Thursday, May 22, 2008

Transforming Higher Education Texas Style

By Richard Vedder

I attended a truly remarkable meeting yesterday with Whiz Kid Matt Denhart in Austin, Texas. Governor Rick Perry, in cooperation with the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and one of its directors, Jeff Sandefer (the innovative head of the Acton Business School, on which I have previously blogged), called together the regents (trustees) of all the Texas public universities for a Higher Education Summit. There was 90 percent attendance from the boards, which officially went into simultaneous sessions to hear discussions and participate in dialogue.

Jeff presented a remarkable bunch of slides showing that higher education costs are high and rising, and outcomes are at best mediocre, and probably falling. Faculty members teach little, with loads falling over time. Adjunct faculty do much of the teaching --for little money. Most research shows up as articles in obscure journals --at a cost per article approaching $50,000 using average cost pricing. Only a small proportion of R and D in the U.S. goes on in universities, contrary to the claims of Establishment pleaders for funds. Former House Majority Leader and college professor Dick Armey reiterated a good bit of this in his trademark folksy (but effective) way at lunch.

Jeff suggested that the regents needed to tie compensation to performance, for example, paying professors bonuses based on how they satisfy the customer. Professors with low teaching loads, poor teaching evaluations and low research output need to be especially scrutinized. The Regents seemed sympathetic to many specific ideas presented, and there seemed to be a move afoot to have some united action on the part of all the boards to push greater efficiency, accountability, and results. The Governor was cheering the group on. I left to catch a plane before the meeting concluded, but it is actions like this that are needed if we are going to reform higher education. It is not going to come from within the academy --and, historically, regents and trustees are typically cheerleaders for university presidents. Still, with strong leadership (such as that provided by Perry and Sandefer), the trustees can and should be a leading force in changing the way the academy does business.

At the same time, Matt and I have authored a study, published by TPPF, that surveys Texas higher education (Texas' Higher Education System: Success or Failure?) Texas has horribly high attrition rates from college, rising costs, etc. We outline 18 things that can be done as solutions. All of this, however, takes energy, will, and a willingness to buck an establishment that resists change.

Every state needs a Jeff Sandefer -- a citizen willing to bite the bullet and take a leadership role in convincing the opinion makers and decision makers that all is not well in the higher education enterprise, and that reform can and should be made to allow us to continue to have one of the world's greatest systems of universities.

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