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May 31 2011

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How regents should resolve the higher education debate

By Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph.D.

The debate on higher education reform has become a firestorm. The reason for the controversy is that, as with any debate, valid arguments exist on both sides. How, then, should the issue be resolved?
The first consideration: is there in fact a problem with the status quo? The recent study from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) reveals an unacceptable disparity. Of the roughly 4,200 faculty members at the University of Texas-Austin, the 840 most productive teachers teach an extraordinary 57 percent of all student credit hours, while the least productive 840 members teach only 2 percent of all student credit hours. Why?
One thing is certain: reform will never come from within the university. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard for 20 years, tells us why: “In theory, presidents and deans are supposed to counteract self-interested behavior to make sure that the legitimate needs of students are properly addressed.”
“In practice, however, academic leaders often fail to fulfill this responsibility,” he continues. “Ultimate power over instruction and curriculum rests with the faculty. While leaders have considerable leverage and influence of their own, they are often reluctant to employ these assets for fear of arousing opposition from the faculty that could attract unfavorable publicity, worry potential donors, and even threaten their jobs.”
Regents, however, are entrusted with the statutory authority and fiduciary responsibility to set policy, serving, says Bok, “as a mediating agent between the interests of the institution and the needs of the surrounding society.” They need to be cheerleaders and governors.
The fairest way for regents to proceed in resolving the current controversy is to begin with answers from the administration to the following questions:
• By name, title, and department, identify all professors who have been granted reduced teaching loads to conduct research.
• How many courses does each presently teach?
• What is the yearly salary of each?
• What are the titles of their publications this year and last?
• If they are pursuing research that takes more than one year, how many years do they envision for completion?
• Who is paying for the research in each instance?
• How does each publication serve students or wider societal needs?
Showing how research serves students would be relatively easy. But explaining how research serves wider societal needs will set the furies loose. Some will argue that all research qua research is valuable. Let them, then, show how in some discernable measure.
Not all research is valuable. John Silber, former dean at UT-Austin and president of Boston University, told the Texas Tribune recently that many products of research “aren’t worth anything.”
And Hofstra University law professor Richard Neumann reported at a conference in April that it costs approximately $100,000 for a tenured law professor to publish one article per year and that 43 percent of law review articles are never cited by anyone. In Neumann’s words, “At least a third of these things have no value.”
The Pew Research Study released May 15 reports that the average college senior now graduates with more than $23,000 in outstanding loans. And the Project on Student Debt reports that since 1978, the price of tuition at U.S. colleges has increased more than 900 percent, almost four times the rate of inflation.
How does that translate to what’s happening in Texas? The average tuition at Texas public universities has increased more than 5 percent every year since 1994, to the point where tuition at UT-Austin is closing in on $10,000 per year. This is the price students pay for allowing faculty outside the 840 most productive to teach an average of 63 students per year.
But what if we asked those less productive faculty members to raise their game so that they teach 150 students per year, or a normal teaching load of three classes per semester averaging 25 students each? The CCAP analysis suggests that UT-Austin would save more than a quarter billion dollars – enough to allow it to cut tuition by more than half.
These possibilities are exactly why regents must ask hard but fair questions to ensure the best worlds of teaching and research, and to ensure fairness to students and taxpayers.

Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph.D., is a resident of The Woodlands and a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. Trowbridge formerly served as vice president of Hillsdale College in Michigan.

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