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Higher Ed Standstill

Heading into the regular session, conservative business leaders like Woody Hunt and Bill Hammond were leading the charge for higher education reform. Their proposals for getting more graduates in the state included funding for colleges and universities tied to graduation rates instead of enrollments, a distribution method for financial aid that favored high-achieving needy students.

Students on the University of Texas at Austin campus.

Heading into the regular session, conservative business leaders like Woody Hunt and Bill Hammond were leading the charge for higher education reform. Their proposals for getting more graduates in the state included funding for colleges and universities tied to graduation rates instead of enrollments, a distribution method for financial aid that favored high-achieving needy students. (They ultimately got the latter, but not the former).

By the end of the session, as focus turned away from the Legislature and toward a set of "seven breakthrough solutions" for higher ed promoted by Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the debate had changed dramatically. It became more focused on the roles of research and teaching and finding a dollars-and-cents measurement for the productivity of individual faculty members.

That is the path the debate remains on to this day, but the Hammonds and Hunts have not been heard from very much. "Our focus is on completions. That's what matters," Hammond said. "I think some of the debate is misdirected. The issue should be: Are we getting enough kids walking across the stage at the end of the day?"

A retread of the "seven solutions" played out over the past week seemed to illustrate the intractable nature of the current fight.

Randy Diehl, dean of the University of Texas' College of Liberal Arts, released a response to the solutions, which were written by Jeff Sandefer, an Austin businessman and founder of the private Acton School of Business. Diehl's conclusion: "Put simply, this is the wrong approach."

Diehl concluded that the "solutions" were either redundant (such as requiring evidence of teaching skill for tenure) or out of step (as in the case of separating teaching and research budgets) with UT's goals and ongoing initiatives, like its ongoing course redesign project. He asserted that based on graduation rates compared to tuition — as opposed to professor salaries and class sizes, as reports circulated by proponents of the "solutions" have measured — UT is an efficiently run institution.

Diehl's analysis also found that in the few places where elements of the solutions had been implemented, they had not succeeded. In fact, on the same day Diehl's report came out, negative feedback and a lack of resources led the Texas A&M University System to ax a program modeled on one of the solutions that doled out cash prizes to professors based solely on student evaluations.

The report was quickly derided by conservative blogger Michael Quinn Sullivan, who said in a statement, "It's interesting that while the College of Liberal Arts says they 'disagree' with the reforms presented, they actually don't suggest any substantive ways to improve transparency, affordability and accessibility."

Perry spokesman Mark Miner took a similar tone, saying, "Resisting reform and accountability is an unsustainable recipe for mediocrity and stagnation."

In response to their response (a phrase that illustrates the productiveness of the current discussion), the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a band of influential Texans who oppose the "solutions" (and, in many cases, the governor) said, "By choosing to discount a scientific and research-based analysis of proposals that threaten to undermine the quality of higher education in Texas, the Governor's spokesman creates the impression that his efforts are about scoring political points rather than improving higher education."

After months of back and forth, it is clear that UT — though Diehl, like UT President Bill Powers, says he welcomes and will seriously consider suggestions for improving the university —will not willingly accept the "seven solutions," which are the proposals put forward by these conservative outside groups.

Simultaneously, those groups — even though representatives for both the TPPF and Perry say they are open to other suggestions — do not appear inclined to accept the creation of a task force to increase graduation rates (as UT formed this week) or any ongoing productivity-boosting initiatives administrators might point to as a suggestion for lowering the cost of public higher education (which has gone up 86 percent in the last decade).

So, for now, it's a standoff — one that Hammond worries the Legislature's new Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency might contribute to. He said he'd try to turn the debate by urging the committee, which was formed with an eye on the role of university system regents and has not yet scheduled a hearing, to worry less about the "seven solutions" and focus on making sure universities are improving completion rates.

"I don't think it's the appropriate role of the Legislature to manage inputs," he said. "But I do think it's their role to hold the systems accountable for the outputs, as in the graduates."

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