A tale of Sherpas and superstars
In May of 2008, Gov. Rick Perry convened an unprecedented joint meeting of the boards of Texas’s three major university systems — the University of Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech — and laid out an agenda for reforming the state’s higher-education system, a plan to lower costs and raise the quality of both teaching and research. There is real reason for Governor Perry’s concern: Tuition, though still quite low in Texas, has been climbing for years, an unwelcome development, and the state’s higher-ed flagship, the University of Texas at Austin, barely makes the top-50 list in the college rankings, while Texas A&M comes in at No. 71, and Texas Tech . . . the less said about that the better.
Governor Perry offered up a list of proposals, now known far and wide as the “Seven Solutions,” drawn up by his office in conjunction with the free-market Texas Public Policy Foundation and the entrepreneur Jeff Sandefer, a former University of Texas adjunct professor, founder of the Acton School of Business in Austin, and a former member of the board of National Review.
With one exception, it was your basic off-the-shelf best-practices agenda — governor stuff. But from the reaction, you’d have thought Governor Perry had proposed turning the Alamo into a Taco Bell. Hooting and hollering commenced, and rage-filled academics quivered in their tweeds. Even worse, nosy donors and dusty alumni got into the act. Gordon Appleman, a prominent Fort Worth attorney with a great deal of influence among the unaccountably powerful UT alumni association, the Texas Exes, wrote a scathing letter warning that the university was “at risk of serious, long-term, perhaps irreversible degradation in academic stature. . . . Make no mistake, UT Austin is a prime target.” Pressure was applied, and influence was deployed. The Longhorns were particularly peevish about a reform agenda coming from Governor Perry: The man is an Aggie, after all, with a mere bachelor’s degree — in animal husbandry, at that, and unimpressive grades. They weren’t having it.
What Governor Perry actually proposed was this: 1) Students’ evaluations and some other information about faculty performance should be made public; 2) The best teachers should receive bonuses, based in part on students’ ratings; 3) The research and academic budgets should be separated, with teachers paid according to their teaching duties and researchers paid in proportion to the funding they attract; 4) Faculty should have to show that they can in fact teach before they are granted tenure; 5) Students should receive a personalized “learning contract” upon enrollment, along with information about the graduation rates and average starting salaries for students with the same major and comparable SAT scores; 6) Legislative appropriations should go to students directly rather than to the universities; 7) The universities should support an effort to develop a new national accreditation program that would evaluate institutions on measurable student progress.
You’d think that No. 6 would be the deal-breaker — it would have voucherized higher education, forcing the universities to compete for students and the dollars they bring with them, rather than treating students like not-entirely-welcome guests who are privileged to be at the party. But the reformers didn’t even make it that far down the list: No. 1 sent academia into fits.
Which is to say, the knowledge professionals supported by the taxpaying public went bats over a proposal to make professional knowledge available to the taxpaying public.
If you’re wondering what on earth was going through their heads, you need to know a little bit about the culture of higher education in Texas. Texans are inordinately proud of more or less everything between the Red River and the Rio Grande, but the higher-ed community there is full of itself even by the standards of the culture that produced David Koresh and Stone Cold Steve Austin, to say nothing of George W. Bush. How full of itself? Here’s a subtle little indicator: The official stylebook of the Daily Texan, the UT-Austin school newspaper (which I had the honor of serving as managing editor), designates the school “the University” — the capital-U University, period. The law creating “the University” calls for the establishment of “a university of the first class,” and UT-Austin is quite convinced that this is the first and last word on things. It’s a fine school, and possibly the best bargain to be had in higher education, but . . . it’s No. 45, and nobody’s making a serious argument that it ought to be No. 4 or No. 14 or No. 24. A nice solid state school with some ambition and a raft of pretensions — nothing very wrong with that. Having a pretty good football team helps, too, Texas being Texas.
UT-Austin and the main campus of A&M are the state’s elite public institutions, and they command enormous respect throughout Texas, but they represent a tiny, tiny slice of the higher-ed market in the state. For every Ph.D. candidate playing with the petawatt laser or MFA student digging through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s personal papers in Austin, there are 10,000 or more commuter students balancing jobs with their studies at second-tier, non-flagship state colleges, trying to nail down a four-year degree as the ticket to middle-class life. Those are the students — the very great majority — whom the Seven Solutions reformers seek to serve: with higher quality and lower prices. As usual, the institutional elites took reform to be an assault on their publicly funded privileges and sinecures, and shrieked. (And won.)
“These efforts to protect taxpayers and get more results from our schools are not universally welcomed in academia,” Perry said. “The attitude of some in the university world is that students and taxpayers should send more and more money, and then just butt out.” But he has kept on the case, and he struck a chord in this year’s state-of-the-state address when he called for getting the cost of a bachelor’s degree at a Texas public university down to $10,000. But he could have gone a lot farther, as the reformers point out — down to $0.00, in fact.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in those faculty-performance data. For instance, it’s usually assumed that there is a group of faculty that is primarily composed of active teachers, and another that is composed of scholars and researchers, teaching and research being both complementary and competing undertakings. The assumption is that if any professor isn’t doing much of one, it’s because he’s doing more of the other. But it turns out not to work that way.
Rick O’Donnell, a scarred veteran of the Texas higher-ed wars, ran the numbers for UT-Austin and Texas A&M, and came up with some interesting findings that were published in a study this year. For UT, the single largest group of faculty — he dubbed them “Dodgers” — did relatively little teaching and brought in no research funding. They handled only 26.5 percent of the classroom workload but represented 53.6 percent of the costs, teaching an average of 71 students a year. At the opposite end of the spectrum were a tiny group he called the “Stars” — not only did they bring in a fair amount of research money — $713,217 a year on average — they taught an average of 503 students per year. The Stars cost UT on average $406 to teach one student one class; for the Dodgers, the cost was $4,613, more than ten times that figure. Another group, nicknamed the “Sherpas,” were mostly untenured and not on track to be tenured — they did 38.9 percent of the teaching but represented only 8.2 percent of the costs. Even the high-end researchers — “Pioneers,” in Mr. O’Donnell’s taxonomy — taught nearly as many students on average as the Dodgers while bringing in an average of more than $3 million in research funding; rather than representing a net cost to the university (excuse me — the University), these scholars produced a net gain of $9,400 for each student they taught in one class. Mr. O’Donnell’s last group, the “Coasters,” were time-servers protected by tenure, teaching a few more students than the Dodgers and bringing in an average of $185,128 in research funds, doing 30.6 percent of the teaching and accounting for 40.8 percent of the costs.
The quantitatively inclined among you will note that between them the Dodgers and the Coasters account for 94.4 percent of the costs but only 57.1 percent of the teaching, with little or no funded research to offset the expense. Meanwhile, the other three groups do 42.9 percent of the teaching but account for only 5.6 percent of the costs — a much better buy. Austin academics sniffed that Mr. O’Donnell’s analysis reeked of business-school thinking — which it probably does: His colleague Mr. Sandefer had been the top-rated teacher in the UT business school before founding his own business school along radically innovative lines. But that data-driven analysis could, if acted upon, fundamentally change higher education in Texas — and the country — for the better.
“If you look at those numbers and use your labor resources more rationally, you could save about $300 million a year at UT-Austin alone,” Mr. O’Donnell says. “You could do a lot with that kind of money. Like eliminate tuition, for example.”
Eliminating tuition would no doubt be popular among students, parents, and the Texas body politic at large — everybody except university professors and administrators, who associate high tuition with prestige and who fear job insecurity more than anybody who has never had lifetime tenure can probably appreciate. But guess whose desires are prevailing? Mr. O’Donnell was hired by the UT board of regents to work in the chancellor’s office as a special adviser on these issues. When he pressed for release of the faculty-performance data and criticized the university administration for dragging its heels, he was fired for his troubles. He had been on the job 50 days.
He’s seen this before. He worked for Colorado governor Bill Owens when the state undertook No. 6, partially voucherizing the funding of college education. “It had the potential to be transformative,” he said. “You could talk to these families and tell them, ‘You have $4,000 a year to send your kid to college, it’s yours in this account,’ and make a huge difference. For the kids, too: When they start to appreciate in the eighth grade that it is a real possibility for them to go to college, they start to think that maybe they need to get ready for it in high school.”
Unfortunately, the program was quickly undermined: First the size of the vouchers was cut, reducing the incentive effect on students and families. Second, the universities were exempted from losing any money regardless of what happened to their populations, eliminating the incentive effect on the supply side of the equation. So Colorado ended up with something in the shape of a market-based reform, but with no real market mechanism.
Reform is struggling in Texas, too, a slow death by suffocation. The reformers did manage to get that faculty-evaluation information out to the public, but the project since has foundered. Reform-minded regents have run up against institutional inertia, suspicious alumni, and entrenched campus interests. “There’s an art and science to co-opting regents,” Mr. O’Donnell says. Mr. Sandefer concurs: “You have the Texas Exes and these country-club Republicans, all these guys who sit in the president’s box in football games. They’re like Ayn Rand villains — sycophants.” With Governor Perry’s presidential campaign struggling, he could do with a bread-and-butter issue that hits middle-class families right where they’ll feel it.
He has one in his back pocket — good ideas, ready to go. Instead, he’s found himself talking about in-state tuition for illegals and when exactly a particular rock was painted over. The real danger of a Perry implosion isn’t that his presidential ambitions will go unrealized, but that the Texas model for reform — of the tort system, of the economy, of taxes, of education — will stay confined to Texas.