Research isn’t sole issue

Dave Player

Now that Harry Potter has finally defeated Voldemort, we can return to dealing with the other You-Know-Who. We’re talking, of course, about Rick O’Donnell and his funding-eaters at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

In June, more than 200 alumni and other individuals concerned with the ongoing debate over Texas higher education banded together to form the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education. Calling themselves a “powerful and diverse group of Texas business, philanthropic and community leaders,” the coalition has published several press releases, primarily in direct response to prominent criticisms of the University. For example, former UT System adviser Rick O’Donnell published a new report last week attacking faculty productivity and workload. Within hours, the coalition published a scathing retort, centered around ad hominem attacks on O’Donnell while largely glossing over the report’s findings and recommendations, saying only that the ideas “have been previously rejected through analytical and knowledgeable review.”

So far it seems the coalition’s primary purpose is to do just that, to rebut the latest attack on the UT status quo. Albeit, it is a worthwhile battle in many regards. Several of the proposals offered up by the TPPF in the form of the “seven breakthrough solutions” are misguided and short-sighted “reforms” that would have an extremely negative impact on the quality of education offered by UT. The problem, rather, is that the ongoing debate over the role of research at UT seems to be the only battle the coalition wants to fight. Rather than being advocates for improving the University, the group has been content to serve as a public relations firm, vigorously defending the University administration with a circle-the-wagons mentality.

That protectionist mindset might not be such a glaring issue if the status quo were not so ghastly itself. Since 2004, when tuition was deregulated, the cost of attending UT has risen 40 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation over the same period, including constant tuition hikes both before and during the recession.

And while state appropriations have remained relatively stagnant, University operating costs have continued to rise every year since the mid 1990s. Now that the budget reductions have been finalized, it is almost inevitable that the University will seek to raise tuition next year.

Our University’s president has been quick to cite the fact that while state appropriations once accounted for a large percentage of the University’s funding, they now only constitute around 14 percent of the budget. What doesn’t get mentioned is how the University’s operating costs have exploded over the same time period. Until the recent budget reduction, the state wasn’t giving us less; we were just spending more.

If this coalition really is more than the University administration’s pet watchdog, then it’s time to show some teeth. The University’s president has a fully staffed public affairs office to write press releases and defend the systems and structures they have created. The administration can fight its own battles.

The real question is whether this coalition is willing to stick up for students, some of whom won’t be able to afford the next round of tuition hikes and will subsequently be forced out of the University. Among the endless back-and-forth over the value of research and faculty workloads, the debate has largely glossed over the most important constituency involved: the students. Whether those students should be viewed as consumers in a market-driven industry or sages thirsting for the attainment of knowledge is a matter of personal opinion and, quite frankly, irrelevant. What is relevant is just how much tuition is going to increase by next year and how many classes and faculty will be cut.

Over the past year, the ongoing debate regarding the future of Texas higher education has devolved into a dichotomous struggle between two polar ideologies. Both sides claim to have students’ best interests at heart, yet neither is acting like it. One camp seems perfectly content to continue the tuition hikes and budget expansion of the last 10 years, thereby recommitting UT to the bidding war that higher education in this country has become. Meanwhile, our “reformers” seem set on bleeding the University down to a community college. And while downgrading the quality of education offered by the University should not be an option, upgrading UT via a Harvardesque price tag is an equally unacceptable outcome.

The next year promises a new set of difficulties for this University, both for its leaders and constituents. Now more than ever, students need their most vocal advocates to recognize the implications of larger tuition hikes before the die is cast. Balancing UT’s budget on the backs of students is not an acceptable outcome.

Dave Player for the editorial board.