Burnt orange paint job

MyEdu is getting an expensive burnt orange paint job. For several months, rumors have surrounded the UT System’s incipient acquisition of a major stake in the private web-based company, but until an Austin American-Statesman story ran Sunday, the details were fuzzy. The Statesman story revealed a $10-million investment decision shrouded in secrecy and entangled in a myriad of unethical conflicts of interest.

Former UT System Chancellor William Cunningham invested $175,000 of his own money in the company, which was co-founded by his son. The current regents seemed only too willing to invest in MyEdu, consulting the University of Texas Investment Management Co. — the System’s independent investing arm — only after a decision had been made and, even then, only to ensure that they were not making a giant financial mistake. A giant academic one, apparently, was just fine.

The regents say they invested in MyEdu to improve four-year graduation rates. MyEdu features a polished, accessible way to get students to carefully plan their courses from semester to semester. It can also be used by students to find classes that interest them. Of course, most students know MyEdu as a place to scout the easiest classes and professors who are the most generous in distributing A’s. Somewhat ironically, MyEdu perhaps already helps to increase four-year graduation rates insofar as it allows students to find classes they can complete easily. But this is probably not what the regents had in mind.

In any event, the deal has been rightly criticized by members of the University community because of the process by which the decision was made. No one at UT was consulted during the decision-making process. President William Powers Jr. pointedly remarked that the $10 million would have been better spent elsewhere.

Yet here we are. Anyone who has been paying attention to the higher education debate over the past year should not be surprised. Two features of the debate have made this deal not only possible but likely.

First, the debate has been marked by and expressed in a rhetoric of crisis that continues to today. The faculty members and students that have been caricatured throughout the debate have been furthering a “higher education crisis” in which our graduation rates are low and our faculty’s productivity is allegedly deplorable. Crisis, of course, breeds opportunity. In the pressure to act quickly to save higher education from its impending doom, the chance for someone to interject his or her own personal motivations into the solution has been readily available. The alleged immediacy of the threat, in other words, has given political cover to those who would seek to exploit the “crisis” for their own personal gain. Moving more slowly and thoughtfully precludes this sort of opportunism.

Second, the debate has focused on improving the “efficiency” of higher education. That imperative has slowly morphed into a general consensus that we should improve our four-year graduation rates. Unfortunately for the deal’s critics, MyEdu may well help improve graduation rates. But the way it may do so — enabling students to choose the easiest classes and professors — has rightly troubled observers because of its anti-intellectual and anti-academic nature. That part of the solution to a problem of inefficiency involves features like this should surprise precisely no one because of the nature of the goal itself. Whether this is an academic cost the University community is willing to bear in pursuit of its goal of increasing graduation rates has, until now, been decided in the negative.

So the blame for this Faustian deal cannot be laid squarely at the feet of the regents. To the extent that we have accepted the narrative of crisis and accepted the anti-intellectual call to improve efficiency, we have all been complicit. If it hadn’t been MyEdu, it would have been something else.

Hopefully the University can, as Powers has suggested, mold MyEdu to serve better purposes than it currently does and, in so doing, make the site worthy of its new burnt orange hue.