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Hunter Rawlings: The TT Interview

Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, on Texas' higher education controversy, how to get more students engaged in math and science, and whether any other Texas schools will qualify to be members of the AAU.

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Just a year ago, Robert Berdahl, then the president of the Association of American Universities, was penning a letter to then-Texas A&M University System Chancellor Mike McKinney, warning him not to implement a set of "ill-conceived reforms" known as the "seven breakthrough solutions."

Today, A&M has a new chancellor: John Sharp. And at the AAU, an elite organization of national research universities, Berdahl has been succeeded by Hunter Rawlings, who previously served as president of the University of Iowa and Cornell University.

Rawlings was recently invited to testify before the Texas Legislature's Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency — a committee that arose out of the controversy sparked by the "solutions."

In his testimony, he said the essential question at the heart of the debate was what universities should be producing.

"Thousands of cheap degrees – cheap in content as well as dollars?" he asked. "Warrants certifying that their graduates are ready for jobs, any jobs? Research grants, no matter what department faculty members belong to, patents and licenses, whatever the discipline?"

Afterward, in an interview with the Tribune, he said he's been keeping a close eye on Texas, which he called "on the leading edge of some of these public discussions." He also said that after his recent experience with the Legislature, he'd be eager to return.

"I found it quite a good intellectual experience, and I don't always have that," he said, giving committee co-chairs Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, high marks. "I'm not usually this effusive in my evaluation of such things, but this was a good one."

In addition to his thoughts on the current state of Texas' higher education discussion, Rawlings addressed the likelihood of any additional Texas universities gaining admittance to the AAU, often cited as the strongest signifier of coveted "tier one" status. Today, just the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and Rice University are members.  

The following is an edited transcript of the discussion :

TT: Your predecessor played a part in some of the turbulence we’ve had [in Texas]. Do your feelings about the "seven solutions" remain the same?

Rawlings: I frankly haven’t paid close attention to the "seven solutions" issue. I’ve been much more interested in the discussion at the legislative hearing, which seemed to me to move past some of the debates of the past few months and move on to what’s next. That struck me as a wise approach.

TT: What were you expecting when you came down and how was your experience?

Rawlings: I enjoyed the visit very much indeed. I was expecting a lot of partisanship and controversy. Instead, I felt that while there were some good, probing questions, the discussion was very positive. We got into some difficult issues, but always I thought with a good spirit. I liked a lot of the back and forth between the speakers and the members of the legislative committee. And I found it was conducted on a pretty high plane, actually. Most people seemed to be trying to learn something as opposed to trying to make political points.

TT: Have you seen this sort of thing in other places?

Rawlings: I think Texas has been at the forefront of some of these issues. Particularly accountability in undergraduate education. It may be that the debate has been a bit more heated in Texas as well. But I certainly found the members of the committee last week to be good thinkers on these issues and to be trying, as I say, to be learning as much as they could as opposed to making points of their own. I found a lot of the discussion quite interesting and positive.

TT: One of the questions you raised that gets to the heart of a lot of these issues that I thought I’d turn back around on you is: What kind of universities do we want to produce?

Rawlings: Right. I get concerned sometimes when the discussion revolves around access only or degrees only — how many degrees are we producing and how fast can we produce them? Because I’m afraid the emphasis on access and degree productivity and such things is purely quantitative in nature. It’s not concerned with the quality of education that students are receiving. It seems to me that our discussion [at the hearing] revolved quite a lot around the quality issues as opposed to just the purely qualitative issues. I thought that was a real plus.

TT: How do you respond to critics that say your group is elitist and purely interested in maintaining the status quo?

Rawlings: Well, in fact, AAU institutions are at the forefront of change in higher education. Many of the recent new developments, for example, in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education have come right from these research universities. And in fact, they’ve been able to produce a lot of excellent research on the nature of education itself. Particularly on the way students learn. So we at AAU just a couple weeks ago announced the kick-off on a new initiative to improve undergraduate education in STEM fields. And the individuals we’re calling on for advice for this are the very individuals at research universities who have been working at the forefront of this field. I’m happy to say that this is a good example of how research and teaching inform each other. They don’t always do so, but when they do, it’s a very powerful gain. Far from being behind the curve on this issue, I think research universities are out in front.

TT: Why does getting students into STEM fields seem to be such a struggle?

Rawlings: Well, the first reason is that many of these disciplines are tough. They’re very difficult. Students looking for an easy path through college don’t want to major in physics or mathematics because they’re very hard. The first reason is pretty easy to see. Secondly, unfortunately, sometimes the teaching of introductory courses in these disciplines is not the best because it tends to involve mostly the lecture format — often large lectures — and the material is presented in a fairly dry way. What the studies show is that the more you can engage students personally in these subjects, the better they will do and the more likely they will be to stay with these subjects. So you need to have hands on opportunities for students. They need to get engaged in the education itself. They need to be regularly monitored. They need to work in teams. There needs to be a constant attention to evaluation. And when you do all of those things, the subject takes on a lively quality and students are much more likely to stay with it. So, the research is now really conclusive on this. This country’s not doing well at all, producing engineers or science majors. We need to get after this problem if we’re going to compete with other countries in the future.

TT: You noted in your remarks that a lot of other countries are looking to the American model, yet here at home we increasingly hear people questioning the value of higher education. How do you explain that paradox?

Rawlings: Partly it’s a desire to sell books, of course. When you take on a large institution that’s very successful, you create controversy and people often enjoy reading about controversy. Some of this is a simple desire to sell books. On the other hand, some of the criticism is justifiable. When we’re not doing our jobs well. So, we have to constantly improve. But the paradox I was pointing to is the one in which American universities have now become the strongest in the world to the point where students from other countries flock here for their education. At this same time, other countries have begun to recognize that the American model is very successful and crucial to economic development, so they’re investing. China is investing. Singapore is investing. India is investing in its higher education system, and it’s trying to produce universities very much like our own. At this crucial time, we are in many cases disinvesting, particularly at public universities where states have been withdrawing support for — steadily now — for several years. This is a difficult moment, because we’re being challenged by other countries that want to produce successful universities themselves. They want to hire top research faculty members. They want to win Nobel Prizes. At the same time, we’re becoming an easy target, because faculty salaries aren’t keeping up at all now and we’re beginning to lose faculty to some of these other countries.

TT: What does it take to get into the AAU and do you anticipate any other Texas schools ultimately making it to that level?

Rawlings: It would be hard to know at this point. We base our membership on the quality and quantity of research that universities do. That’s our specialty, you might say. That’s what our membership means. You’ve got three terrific universities that are members right now. And we’re very open to others that qualify according to the standards and criteria. But Texas A&M, Texas and Rice are great members of the AAU. In fact, they participate very heavily in what we do, which is terrific. The public universities have been under a lot of pressure these days. It’s good to have Texas A&M and Texas be so robust.

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