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Ka-ching: Rick Perry's plan for Texa$ universities

May 13, 2013|By Patt Morrison
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry greeting President Obama after Air Force One landed in Austin.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry greeting President Obama after Air Force One landed… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

There are three things Rick Perry would like to do to the great public universities of Texas, but he can only remember two of them.

That’s a joke. You may remember that during a 2012 presidential debate, he started to list three departments of government he’d eliminate, and wound up forgetting one of them.

But he remembered that he wanted to shut down the federal Education Department, and there are folks in Texas who suspect that some of his ideas for higher education in the Lone Star State may wind up accomplishing much the same thing to higher education there.

Among the changes the governor-in-perpetuity wants to make: a $10,000 cap on the cost of a BA (which would mean a lot of online classes) and more university-level vocational training.

(Perry himself holds a bachelor’s degree in animal sciences from Texas A&M, which bears a deep-dyed rivalry against the more academically regarded University of Texas, and some Texans have a hunch that that intrastate inferiority complex may be lurking somewhere behind these policy ideas.)

The biggest of Perry’s big ideas has to do with making universities market-driven, an idea ardently endorsed by one of Perry’s biggest supporters, oilman and former business school professor Jeff Sandefer. If academic programs and professors make money, they can stay. If not, well …

Here are some of the Perry ideas to change higher education: cut down on academic research, base faculty bonus pay on student evaluations alone (presumably creating a kind of Yelp for scholar profs; have you seen some of the snarky prof-rating websites out there?), and turn students into customers.

Many profs, according to NPR, wouldn’t even be actual faculty members. They’d be employees of the businesses they’re teaching about, and their teaching would be compensated based on how much money they bring into the universities and how many students they could bring into their classes, not unlike salesmen who live on commission or the piecework pay system in off-the-books garment factories.

At Texas A&M, someone made a list of professors whose classes made money and whose classes cost money. The first list was in black, the second in red. At the University of Texas, the list sorted faculty into five classifications, from lowly “coaster” profs to “stars.”

In short, it’s a push toward turning universities into profit centers, not learning centers.

It’s obvious where this is going: getting rid of the lib’ral arts. Teaching Shakespeare or Cubism is not going to be a moneymaker -- and they were never intended to be. A broad education --  “liberal,” in the classic sense of the word, which Perry may choose not to understand -- is meant to equip men and women to be creators and thinkers and citizens, not just wage slaves.

There’s room in that for conspiracy theorists who like Perry’s proposals as a way to silence the centuries-old ferment of ideas among college students and faculty.

Texas, like New Hampshire, is making it harder for students to vote in the places they attend college. As the New Hampshire House speaker said, students “just vote with their feelings.” 

Perry needs to hold his horses. Some of this is happening already; as liberal arts majors give up personally rewarding classes and majors for financially rewarding ones, they will to some extent reshape curriculum.

Texas is already setting the K-12 academic agenda as the big-foot of public school textbooks; as Texas goes, so goes much of the nation (California goes it alone on K-12 textbooks.) Because of that enormous influence, Texas’ Board of Education is lobbied very hard by Christian activists, and a few years ago, a science curriculum chair declared that “evolution is hooey.”

So it's possible that this radical proposal to remake Texas’ universities could reach into other states too.

In fact, some of Perry’s proposals remind me of another market-driven university system. In that system, students started classes at 5 a.m. They didn’t get scholarships -- in fact, they had to pay their teachers because the teachers didn’t get paid by the university; they just set the market rates for whatever money they could get the students to pay to take their classes.

That academic system was in place hundreds of years ago, in a city called Paris, in that place in Europe called France -- a nation that probably elicits no warmer affinity from Perry than his affection for French cuffs on his shirts.

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