One day before the start of one of the most important University of Texas Board of Regents meetings of the year, conservative groups held a press conference at the Texas Capitol calling for increased transparency in higher education and the end of faculty tenure and "frivolous" research projects.
"From our perspective, we believe that it is time that universities take their heads out of the sand," said Peggy Venable, the state director of Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a conservative advocacy organization. She called on them to "recognize that it is long overdue that we make universities more accessible, more affordable, and their books more transparent." She noted that between 1999 and 2010, the average tuition and fees at Texas' 10 largest public universities had risen by 120 percent.
Students from a number of the state's public universities were on hand to express their concerns about mounting debt problems. Nathan McDaniel, a junior at Texas State University majoring in political science, said he anticipates that he will graduate with approximately $50,000 in student loan debt. "The job market is not very great right now, and I'm a little worried about how it's going to work out for me," he said, noting that other students felt similarly. "I think something definitely needs to happen with the system."
Amanda Shell, a representative of former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey's national Tea Party group FreedomWorks, was on hand to lay out specific changes the groups want to see. They called for the end of tenure that, according to Shell, "only leaves professors to stick with the status quo of the academic establishment," the end of unnecessary research projects "that simply suck money from the university system" and for a "more transparent environment," in which teacher-to-student ratios, teacher salaries, tenure status, research funding and research results are all publicized.
FreedomWorks has taken a particular interest in Texas higher education, which has been a hot-button issue since Gov. Rick Perry made it one of his priorities earlier this year and his years of behind-the-scenes pushing for controversial changes came to the surface. According to Shell, about 6,000 individuals in Texas and surrounding states have signed a petition in support of the proposals she laid out.
Shell did not specify the criteria for determining what research projects would be deemed "frivolous," indicating that students and taxpayers could do so if they had enough information. "The goal is that, if it's more transparent, they can determine if they feel like their money is being spent productively or not," she said.
Venable and her organization, along with an affiliated group of students and young professionals called America's Next Impact, have sparred with the UT regents a fair amount recently. At a recent "Generation Debt" happy hour put on by America's Next Impact, they received a surprise visitor in UT Regent Jim Dannenbaum.
He ended up in a conversation with Venable and some students, and she recalls that "he basically said UT isn't for everyone." Later, a blog post on the Americans for Prosperity website led with, "Can't afford to go to UT? There's always junior college, says one UT regent."
Venable said that, though she didn't think he meant them to, she felt that Dannenbaum's comments, which she could not quote verbatim, "showed a bit of an insensitivity, and a bit of elitism."
In an email to the Tribune, Dannenbaum said his intentions in visiting the event were either misunderstood or ignored. "I went to suggest looking at ways to improve access and reduce cost. I went to explain U.T. System efforts to improve productivity and efficiency, on-line access thru task force recommendations," he wrote.
Smaller institutions within the UT System that offer fewer Ph.D. programs are inherently less expensive, he notes, as is the increasingly popular option of completing the first two years of a degree at a less expensive community college. "Demeaning or being dismissive of the very valuable role that community colleges play in our educational system and the important alternatives they offer for those seeking a two-year certificate in needed and honorable fields of endeavor not requiring a four-year degree, is the real elitist attitude," Dannenbaum said.
At today's press conference, Chris Covo, the director of America's Next Impact, said that it could be difficult for soon-to-be students to fully appreciate the cost of higher education before they enroll. "I think there definitely is personal responsibility, but it is hard to understand how big that burden will be," he said.
Venable said she and her allies will be watching closely the regents' actions. Though he did not offer specifics, she said Dannenbaum indicated to her that they are indeed embracing some reforms and would elaborate upon them at the upcoming meeting.
University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa also will be offering his action plan for the future, and task forces on university excellence and productivity, as well as blended and online learning, are expected to offer their reports.