The cover story of the October 2012 issues of Texas Monthly focused over the battles being fought by the Board of Regents of both the University of Texas and to a lessor extent Texas A&M University against the administrations of those two schools. (Texas Monthly is a 40 year old publication that is something akin to The New Yorker for the state of Texas.) The author of the story is Paul Burka, one of the best political reporters in the state. If that sounds like a fairly minor distinction, keep in mind that during Burka's 30 year career, two Texans have ended up in the White House (George Bush and George W. Bush), three have made serious runs for their party's presidential nomination (John Connally, Phil Gramm, and Rick Perry), another made two serious independent runs for president (H. Ross Perot), another was the vice presidential nominee of his party (Lloyd Benson), and a dozen or so have served in the cabinet.
The article "Storming the Ivory Tower" concentrates on the efforts of Governor Rick Perry and his appointed regents to change how big universities operate. A series of conservative reformers want to stem the cost of tuition, and develop degree programs that depend less on research driven faculty and more on marketplace forces, using part-time instructors. The need to stem skyrocketing tuition is legitimate, but in the case of Texas, Perry is one of the people most responsible for this huge growth when he pushed the state legislature to allow each school to set its own rates. That move backfired. The major schools in the state increased their tuition rates as fast as they could and the minor ones kept them as low as possible. Since then Perry has been pushing for a degree that will only cost $10,000. This goal is reasonable, but one that ignores the very real issue of inflation. One of the very few schools that has managed to put together that type of cost structure is Texas A&M University--Commerce (where I once taught).
Other parts of the reform project are more problematic. The use of on-line instruction, part-time instructors and market driven needs sounds nice if you are trying to develop responsive vocational schools, not leading universities on a national scale. It also seems more relevant for law and business schools rather than liberal arts programs. In theory, these new communication technologies could be cost saving devices, but there are a lot real world problems with that theory. Many of these issues have been discussed on previous postings on this blog. I also feel that the reformers are focusing are missing some really important issues, since they are coming at this from outside the profession.
Normally, I like to reprint articles from media outlets that scholars do not regularly consult. Not this time. While Texas Monthly is not a magazine that regularly addresses issues of higher education, this article is a long, long read and it is probably best if interested readers go to the Texas Monthly website. It is also balanced, giving both sides their due. In addition, it is a good and entertaining read, which is not surprising given Burka's long career.
In a little postscript, in the blog that Burka runs he notes that the "Battle for UT" is hardly over as the Board is trying to get the president of the university removed.
One final word, whatever happens in Texas, more of these type of confrontations are coming unless academics do a better job of confronting their own professional shortcomings.