather like a potato pays the factory to become vichyssoise. Profs continually say they are underpaid. Grad students, who do much of the teaching and grading, do it for the experience or pennies. (I was taught by graduate students the first two years at UT.) Students buy their books and pay lab fees. The buildings are gifts, the department chairs are endowed. Parents may also wonder why their kid can’t get in UT, but illegal aliens can, and pay in-state tuition. Yet every two years the heads of the UT and A&M systems ask the Texas Legislature for funds, coupled with the dire warning that otherwise they can’t attract and retain good profs. I’ll bet these days the deans’ phones at those schools are ringing nonstop with laid-off academics from other states, looking for a job. So that dog won’t hunt. Quick story: One day I was at a meeting at the LBJ School on the UT campus with a few leading intellectual lights on the 40 Acres. One prof arrived late, having just flown in from Washington where he had been all week. Another left early to attend a Barbara Jordan Committee meeting.

I wanted to ask, “Do any of you actually teach?” Maybe I should have asked why they had sex. Ashby hooks ‘em at ashby2@comcast.net

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