Let’s give credit where credit is due. When I read University of Texas President Bill Powers’ 15th State of the University address on the Internet Sept. 15, it exceeded my low expectations.
I expected the UT administration to start laying the political groundwork for the massive tuition increase that will likely occur after the 2011 legislative session adjourns. Instead, Powers gave a frank assessment of the challenges facing higher education, which is a step in the right direction.
“The cost of higher education is rising faster than the consumer price index, even faster than the cost of health care,” Powers said. “There is a growing crisis of public confidence in American universities, and these forces are not going away any time soon. If we are to prosper, we need to face them by being more productive and controlling costs.”
Amen. Further, Powers admitted that universities need to become more productive and set priorities, to do more with less. No argument there, either.
But when I read Powers’ speech more carefully, his basic point is that the public wants change; therefore, UT needs to rearrange the deck chairs so that politicians won’t impose real changes on the university.
Frankly, Powers’ speech reminded me of a concern that Ronald Reagan once raised about the Glasnost movement in the Soviet Union in the 1980s: “Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it?”
“As I have noted,” Powers said, “discussions about increased productivity often focus on narrow and short-sighted output metrics. We have to revisit this. We need to be mindful in this effort that a university education is an investment in the long-term health of our economy and democracy. Narrow and short-term metrics can point us in the wrong direction in such central and critical areas as in the arts and humanities and in the basic sciences.”
Translation: We’re all for reform – as long as no one is keeping score.
And that is the central problem with academia. Nothing that happens there has to work in the real world. Research is published in esoteric, irrelevant academic journals that are of no use to anyone, save academics. We regularly churn out college graduates who can’t write complete sentences, but they can define institutional racism in their sleep.
When it comes to teaching, Powers does the same dodge. “Some people think the solution to more efficient teaching is simple: just add to the faculty teaching load. In fact, that would reduce productivity by taking faculty away from other important tasks and would mean we could no longer recruit and retain the best faculty in an extremely competitive world.”
Translation: It’s OK that faculty making six figure salaries spend six hours a week in the classroom.
And Powers also defends the Research University Development Fund, which rewards universities for getting research pork from Uncle Sam. Obviously, Bill Powers doesn’t speak TEA Party.
I’m baffled by the backward politics of higher education. University administrators (especially at the University of Texas at Austin) are liberal, yet the Democrats don’t trust them and the Republicans often carry their water.
Take the recent actions of Powers and Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl on Western Civilization. UT wastes millions of dollars on diversity classes, multicultural centers, even lists of gender-neutral bathrooms.
Yet a group of traditional professors created a Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions – to help students learn things that were common knowledge a mere generation ago. But honoring Western Civilization and America is not politically correct – so the traditionalists ran into a brick wall in the Faculty Council and with Powers and Diehl. So the Center was neutered and renamed the “Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Ideas.”
Imagine what would happen if UT faculty tried to remove a popular African-American Studies Professor as a department chairman and rename the African-American Studies Department “the Benjamin Banneker Center for the Study of Core Values.” The Legislative Black Caucus’s members would go ballistic, play the race card, and probably threaten to filibuster the entire state appropriations bill until the matter was rectified to their satisfaction.
But when university administrators run down America or Texas or bash Western Civilization, the GOP leadership utters hardly a whimper. The higher education agenda of the previous speaker – Tom Craddick – consisted of throwing money at UT, through both increased tuition and state appropriations. It hasn’t served conservatives or Texans well.
If Powers were really serious about setting priorities in higher education, the Gender and Sexuality Center and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement would largely go away, and the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions would be restored as it was before.
But he’s not serious about change. He just wants to fool conservative legislators into thinking he is.