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The Key to My Raise

As Rick Perry readies his Stetson for the presidential campaign, it falls to the rest of us to do the distasteful but necessary chipping off Longhorn dung from beneath his craggy exterior.

Karen Tumulty’s piece in the Washington Post on the Governor’s higher-education reform initiative made a good start (“Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Assault on State’s University Establishment,” August 3).

The former Aggie cheerleader (what is it about Texas governors and the sidelines of athletic contests?) brought together Lone Star college execs in 2008 for instruction in how to “re-engineer Texas’s leading public universities to become more like businesses, driven by efficiency and profitability.” You know, like Enron or Arbusto Oil.

Last fall, the public learned some of what Perry’s initiative has wrought. Innovations at the Texas A&M system included “a spreadsheet ranking faculty members according to whether they were earning their keep or costing the school money. The university already had rankled professors with a program that paid bonuses based on anonymous student evaluations.”

The cost of higher education grows at a clip several times that of ‘core inflation.’ It’s a serious problem that shows no sign of abating. Poor students are priced out, working class students saddled with crippling loan debt that affects them for decades, and nearly ensures they can’t take a do-good job. Some schools have devised three-year degree programs (not the solution in my view; isn’t the current batch of prof-bashing books dubious of the results after even four years?). Perry recommends his state’s “top colleges” offer four-year Bachelors’ degrees for $10,000 or less (including textbooks). Ten grand will buy you about ten weeks at the private technological research university where I teach (not counting room, board, books, or beer).

Perry is Texas’ longest serving governor. It shows. “In a state where boards and commissions do much of the decisionmaking, Perry has filled them with loyalists who share his vision and owe their prestigious appointments to him. Few posts are as coveted as six-year terms on university boards of regents,” writes Tumulty. His educational cronies include oil man Jeff Sandefer, point man for reform, who had his own run-in with the University of Texas in 2002.

Sandefer funded an entrepreneurship program and wanted to pack it with part-time faculty with “real world experience” (read: with nothing more to offer than a record of getting rich off some socially irresponsible gizmo, gadget or game; this is who teaches in most college entrepreneurship programs). UT had the audacity to prefer full time tenure track faculty. Unsurprisingly, Sandefer contributed several hundreds of thousands of dollars to Perry’s campaigns over the years.

It should also not surprise that a conservative think tank, Texas Public Policy Foundation (on whose board Sandefer sits), generated the substance of the proposed reform: “Seven Breakthrough Solutions.” Solution #2: “Create a financial incentive to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of teaching at Texas’ colleges and universities” (read: pay a bonus for good teaching evaluations). Other Solutions call for “results-based contracts with students,” “evidence of teaching skill for tenure” (I don’t know of a single university that doesn’t already do this), “create results-based accrediting alternatives” (separate from the regular, painstaking accreditation process), and “make students the actual customers for higher education.”

Customers? Look, I’m all for kids getting their (parents’) money’s worth. Again, it’s serious dough (more than I could afford; I went to a public university). But I refuse to enter into an economic “contract” with my students, as if higher education were just another market exchange, like buying a new and really expensive pair of jeans. The syllabus for each and every course is the learning contract (the only one that should be allowed in a classroom), and my students hold me to it as I do them.

Cash for good evals? This could be the key to my raise. (By the way, teaching evaluations are already figured—everywhere in higher ed—into decisions over promotion and tenure). Tempting. I generally receive pretty good evaluations. Like this one from some years back: “balding guys should not wear pony tails.” I cut the damn thing off shortly thereafter (despite the fact that I then lived in an intentional community with other back-to-the-landers, and now live less than an hour from Woodstock).

But the results are predictable, as we’ve seen in K-12 education where successful teaching to the standardized test bumps up your paycheck. Instructors will be “incentivized” to go easy on their students in exchange for good evaluations. They may work in Ivory Towers (yeah, right), but they’re not micro-economically irrational. And student cabals might collectively and unjustifiably trash profs with unpopular views.

The corporatization of higher education is not new. It’s been underway for decades, as in most every other area of human civilization. What’s changed is that it’s now the primary and only real “change agent” on American campuses, public and private, across the country. Non-academics are routinely made college presidents. Business people dominate boards of regents and trustees. Corporate executives contribute during fund drives and get their names on buildings, professorships, even schools. The scholar can be useful to the powers that be, but she can’t be trusted to manage her own affairs.

Wisely, Gov. Perry backpedaled a bit recently, saying nice things about the value of academic research. Not that he expects the faculty/staff vote in the primaries (or in the general election), but he apparently now understands that much university research is for the direct benefit of corporations, including that paid for with public funds.

But that’s not enough. Universities need to look and act more like businesses, with many new administrators carrying titles better fit for the executive suite than the teaching or research laboratory (at the same time that teaching-support staff are cut). Most substantive innovation in higher education these days leads to new programs indistinguishable from vocational education, including the near-promise of a high-paying job at a hot tech company (perhaps one you start yourself). No career outside teaching offers tenure; isn’t that an argument for its abolition? “We get rid of the dead wood at my company.”

“Well, at least we still have jobs, right?” “I’m thankful for that,” sighs the beleaguered professor. That’s how Rick Perry wants you to feel. Keep it up, you may get that raise yet.

Steve Breyman has a year of leave from his university. He expects it to be more efficient and profit-driven upon his return. Contact him at breyms@rpi.edu

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Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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