Old Grudges Bedevil Texas Higher Education Debate

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry.

As the debate over the future of Texas’ higher education continues to swirl, it's increasingly intertwined in old political rivalries and long-held grudges and resentments.

“It’s an old fight where politicians see the leaders of the state university as distant and arrogant,” says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “The idea of educational excellence is one Texas has always been ambivalent about.”

Historically, the political fallout has come down hard on both sides. In the early 20th century, Texas Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson’s meddling with the University of Texas sparked the ultimately successful effort to impeach and remove him. In the 1940s, it was University of Texas at Austin President Homer Rainey who lost his job when he battled with Gov. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel’s appointed regents. And those are just two examples.

This week saw jockeying from Democrats and Republicans alike. Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, gave an interview to the Travis County Democratic Party on the subject of controversial higher education reforms promoted by Gov. Rick Perry. She did not hold back.

“Rick Perry doesn’t understand higher education,” she said. “He doesn’t have a graduate degree, and he graduated a long time ago with a major in something like agriculture. I have a Ph.D., so I understand the value of research and teaching.”

When the party publicized the interview, Michael Quinn Sullivan of conservative advocacy organization Empower Texans quickly pounced. “That’s elitism defined,” he wrote on the organization’s blog.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Perry spokesman Mark Miner described Zaffirini’s comments as “unfortunate.” Asserting that Perry is focused on the bottom line issues that concern Texas students and taxpayers, he said, “There’s a clear disconnect between Democrats and higher education issues that matter.”

Regarding the debate, Zaffirini — who has played a leading role in the back and forth thus far — told the Tribune, “Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of it is political.”

She did not include her own comments in that category, however. She said she was merely alluding to the fact that, though she would prefer it were not the case, most students don’t have significant experience with academic research — which has been a hot topic — until they reach the graduate level. 

She added, “But I don’t mind taking the heat.”

Miner characterized the dispute as “mostly substantive.” He said the governor intends to focus on the issues not the politics, and that he hopes the debate continues.

The debate cannot be characterized simply by the traditional political party divide. Of 22 distinguished Texas A&M University alumni who signed a letter opposing the reforms in question, the overwhelming majority were part of a group called “Aggies for Kay” during the testy primary battle between Perry and fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Meanwhile, Texas Business for Higher Education, a new group of business leaders who support transparency and accountability in keeping with the proposals includes a number of major Perry donors.

Hutchinson entered the fray this week in an op-ed piece for the Alpine Avalanche: "When I spoke to the 1998 graduating class of UT, the autonomy and authority of our education system was under attack by federal bureaucrats in Washington attempting to regulate research and exert control over our academics. 

"Today, 13 years later, the assault against higher education in Texas is coming from within — not without," she wrote. "Our state leaders are struggling with internal contention over the direction and focus of education at our flagship universities, UT and Texas A&M."

Ray Bowen, a former “Aggie for Kay” who did not sign the letter, though it is published on a website registered in his name, told the Tribune that, as far as he knew, the old political battle was never discussed when the letter was put together. “What set them off,” he said of the alumni, “was this idea of government intervention and a small, narrowly focused foundation being able to go to the two flagships and torque their direction.”

That’s a reference to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the conservative Austin-based think tank from which the set of reforms sprang. Former TPPF employee Justin Keener, now a spokesman for Texas Business for Higher Education, also told the Tribune that he hopes politics are not playing a role in the substantive issues of higher education.

SMU’s Jillson said of the issue of political interference in higher education, “It has sometimes done significant damage to politicians who meddle in university affairs.” Though he noted that — no matter who ends up taking the heat — often it is the universities that end up most significantly affected by political intrusion. “This puts a wobble in the university that takes years to overcome and stabilize,” he said.

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