Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t been specific about his plans to overhaul the state’s higher education system, but he has made clear his intention to make some changes — and higher education reforms in Texas will be a likely template.
Recent reports indicate that Florida University System Chancellor Frank Brogan may prove to be an ally for Scott, who has publicly stated that he is looking to Texas as a model for education reforms. While Brogan says that Scott isn’t completely tied to the Texas plan, according to the News Service of Florida, he does say the governor is “wed to … the notion that we need to look at those and other possibilities that might create a better system of higher education in the state of Florida.”
The seven “Breakthrough Solutions” for higher education, written by Austin, Texas, oilman Jeff Sandefer and promoted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, have guided the conversation around higher ed reform in the Lone Star State since Gov. Rick Perry debuted them at a 2008 summit for university leaders.
The “Solutions” aim to cut costs and increase class sizes at Texas universities. And they haven’t been met kindly. The “Solutions” seem more like problems to critics — who say they could downgrade the quality of higher education in the state.
The “Solutions” drew notoriety after being instituted in Texas A&M, particularly because of the so-called “black and red scale,” which analyzes each professor, as well as his or her income and expense. If, for example, you only teach small classes and get a large salary, you are in the red. On the other hand, if you teach a large class and draw a small salary, you are in the black.
In an interview with American Public Media’s Marketplace, the Public Policy Foundation’s David Guenthner defended his group’s push for larger classes, arguing that fewer professors mean lower tuition costs. “If more professors taught more students, the university would need fewer teachers,” he said. “That would save millions of dollars that could offset tuition.”
Another of Perry’s notable efforts is the push to enact a $10,000 four-year degree, a bargain by most standards. Proponents of the plan say $2,500-a-year tuition will lead to more accessibility in education, while critics say state universities will lose their esteem. The Wall Street Journal’s “SmartMoney Magazine” just recently ranked a degree from the University of Texas at Austin as the second-best (in terms of yielding a high salary) in the country — a title that could become tarnished as a result of Perry’s reforms.
Many former (and current) UT students are highly critical of the reforms.
“We think it’s going to degrade the education, [make it] harder to recruit good students, good professors [and] the national ratings are going to drop. That’s not what we want,” says Gordon Appleman, a UT alum and prominent Fort Worth attorney. “We want to be one of the best universities in the country. You don’t get there by doing what they want to do.”
Also on the list of potential reforms? Less research.
Solution No. 3 reads: “Split research and teaching budgets to encourage excellence in both,” which Appleman argues places too low a value on important research. ”[It] essentially says that some research is valuable and some aren’t. … If it isn’t, the professors can be let go,” says Appleman.
In a January letter (.pdf) to the about-to-be-inaugurated Rick Scott that was recently unearthed, former Gov. Jeb Bush offered some advice concerning higher education. “Eliminate funding for Institutes at Universities,” he wrote. “My guess is that there are over 150 million in recurring revenue for hundreds of Institutes that have no accountability and are not part of the direct mission of higher ed. Phase them out in your budget and make them justify their existence by securing private funding to exist.”
The idea of less research in the higher education system has been controversial in Texas. In February, the UT Board of Regents hired Rick O’Donnell, a former senior research fellow for the Texas Public Policy Foundation who once wrote a paper titled “Is Academic Research a Good Investment for Texas?” His conclusion, that much academic research lacks value and that some tenured faculty members could be replaced with lower-cost instructors, sparked generous amounts of controversy. As of April, he was “no longer employed by the UT System.” (O’Donnell, by the way, was initially given a $200,000 annual salary.)
Under Solution No. 4, tenure should be more difficult for professors to obtain — an insult, says Appleman.
“I’m not saying that there aren’t teachers in the world taking advantage of tenure,” he says. “But the ones that I know — it’s an insult to paint them that way. The people wake up in the morning thinking about students, and they go to bed thinking the same thing.”
Another issue, says Appleman, is a faculty performance review, in which compensation is based on professor ratings, which he calls “student popularity contests.” ”There’s a strong sense that those that are popular, or give out high grades, will fare better than another teacher that might be more effective in the long run,” he says.
Appleman feels so strongly about the reforms that he was compelled to pen a letter to fellow UT alums, administrators, and faculty expressing his concern that the Perry changes could post a risk ”of serious, long-term, perhaps irreversible degradation in academic stature.” But fighting tooth-and-nail against the reforms could prove difficult. As Appleman puts it, the Texas Public Policy Foundation is not only very persistent but “they have a lot of money, too.”
A conservative think tank funded in 1989 in Austin, the Foundation is a nonprofit funded by large grants and individual donations. The Foundation has, in the past, received thousands in donations from both Exxon Mobil and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation (which has recently been embroiled in its own higher ed controversy in Florida.)
There are other options, but they might not be as popular with Perry. As reported by our sister site, The Texas Independent, Texas University Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa last week laid out a broad nine-point plan (.pdf) to streamline operations across the system, increase accountability and expand science and medical education.
In a press release, the Texas Coalition for Higher Education praised Cigarroa’s plan to implement the “Framework for Advancing Excellence,” calling it a “thoughtful and comprehensive plan” that “provides an exemplary blueprint for the future of higher education in Texas.” Cigarroa’s plan marked the most comprehensive reform alternative proposed by a university leader since Perry’s debut of the “Breakthrough Solutions.”
The Texas Public Policy Foundation maintains that its proposed changes will make college more sensible to more students, who will face less debt after leaving college. Calls made to the Foundation were not been returned.
Should Scott implement similar changes to Florida’s higher education system, top schools like the University of Florida could ramp up enrollment, but lose their stellar reputation in the process. Case in point: Arizona State University, where higher enrollment now means lower graduation rates and less rigorous admittance standards. The acceptance rate at the school is an astounding 90.5 percent. ASU is a model of sorts for the Texas reforms.
After visiting ASU with the Board of Regents, UT Student Government President Natalie Butler wrote a letter cautioning the regents on using the school as a model for Texas.
“Officials at ASU made it clear that ASU wanted to be an institution defined by its high degree of inclusiveness and ability to manufacture a significant number of degrees at a low cost,” wrote Butler. “U-T Austin, rather, is defined by its academic rigor, excellence, and support for the intellectually curious who are looking to answer the world’s questions.”
Though any Florida proposals for higher ed reform are mere talk at this point, it is important to note that the use of a business model for a university — where high numbers of college students are turned over at a low cost — might not be far-fetched for millionaire businessman Rick Scott, whose governance has led some to label the state “Florida, Inc.”
Earlier this year, Scott signed a bill that would abolish tenure for new grade-school teachers and pay them based mostly on their students’ academic performance, a somewhat similar idea to some of the Texas higher ed reforms. The American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers’ union, said the bill “took a wrecking ball to the dreams and aspirations” of Florida’s public school students. Scott, however, maintained that it “would be very good for teachers,” remarking, ”We are absolutely changing this country.”