Politics not as usual

Katherine Taylor

Inside Higher Ed reports UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa is one of only two public university system heads in the state without prior political experience. Even though our Cigarroa goes against this trend, the actions of his five colleagues more likely influence some of the decisions he has to make.

Let’s take a look at John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System. As a former state comptroller, he vowed to “make government work more like our most successful businesses.” Kent Hance, chancellor of the Texas Tech University System, worked to pass Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and chaired the Texas Railroad Commission.

Both of these examples show us that in their previous careers, these chancellors worked on issues of finance, budget and regulation. They had a political mindset, which, if you’ve paid attention to state or national politics in the past year, was driven by the need to balance the budget, cut spending and increase efficiency.

But don’t those sound exactly like the priorities UT and schools across the state have been wrestling with recently? It seems that chancellors across the state are bringing in priorities and mindsets heavily influenced by their last positions.

Last May, the UT System Board of Regents requested raw data that could be used to measure the productivity of the faculty in numerical terms, such as individual salaries, research grants and credit hours taught. This culminated in a 821-page report made available through open records. Like the governor of Texas, UT is emphasizing the need for more cost-efficient degree plans and a way for students to graduate with an overall “cheaper” degree. As an example, majors such as Greek are being cut because they are not productive enough. Like the state Legislature, it seems as if our university is driven by the need to produce a more efficient budget.

But how do students’ needs fit in to this equation? According to Education Nation, 10 percent of incoming students enter college with deficiencies in math and reading. That means there are teachers out there who are having to go above and beyond their curriculum in order to bring their students up to speed. Do they get extra efficiency points? Lots of professors hold extra office hours and meetings with students to support them with their classes.

Many more professors end up writing recommendation letters for their students at some point in time as well. Where’s the data on the amount of impact that professors have on students?

We’ve all heard that retention rates are a huge problem in colleges in Texas. Presumably, students who go to class more are less likely to drop out. We all know that some teachers are more interesting than others and are thus better at incentivizing students to go to class. In this scenario, aren’t students receiving a greater bang for their buck if they are more encouraged to attend class? Does this count as greater efficiency?

As students, we need to ask ourselves what we need from our education. Some might argue that we need preparation to get good jobs. Since traditional means of securing jobs are closing, innovative ways of thinking are most needed to provide students with the skills needed to adapt with the ever-changing job market. Others might argue that higher education is about learning and expanding your mind. In that scenario, students need to be exposed to diverse subject matter, theories and ideas — such as Greek — that they otherwise wouldn’t.

Students’ needs, then, are not best served by efficiency, budget cuts and regulations alone. Therefore, the leaders whose jobs are to serve students should be responding to a different set of problems than those they experienced in the political world. Chancellors need a decision framework based on what’s best for their students that is completely separate from the mentality they used to be successful politicians.

Taylor is a Plan II and rhetoric and writing senior.