Taking politics out of higher ed

Holly Heinrich


Texas universities are vulnerable to the shifting winds of politics. Proposed cuts to higher education funding, the controversial “breakthrough solutions” supported by Gov. Rick Perry and the recent firing of Regents adviser Rick O’Donnell have made that clear. As emails obtained by the Houston Chronicle revealed last week, Perry continually pressured University regents to adopt reforms created by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that advocates scaling back academic research and requiring professors to put more emphasis on teaching. These initiatives conflict with the goals for UT that many prominent administrators, alumni and students have: supporting a more highly ranked institution that produces cutting-edge innovations. 
Research is at the heart of an ongoing war in higher education. This issue is further complicated by misperceptions about research’s role in university culture. For instance, a recent UT System study suggests fears about professors who don’t spend enough time in the classroom are unfounded. The study found that UT faculty members dedicate an average of 39 hours per week to instruction and instruction-related activities, greatly exceeding the minimum 27 hours of weekly instruction time required by the Board of Regents. Yet this factual information hasn’t figured prominently in the research debate. Instead, the discussions have been more strongly directed by ideology, and this has produced instability in our public universities that will continue until universities find a way to distance themselves from the changing demands of politics. 
Currently, the University depends on the state for a significant (though decreasing) portion of its funding. Since 2003, state funding has notably decreased and student tuition has continued to pay a rising share of college costs. Since Texas’ population is growing rapidly, there is an increasing demand for all state services, especially public education and Medicaid, so state contributions to all public entities, including universities, are expected to decrease. Public universities around the nation are realizing they need to reduce their reliance on state funds to stay afloat. Ironically, some have found their solution in the enterprise that has been denigrated by the Texas Public Policy Foundation: research. 
The University of Wisconsin, for instance, receives about $40 million annually from patent discoveries made by university researchers. Wisconsin has patented products such as warfarin, a drug that prevents blood clots, and a hormonal form of vitamin D used to treat osteoporosis. UT is also working to produce revenue from research and has obtained licensing agreements for innovations in fields ranging from oil extraction to nanotechnology. In 2009-2010, UT licensing revenues reached $14.3 million. 
Other universities are balancing the role of politics in university life by re-examining the Board of Regents’ structure. California activists have advocated for a board made up of governor’s appointees, ex-officio members and officials elected by students and faculty.  The California, Washington and Wisconsin university systems have given students a real say in university policy decisions by granting full voting rights to student regents. The University of Michigan’s board, where regents run for statewide election, is the most democratic, but Texas’ recent experience with the State Board of Education’s politicized K-12 curriculum suggests a system similar to Michigan’s would be a poor choice for Texas higher education. It would also be difficult to implement, since Texas has several large university systems, each with its own board. It is unclear what the best structure for Texas would be, but now is the time to consider possible reforms. 
To create and maintain top-tier research universities, we need to ensure that our universities have stronger, more stable sources of funding and are less subject to politically driven policy changes. We cannot build a stable foundation for higher education if the ground shifts with every election cycle, undoing all the University has worked to build.
Heinrich is a government freshman.