Palaima: Regents in Texas push ideas that do lasting damage to higher education

There have been criticisms and political attacks on the two flagship universities in Texas (Texas A&M and UT Austin) since at least 2008. Here I present a recent commentary piece I wrote with pertinent information and with links to other commentaries by Gov. Rick Perry and Gail Collins of the NY Times.

These are followed by selected reader response.

I have received permission to circulate these comments from the people who sent them to me.

They are worth reading.

TGP

Find this article at:
http://www.statesman.com/opinion/palaima-regents-in-texas-push-ideas-that-do-1474256.html

COMMENTARY
Palaima: Regents in Texas push ideas that do lasting damage to higher education

Thomas G. Palaima, REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR
Austin American-Statesman Saturday, May 14, 2011

Unless you have been living on another planet, you know that the University of Texas and Texas A&M University have been targets of criticism. The criticism ramped up in 2008 when Gov. Rick Perry orchestrated a closed-door “educational summit” involving the UT Board of Regents. There, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, and retired U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey aired their views on our state’s two flagship research-oriented universities.

At A&M, according to Armey, “only 49 out of 3,000 faculty members brought in enough money to pay for their salaries and overhead over the past five years.” Departments should tell students what their starting salaries will be if they major in their fields. Perry wants bachelor’s degrees to cost $10,000 or less.

No matter what motives or animus inspire such borderline crackpot ideas, they have to be taken seriously, because the governor is behind them and he appoints the regents. The regents, in turn, appoint university presidents. The presidents serve without fixed terms at the pleasure of the regents. They can, that is, be fired at any time.

Faculty senates at A&M and UT Austin are virtually powerless. According to regents’ rules, faculty serve purely advisory roles.

That explains why regents in Texas have done such harm to higher education. We do not have trustees who are entrusted to safeguard what professional scholars, teachers, researchers and educational administrators create. We have political appointees who act like kings.

Between 1919 and 1943, Regent Luther Stark made UT, according to Ronnie Dugger, his “outstanding hobby.” Stark devised in 1923 the regental rule “that no infidel, atheist, or agnostic be employed in any capacity in the University of Texas, and no person who does not believe in God as the Supreme Being and the Ruler of the Universe shall hereafter be employed.”

Stark also opined that “the president of the University of Texas occupies the position to the board of regents as a general manager of a corporation does to its board of directors.”

On May 9, William Powers Jr., the general manager of UT, said, “I am a president.” He presented “A Report to the Commission of 125 and the University of Texas Community,” available at tinyurl.com/3js34xy. Read it.

Powers explains the arduous labors of citizens and enlightened leaders of our state over 128 years to achieve the constitutional mandate that UT be a university of the first class. He shows that the faculty, staff, students and administrators of UT have never rested on their laurels, despite such deep cuts by the Legislature that state revenues may soon only cover 13 percent of the university’s operating budget.

Powers’ message conveys a sense of his commitment to excellence in undergraduate education, scholarship and research. It has the ring of Homer Rainey, who was fired by regents for refusing to fire faculty who had the temerity to teach New Deal economic policies.

Powers is too tactful and lawyerly to say what I will say. Who are these people who, without a serious understanding of higher education, would denigrate over 100 years of hard work of so many men and women devoted to the pursuit of knowledge at the highest level for the benefit of society? Why in a democracy should members of a self-created partisan think tank be given exclusive access to present their views to regents who are themselves political appointees of a like-minded governor? Who in their right mind would define the worth of a professor of the history of religion, of Arabic languages, of African American music, of the art of Latin America, based on the money they bring in?

The saddest moment of all preceded Powers’ speech. In introducing student government president Natalie Butler, Kenny Jastrow, head of the Commission of 125 and former chair of Temple-Inland, invited the audience to applaud her courage for writing a letter to the Board of Regents about these issues.

What have we come to in our democracy if writing a letter of opinion to fellow citizens entrusted with a public duty is considered an act of courage?

Palaima (tpalaima@sbcglobal.net) is a UT professor.

 

OTHER PIECES IN THE SATURDAY MAY14 Statesman

Rick Perry: Learn to Separate Fact from Fiction
http://www.statesman.com/opinion/perry-learn-to-separate-fact-from-fiction-1474089.html

Gail Collins: It’s all about reading, ‘riting and revenues
http://www.statesman.com/opinion/collins-its-all-about-reading-riting-and-revenues-1474137.html

When reading Perry’s piece, please keep in mind these salient points:

The graduation rates at UT Austin for incoming freshmen are:

51% in 4 years or less
77% within 5 years
80% within 6 years.

The amount of UT’s ca. $2.1 billion dollar operating budget that is covered by state appropriations is now at just below 15% and with anticipated cuts will sink as low as 13%.

Under the House version of the budget, state general revenues for UT Austin will decrease by 20.5%, or $57.1 million per year. The Senate version would reduce our general revenues by 16.1%, or $44.9 million per year.

In 1981, state support amounted to 52% of the annual budget. It has gotten to the point where one wonders on what grounds UT Austin is any longer called a state-funded institution.

If it cost you $40,000 to attend college for four years and I paid $5,200 of that amount, could I rightly claim that I paid for your college education?

RESPONSE FROM READERS:

Ken Ashworth +, former Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UT System and commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board; author of Horns of a Dilemma: Coping with Politics at the University of Texas (see link to interview below):

Hooray for your piece in today’s Statesman. Your series of questions at the end, following the factual presentation earlier hits at the heart of this ludicrous position UT is placed in.

Maybe readers who can’t formulate the issues at stake will see them clearly from your posing them so articulately.

A&M has already largely succumbed to Perry’s pied pipers. Maybe they at least serve as an example of what can happen if there is no resistance to such idiotic policies. Thanks for returning the incoming fire with such vigor.

See: http://www.texastribune.org/texas-education/higher-education/kenneth-ashworth-the-tt-interview/

 

James Tatum, author of African American Writers and Classical Tradition (2010) and The Mourner’s Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam (2004)

Dear Tom,

You are doing god’s work. Or Wotan’s. Or Zeus’s. What your facing is infinitely worse than anything an earlier muck-raker like J. Frank Dobie had to contend with.

I talked with Gore Vidal on such points and he allowed as how it was not only possible for fascism to develop in the USA (which was a threat in the 30s but never materialized thanks to Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Huey Long, etc.).

In many parts of the country it is already alive and well. Of course the thugs aren’t confined to Texas, as the career of Donald Trump shows.

But the other thing that your report suggests to me is that politicians and demagogues in the state of Texas are striving to lead the way in this brutalism, which is now widely influential, thanks to such recent events as the judicial coup d’etat of the 2000 election, the careers of Bush and Rove and and the legitimization and reinvigoration of racist politics, before and even more after the election of Barack Obama as president.

Pakistan and the present United States, with its “contracted” armies of mercenaries–I am not dissing the genuine US military, but for-profits like Blackwater–are perfect mirror images of one another, and the US electorate is by design and careful nurturing made increasingly oblivious to the realities.

We are in a Tacitean moment. Keep at it.

All the best

James Tatum

 

Eddye Eubanks

Thanks for your wonderful (and courageous) column in the Statesman. It’s tragic that you had to write it, but I hope it was read by as many people as possible. As a native Texan, I have become ashamed of my state, and worry about where it is going. Having a former A&M cheerleader as governor is disgusting, as well as other “leaders” whose education/intelligence/integrity/etc. are in doubt.

Please keep up your submissions and your work. Thank goodness for people such as you.

 

Scott Cook, Professor Emeritus in Anthropology, University of Connecticut-Storrs:

Wheeler-Dealers and Texas Higher Education

The American-Statesman is to be commended for its continuing coverage of the ongoing controversy in higher education sparked by a long tradition of political meddling by governor Rick Perry, his cuates and donors like Jeff Sandefer and, most troubling, Gene Powell, head of the Board of Regents, and his various hatchet men on the Board like Alex Cranberg. Powell’s ‘bull in the china shop’ behavior as agent provocateur for the forces of Perryism at UT is not fooling anyone with his lame defense that under his onslaught against faculty “the regents are not managing; they’re gathering information to study” (Statesman 5/18:A7).

Special kudos to Tom Palaima who is the resident expert on this shameful history and a distinguished faculty member at the flagship institution that has the most at stake-the University of Texas at Austin. Also, sympathies are extended to profesors Hackett and Huehnergard who moved to UT from Harvard, apparently with some degree of naiveté about the reach of the reign of born-again babbitry in Texas. As someone whose academic career began as an undergraduate at UT in 1955, and who subsequently studied or taught at six universities in the midwest, the northeast, the Caribbean, and Mexico, the rampant ongoing political interference at UT brings to mind the scary days of late 1960’s witch hunts and on-campus intimidation by the powers-that-be. It even outdoes what I experienced as a Fulbright scholar at a provincial university in southern Mexico where, at least, students and faculty take to the streets to defend themselves from blatantly ignorant political meddling in university governance.

It is shameful that the academy in Texas has no buffer from political demagogues or from the hubris of the big moneymakers (and the wannabees) who mistakenly think that accumulated wealth and business success are necessarily evidence of universal wisdom and acumen; and that private sector business models and culture are panaceas for all the ills of public higher education. After all, their formulas must appear to them to work well in NCAA football and basketball programs at UT – so why not everywhere else? They see nothing flawed about a university that pays its football staff substantially higher salaries than its central administrative staff and faculty and where, incredibly, the faculty has no meaningful role in governing the university and constraining its elite managerial policy-makers. I consider myself lucky to have retired from a public university in the northeast where faculty had collective bargaining, and were buffered from political demagogues and overbearing managerial elites by the AAUP.

I never graduated from UT simply because my two years of course work with several outstanding faculty ignited a spark in me to pursue specialized interests that could best be met at a university in the nation’s capital. In retrospect, courses I took at UT, for example, The Russian Revolution with Oliver Henry Radkey, International Economics with Wendell C. Gordon, Labor Economics with Prof. W. Campbell Balfour, Social Control of Business by Prof. Liebafsky and several others, were among the best I ever experienced and greatly influenced my academic career development. Not only were these men gifted lecturers, they had research publications that were models of scholarship. I do not think any of these independent scholars would tolerate the milieu at twenty-first century UT under the poisonous influence of Rick Perry and his coterie of misguided academic reformers tout student rankings and teaching loads over scholarly achievement as their measure of faculty worth.

 

Anonymous, retired professor of Classics from outside Texas

You ask (and it is a good question) whether anyone should be complimented for writing a letter to another citizen charged with a public duty. Well, I can imagine vindictive people in positions of authority finding a way to undermine someone who criticized them or wrote to question their actions. I’m always a little surprised when professors dare to publicly criticize the actions and policies of people like deans, chancellors, and others who promote them in their careers or manage to decelerate their progress. Yes, this kind of criticism should, I say should, form part of public discourse in a democracy, but to compliment someone who does follow this democratic road doesn’t seem to me wholly irrational.

The biggest weakness in my own personality has always been a tendency to blurt things out, to let my tongue run away with my thoughts instead of holding myself back and finding a discreet way to deliver my views. Am I a coward? Well, I have paid the price on several occasions that I can easily remember.

 

Jan Reid +: Fine op-ed in the American Statesman today. [The student government leader's letter was] not exactly an act of courage, as you say, but it does demonstrate how thinking folks can join the fight.
Jan Reid

 

ANONYMOUS:

I am writing to let you know that I very much enjoyed your piece in today’s Statesman. Its tone and substance are perfect! I was hired into the College of Engineering at UT in 1986 and retired in 2005.

If in 1986 the higher-education climate had been as it is today, I would not have accepted UT’s offer.

 

Raymond Helm +:

I read Rick Perry’s blather and wondered who was going to refute the fiction he called facts, and then I read your article.

Perry, like George Bush, has mastered the art of doing one thing and if it draws flack, turning around and denying having had anything to do with it.

Sure, the state has put millions of dollars into education, but have the politicians funded education to the extent it needed to be funded? That fact never comes to mind to the majority of Perry’s Republican base and that is what he banks on. He told them what they wanted to hear so he accomplished his purpose.

Thanks for writing the facts but you need to be careful, Perry may have the state legislature divide the University of Texas into voting districts and get you voted off the faculty.

 

Kathryn Anderson +:

Thank you for your brilliant editorial today. I am feel proud and lucky to have you teaching at UT. Thank you for speaking up so often!

Did you read the great commentary today by the couple who both teach at UT? It was also a very thoughtful piece.

 

David Potter +:

I don’t know if you have had the pleasure of being in his [Gov. Perry's] presence. When he was lieutenant governor, I was getting a haircut at Tarrytown barbershop, the one in the little shopping centre, when he came in surrounded by what appeared to be toadies and thugs.

That I was there meant he had to wait, and the atmosphere of malignity was tangible.

He really reminds me of the cinemas I’ve seen of Adolf Hitler.

 

Susan Greene +:

Thank you for such a thoughtful ‘factual’ and historic perspective of this truly sad state of affairs.

Thanks also to the Statesman for running at the same time as Mr. Perry’s view of his perverted facts. Together with the Arts/Leisure article by the two wonderful UT profs, there should be an increased alertness to this pressing issue.

I am a Texas Ex and sure some of my college friends who are big alums are not on the radar on this. I have forwarded your article.

Thanks again for a refreshing view of the UT issue. My son is a recent Ex and appreciated the stellar reputation of his school. He even took a Greek History class and other humanities while pursuing that Business/Engineering degree!

 

Anonymous professor:

Tom – I have read the comments and want to add some background information about one of the players… in case you are not aware of this.

UT is my alma mater. [It is frightening] what the champions of ignorance are trying to do with UT and the whole premise of education, so I might even consider going public. I just HATE that they frame this as “status quo” thinking vs. “progress”. I certainly prefer status quo to this idea of progress, but we all realize that change in higher ed is necessary.

I think one of the ironies is that they continue to talk about the global economy when higher ed has been one key area of U.S. competitive advantage. We bring the best and the brightest here from all of the world and get to keep many of them. And most of those we don’t keep, go back with fond memories and strong relationships that enhance our global position. Why would we undermine that?

As I’m sure you know, most of the governor’s “cutting edge” thinking is simply the enlightened position of Jeff Sandefer, formerly a lecturer in McCombs in Entrepreneurship.

I do not know Jeff Sandefer well, but I do know how he reacts to being crossed, and [that he] has displayed vindictiveness on many an occasion.

Jeff “resigned” from UT after he was told that he could not forbid a newly hired full professor to teach in “his” entrepreneurship program. He then engaged in a number of really childish actions to try to undermine the program, including sending an invitation to all the newly entering entrepreneurship students to a barbecue at his ranch. He had a bus hired to pick them up after their program orientation to come to his place to hear how UT had now sold out their coming degree by letting him go. I know of about four other examples where he has spared no expense in time or money to try to exact retribution on those who he feels have undermined his sense of importance.

After leaving UT he was hired by St Eds but left after a couple of years. I suspect the same problems. He then decided to prove his educational brilliance by starting his own MBA program – at Acton. He engages in some fairly flagrant false advertising on the website about the size, quality, and reputation of the program. Acton has been so successful that it now has 27 students. And of course, this qualifies him to determine policy for higher education in the state.

Of course he had to part with several thousands of dollars for the governors political campaign to get to pull the governors strings… but hey, he has plenty. (although I wonder whether the Gov. is taking Jeff’s phone calls right now…).

I am telling you this because I do think that Jeff’s history of relentlessly pursuing “payback” is an important part of how this ball got rolling. What is genuinely scary about Jeff is that there are many, very bright people, who think he is just brilliant. I am constantly amazed how people whom I really admire have drunk Jeff’s kool-aid… but these associations seem to add to his credibility.

He is a very low-key guy… very Machiavellian, in my opinion. I also believe he has a pathological need to “win”, even when it is not a contest, and regardless of the cost. Because he tends to like to stay under the radar, I think he is all the more dangerous, and that is why I wanted to let you know my take on at least one part of this puzzle.

Perhaps you will find this useful at some point. Either way, thank you for your efforts to show the folly of the governor’s (Jeff’s?) agenda.

 

Vern Turner +:

This piece tries to argue for the state of argument. I hope we will all engage in debate in order to keep our country healthy.

Progress Without Discomfort by Vern Turner

A quote from the historical icon, Frederick Douglass in 1857 seems most appropriate even today:

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle….If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning.

Clearly there is much “agitation” in today’s political discourse, and maybe that’s how it should be. As uncomfortable as it is to participate in debate with someone who does not share your ideas or philosophies, it is debate that must happen in order for us to live together. Those who try to fracture this bond of debate do more harm to the fabric of this country than any of us who participate in it do, irrespective of its intensity.

Douglass, of course, was talking about the coming conflict between cultures where debate stopped and violence replaced it. It took nearly 700,000 dead Americans and hundreds of thousands more injured in war to figure out that debate might be a little less damaging than open hostility. Many of us debate and argue with one another to the point of disgust and name calling and all the rest, but no muskets are loaded, or knives drawn. We already fought a civil war, we don’t need another.

I would like to imagine that the progress Douglass talked about can still occur today. Progress means to go forward, not backward. Progress, I think, means to go forward as a nation and not as a collection of little ideological cells of self-absorbed righteousness. As much as politicians and their handlers want to divide us up into those little pieces, we must resist. We must continue the debate no matter what.

Karl Rove may go down in history as being the most significant character in dividing post-WW II Americans into ideological camps that are not only diametrically opposed to one another, but incapable of holding intelligent conversation or debate. How did he do that? Why did he do that? He did it by telling his employers to never admit a mistake, always blame the opponent for things gone wrong and always attack your opponent to constantly keep him/her on the defensive. This strategy created anger and divisiveness that Rove’s candidate exploited to garner votes. They didn’t care that it turned voters off and minimized the poll turnout; indeed, fewer voters meant more likely outcomes in their favor.

The best example today of this strategy gone to extremes is the Tea Party/Birther movement. The angry, self-centered “policy” of this group is now trumping (pun intended) reasonable discourse even from the Rove-schooled Republicans who keep playing to their “base”. From everything I read, this base is becoming increasingly radicalized and is attempting to make success seem like failure, good people seem like fools and positive attempts to do good seem like evil. What kind of base are we talking about here? What sort of society wants to be built on a base like that?

Some will chastise those of us who engage in spirited debate because it makes them uncomfortable. I refer to Douglass’s speech again, and ask, “Maybe this is how we salvage positive outcomes from the mess left us by Rove’s tactics?” If someone is uncomfortable with it, then maybe they should find other ways to express their ideas. If someone only wants to debate and argue in ways that nurture their comfort then they should do that. The point is that progress must be made. If it is not, we will slide back to the banal prejudices and uncivilized hatred that marked our time as an uncivil society in the 19th century.

We will probably never all agree on exactly how things should be, but we should all strive to find ways for our individual ideas to find points of agreement and overlap. Sometimes, in order to do that, we must have moments of discomfort with one another including with those we love and respect. That is human nature. That is how progress is made. This is the 21st century, not the 19th.

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