September 21, 2011
Corporate-style productivity strategies that fail to account for differences among academic disciplines and seek to churn out cheap degrees are "superficial and ill-suited to universities," the president of the Association of American Universities told Texas lawmakers here on Wednesday at the first public hearing of a new legislative oversight committee on higher education.
"They reduce the classroom to an assembly line, the library to a book repository, and the laboratory to a for-profit business," said Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the association, a prestigious group of 61 top research universities in the United States and Canada.
Mr. Rawlings was one of several national higher-education experts who addressed the opening hearing of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency, whose charge is to ensure that governing boards follow best practices when developing and instituting policies.
The panel was created in May in the heat of a statewide debate over the future of higher education, including the proper balance of teaching and research at public universities.
The panel is led by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, and Rep. Dan Branch, a Dallas Republican. Both head their chamber's higher-education committee.
Senator Zaffirini said that some feuding over the state's public higher-education systems has subsided in recent months, but that the panel planned to continue monitoring the actions of the state's regents. The senator repeatedly questioned the panel's speakers about how the state could prevent outside groups and reform-minded regents from meddling in campus matters.
Two recent developments have helped cool tempers in Texas when it comes to higher education.
The University of Texas system's Board of Regents last month approved a plan, presented by the system's chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, that requires campuses to maintain an online database about the efficiency and productivity of their departments. The plan, which the chancellor said would be flexible, campus by campus, was generally well received by various factions in the debate.
Meanwhile, at the state's other major public university, the new chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, John Sharp,, has shown little appetite for carrying out conservative reform proposals and has said he would entertain such ideas only after consulting with faculty members.
Breakthroughs and Blunt Instruments
The Association of American Universities last fall rebuked Texas A&M for pursuing "ill-conceived calls for reform" by Gov. Rick Perry and a conservative think tank, the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The reform proposals centered on seven "breakthrough solutions" supported by the governor and the Austin foundation. They included separating teaching and research budgets and basing faculty bonuses on student evaluations.
The AAU's Mr. Rawlings said it was understandable that, at a time when the economy is sputtering and tuition is rising, taxpayers want evidence that universities are operating efficiently. The temptation, he said, is to impose a corporate model—cutting costs, laying off employees, and applying financial gauges to evaluate faculty members.
But such measures "fail utterly to differentiate among disciplines that range from philosophy to plant science, from economics to engineering, from music to law," Mr. Rawlings said. "Above all, they do not address what universities turn out: people, not products; thinking individuals, not cogs in a machine; new knowledge and new ideas, not mute objects. You can't measure universities with a blunt instrument."
In his appearance before the panel, Michael B. Poliakoff, policy director of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, recited a litany of things that are wrong with universities, including that they too often award diplomas that amount to "a ticket to nowhere." Trustees, he said, must be proactive and independent-minded to deal with challenges such as low graduation rates and escalating costs. And he argued that they were justified in seeking ways to measure faculty productivity.
"Developing a fair and effective metric is not easy, but the regents' efforts to ensure productivity is entirely appropriate," Mr. Poliakoff said. They may have to require faculty to shift more time from research to teaching, he said. "That's the business of boards of regents to make these hard choices."
Mr. Rawlings agreed that universities should face scrutiny and said they should do a better job of making sure their curricula include a coherent set of courses that foster critical-thinking skills, literacy in science and mathematics, and the ability to communicate clearly.
He added that the Ph.D. is too narrowly focused, and too many students who enter college planning to major in math or science change majors or drop out.