At a meeting of the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents, chairman Richard Box appeared to shrug off a controversial set of “breakthrough solutions” for higher education.
Austin businessman and Acton School of Business founder Jeff Sandefer authored the “solutions,” which like-minded advocates say would boost productivity and accountability at public universities. Along with Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, Sandefer, who is on the board of the TPPF, has encouraged regents to implement his proposals since 2008.
Of the six university systems in the state, the A&M System appears to have been the most receptive to the changes.
In recent months, this push has been met with significant backlash from academics and alumni of the state’s flagship universities — first the University of Texas at Austin and later Texas A&M University — who allege that the proposals are too simplistic and tinged with an anti-research agenda. Last year, the leadership of the Association of American Universities, an elite group of research universities of which A&M and UT are both members, warned A&M System Chancellor Mike McKinney that the reforms, which were described in a letter as "ill-conceived," demonstrated "little or no understanding of the nature of graduate education."
“Anything that interferes with effectiveness in research, I will vigorously oppose,” Box announced today.
He said that he understood the “seven solutions” as “simply suggestions” with which to frame a conversation about how to improve during a time of increased competition, rising costs and greater demands on the system. “But they have also become a distraction from an important conversation,” he said, adding that it was time to “move on.”
Through a spokeswoman, Sandefer declined to respond to the comments. TPPF President and CEO Brooke Rollins said in an email, "We agree with Chairman Box that Texas universities need to lead the way in achieving affordable higher education that engages in world-class research and top-quality instruction for its students. The debate is not over what is needed, but how to achieve it."
As for the proposals, Rollins wrote, "As our '7 Breakthrough Solutions' have been further studied and implemented, we have gained insights that are causing us to refine those solutions and consider new approaches. We welcome additional ideas about how to improve higher education and commit ourselves to continuing an open, public dialogue on this issue."
At today's meeting, Box reiterated his belief that the A&M System does not have any specific problems that need fixing, a point he made in a recent letter to concerned faculty members. However, he said the system should dedicate “every waking hour” to improving. He cited the flagship’s four-year graduation rates, currently hovering around 50 percent, as an example. Touching on the issue of accessibility, he noted that, as a regent, he also feels the responsibility to keep the taxpayers in mind.
“From time to time, we will ask difficult questions about the productivity of our universities and agencies,” Box said. “We do so not because we have an agenda, but a responsibility.”
He also touched on the issue of the system’s nascent search for a new chancellor. Earlier this month, Chancellor Mike McKinney abruptly announced that he would be stepping down in July, encouraged, sources say, by regents in part due to dissatisfaction with his handling of the “seven solutions.”
Box indicated that the system will welcome applicants from all over the nation with the hope of arriving at a finalist soon. “Perhaps in the fall,” he said.
After Box’s remarks, McKinney gave his own, which also addressed the issue of academic research. “I have kind of enjoyed the tempest in a teapot,” he said of the ongoing debate.
The value of research, he said, “can’t be underestimated and it can’t be recorded on the red and black report.” That’s a reference to a massive spreadsheet of faculty information the A&M System compiled that highlighted professors that failed to generate enough revenue to cover their salary in red. It was the development of the report, inspired by the "seven solutions" (though carried out in a manner disapproved of by Sandefer), that provoked the harsh rebuke from the AAU.
McKinney said the likelihood of an individual researcher making a major discovery wasn’t that high, but indicated that, in his estimation, headline-grabbing findings weren’t necessarily the purpose. “What we do is institutionalize curiosity,” he said. “That’s what we get out of research.”
As the meeting went on, it became clear that Texas A&M University faculty members remain concerned about the “seven solutions,” despite Box’s characterization of them as “simply suggestions."
Jaime Grunlan, an associate professor of engineering, delivered a confrontational address to the regents in which he cautioned against a “for-profit mentality that will ultimately devalue a degree from A&M” and asked if they would commit to rolling back some of the steps they’ve already taken to implement the “solutions.”
He asked the board to commit to doing away with a cash prize, known as the Student Led Awards for Teaching Excellence, or SLATE award, given to professors with high student evaluations. The program was created in direct response to one of the solutions, but Grunlan said it offends the faculty and doesn’t serve the students.
Grunlan opened with a thinly veiled sleight of Sandefer when he alerted the regents that his father had not come with him today. “I fight my own battles alone,” Grunlan said, a reference to the active role Sandefer’s father, J.D. Sandefer, has taken in encouraging regents to implement his son’s proposals.
He said that the paper trail of correspondence with the Sandefers and Perry’s office discussing the reforms belies the notion that they are “simply suggestions” as Box said.
“When I bring suggestions, I hope they are taken as seriously as this,” he said. Later, he added, “I have solutions of my own and I think I am just as smart as the Sandefers.”
Grunlan estimated that he was speaking for about 90 percent of the A&M faculty. He especially objected to his perception that outside groups were criticizing his colleagues with no rebuttal from their leadership. “They are trashing us and there’s no response,” he said. “The lack of anything is deafening.”
“All research suggests that we are one to follow, not one to be tinkered with by think tanks,” he said.
Box said Grunlan’s points were “well-taken” but encouraged him to review the remarks from earlier in the morning and then give him a call to talk further. But as they followed Grunlan out after giving him a standing ovation, some faculty members indicated that Box’s remarks that morning did not convince them that the efforts among the board members to implement the “seven solutions” were not ongoing.
“Today was a good opportunity for them to come out and say, ‘We do not support these ideas,’” said Weston Porter, an associate professor in the department of veterinary integrative biosciences. He felt Box’s remarks failed to do that.
“There’s certainly a trust issue,” said John Edens, a professor of psychology, who, like Grunlan, was one of five professors to draft an open letter to Box expressing similar concerns last week. Edens said it was difficult to tell if the board was “saying one thing and doing another or if there has been a change in course.”
Box told reporters once again after the meeting that he felt it was time to change the conversation and “move on” from the “seven solutions,” which he says has become “a pejorative” since things “spun out of control” at UT.
“Some of the concepts are good,” said Box, “but it’s the implementation.”
He did not commit to eliminating the SLATE awards, but he did tell reporters after the board meeting, “We’ll take a look at the metrics of these programs and see what’s working and what’s not. If we feel like it’s beneficial for the university, then we’ll refine it or it will be something else.”
He denied that McKinney’s departure was in any way related to his handling of the reform implementations. He also denied that Jeff Sandefer has a relationship with the board. As for his father, J.D. Sandefer, Box said, “Maybe friends, but as far as influencing this board to make decisions — no.”
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