Perry supports controversial higher education plan while some groups vow to fight

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Gov. Rick Perry has backed the Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education, but the plan from a conservative think tank could prove to be a breaking point between Perry and members of the higher education community even as Perry may be seeking support for a presidential run.

UT President William Powers Jr., Student Government President Natalie Butler and UT alumni organization Texas Exes went on alert after interest grew in proposals from groups such as the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation that suggest rewarding professors based on student evaluations, splitting the budget for teaching and research and increasing class enrollments to halve tuition. Perry’s endorsement of such policies in speeches stirred further controversy among leaders of the University.

“We don’t want to see the de-emphasis of research because that’s what made our state so great,” said outgoing Texas Exes President Richard Leshin.

Leshin said he thinks Perry has had a lot to do with setting the agenda for the UT System Board of Regents and it’s something the administrators, students and other members of the higher education community have seen for a long time. A UT spokesperson said nobody from the University administration would want to speak publicly about the matter, but several administrators expressed discomfort with Perry’s ideas off the record.

“I think it’s very difficult for them to speak up because they are state employees, and it makes it very difficult to oppose anything like that,” Leshin said.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said Perry’s constituents have questioned his position on higher education in the form of letters to the Texas Ethics Commission. Perry and others, including the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the UT System Board of Regents are pursuing proposals that would damage higher education’s quality without seeking input from university students, professors and administrators, Zaffirini said. She said Perry and those who support his views on education have the right to make suggestions and be heard, but they must also consider competing proposals.

“When we deal with higher education, we must deal with the educators,” Zaffirini said.

Liberal arts professor Tom Palaima said education cannot be treated like a manufactured automobile. Rather, you have to create a balance between big and small classrooms and continue to engage in research that proves essential for the future of students and citizens of the country, he said.

“Education is designed to create something absolutely new,” Palaima said.

Perry and supporters say they don’t want to dilute the quality of higher education — instead, they’re trying to increase efficiency and improve educational experiences. Prominent advocates of this idea include Perry, Ohio State University economics professor Richard Vedder and Texas Public Policy Foundation members.

In his Center for College Affordability and Productivity report, Vedder encourages institutions to use fewer resources, eliminate excessive academic research and cut unnecessary programs. This research includes studies done by university professors and students that don’t improve society, said Texas Public Policy Foundation spokesman David Guethner.

“Professors are getting relief time from the classroom to produce articles that are not worth anything, aren’t read or aren’t cited by other researchers,” he said.

Guethner said Vedder’s analysis suggests institutions should increase the number of classes being taught by each professor. When professors are engaged in research and cannot teach full time during a semester, the universities have to hire people who can make up the work load, he said. One way the universities can deal with this problem is by getting rid of less productive professors, he said.

The bipartisan Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education formed last week to oppose an attitude that devalues research and emphasizes quantifiable efficiency measures such as those that Perry and the Foundation support.

“We have not been on [Perry’s side] when we first discovered what he was doing,” said Gordon Appleman, a UT alumnus and member of the coalition’s executive committee.

He said the coalition disagrees with the proposal to halve tuition by eliminating research in favor of immediate, easily quantifiable results. Some research has quick payoffs but other forms can take a long time to yield results and benefits, Appleman said.

As Perry’s profile grows nationally, so does discontent among some educators and education advocates. They said they will continue to address concerns about Perry’s attitudes toward higher education.

Printed on 6/23/2011 as: Perry endorses controversial educational reforms that face resistance from UT leaders, student body