Defense against the 'Dark Arts'

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In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Umbridge, the meddling powermonger turned High Inquisitor, ousts beloved Headmaster Albus Dumbledore on dubious grounds in order to advance her own agenda. A similar episode took place at Michigan’s Hillsdale College in 1999, when vice president Ronald Trowbridge led the effort to fire the university’s president. According to a 1999 National Review article, Trowbridge, similar to the like-named Umbridge, had only circumstantial evidence, but, he said: “Circumstantial evidence is the most damaging evidence there is, because it’s the most difficult to arrange.”

Before he retired from full-time work, Ronald Trowbridge worked as chief of staff to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, a university professor, a vice president of Hillsdale College, and a director for both the Fulbright Program and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He is now a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin think tank with a mission statement emphasizing “personal responsibility,” “free enterprise” and “limited government.”

Trowbridge leads the growing ranks of conservatives focused on the inefficiencies of public universities. In numerous reports and editorials, he advocates for the privatization of university services, more comprehensive proof of professors’ productivity, reductions in research funding and heavier teaching loads for tenured professors.

In his article, “Victory by Compromise,” posted last September on the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s website, Trowbridge applauds UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s “Framework for Advancing Excellence” action plan. Passed by the UT System Board of Regents in August 2011, Cigarroa’s plan includes an extensive online database of professors’ teaching loads, research grants, student evaluations and more. Trowbridge’s measurements of professors’ success not only emphasize accountability but also prioritize efficiency and financial gain over the academic value of their research.

Trowbridge’s arguments showcase conservative policymakers’ underlying mistrust of any work that doesn’t generate a profit. “A professor is always going to say, ‘My research is important,’ but that may or may not be true,” he said in a recent interview. “You need to ask if you do your research, does it have any influence on the outside world, does anybody care, does anybody read it?”

To illustrate his point, Trowbridge brings in the Bard. “In the last 20 years, there have been 29,000 articles on Shakespeare in the world,” he says. “The question is: Do you really need another one? The scholar is going to say ‘absolutely yes,’ but I really wonder about that.”

English professor and Liberal Arts Honors Program director Larry Carver qualifies as an “absolutely yes” scholar. “Every generation has to discover its own Shakespeare,” he says. “The reason we reread it is not so much about generating anything particularly new, but learning about ourselves.”

Gordon Appleman, UT alumnus and member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education’s executive committee said, “The argument that some academic research is not worthy of financial support is symptomatic of the short-sighted philosophy held by some so-called higher education ‘reformers’ that a measurable return on investment must be immediately evident to be valuable.”

Trowbridge’s solution to the problem: “If you privatize you entirely avoid anybody politicizing the school … the university is able to select its own Regents, and the school can do anything it wants to do,” he says.

This approach also opens the door for politicization by private funders, including corporations and the predatory banks.

Trowbridge deflects accusations of hypocrisy. His dissertation on influences of Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle inspired a book, but then he concluded, “If I published the book, almost no one would care and almost no one would buy it.

In the end, Trowbridge represents only a small part of a larger trend toward molding the university experience into a more cost-effective, four-year dash. His attempts to streamline higher education is reminiscent of one of Dolores Umbridge’s more troubling proclamations during her tenure as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor: “It is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be sufficient to get you through your examinations, which after all, is what school is all about.”

Oliver is an English and sociology major from New Braunfels