AUSTIN, Texas — The flagship campus of the University of Texas here has been in the national news often over the last year, mainly because of a legal challenge to its race-conscious, diversity-minded admissions policy. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in October; its decision, not yet rendered, could affect affirmative action nationwide.
But there’s another, equally weighty contest being waged at the school, and it concerns nothing less than the future of higher education itself.
Do we want our marquee state universities to behave more like job-training centers, judged by the number of students they speed toward degrees, the percentage of those students who quickly land good-paying jobs and the thrift with which all of this is accomplished? In the service of that, are we willing to jeopardize some of the trailblazing research these schools have routinely done and the standards they’ve maintained?
Those questions are being asked and fostering acrimony on campus after campus, the one here in Austin chief among them. In public remarks over the last few years, Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, has called Texas both the “epicenter of public debate about the function” of higher education and “ground zero” in a welling crisis.
Rawlings is referring to the tension between the nine regents who set policy for the University of Texas, Austin, all of them appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, and the university’s president, Bill Powers. The regents’ apparent animosity toward Powers, whose most recent request for a modest in-state tuition increase they denied, reached a point where state lawmakers passed several resolutions in February making their support for him clear. That was a slap at the regents — and, by extension, at Perry.
And while it reflected political factionalism, it also tapped into a philosophical divide. The regents, Perry and a conservative think tank with great sway over the governor have all called for, or mused publicly about, reforms at the university that many other Texans have deep and warranted reservations about.
The reformers want professors evaluated by how many students they teach and how many research dollars they attract, metrics that favor large classes and less speculative, visionary science.
They want the school to figure out a way, despite huge cutbacks in public funding, to offer students a four-year degree for a sum total of $10,000 in tuition, which is a small fraction of the current cost and seemingly impossible without a diminution in the quality of instruction.
They want expanded online classes. And they want programs tailored more precisely to the job market of the moment.
Powers says he’s open to much of this — to a point. “I and every other university president I know has made efficiency and affordability and using new teaching systems a high priority,” he told me when I met with him last week. The issue, he added, is how to do this while still “educating students at the highest level.”
The pressures on him and university administrators around the country stem from the severity of the country’s economic downturn and state governments’ accordant budgetary woes. Funding of public universities hasn’t just declined; it’s plummeted. Increases in tuition have been necessary, even as students find it more difficult to afford. Some students can’t make it to the finish line of a bachelor’s degree, which betters their odds of employment. Others graduate with crippling debt into a grim job market and wind up with work that doesn’t reflect the level or focus of their education.