Foundation hosts seminar for university reform efforts

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UT and Texas A&M found common ground on the importance of academic research during a higher education conference Friday.


The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, hosted the conference to stimulate debate on the direction of higher education reforms. Ronald Trowbridge, a senior fellow at the foundation, spoke with UT’s President William Powers Jr. and A&M Faculty Senate representative Robert Strawser.


Trowbridge said faculty should be held accountable for their teaching methods and academic research through evaluations of their performances. He said the public should encourage policy makers to inject efficiency measures into how universities spend public money.


“I want what was done to Rick O’Donnell, the scrutiny there, to be put right back on Powers and Strawser and the trustees and the governor and everybody in this state,” Trowbridge said. “I want it to be an open act of honesty and debate.”


O’Donnell left the UT System prematurely after alumni, donors and lawmakers publicly expressed concern over teaching-centric reforms he espoused as a researcher at the foundation and adviser to the Board of Regents.


Powers said Texas’ two major public research institutions need to adapt pathways through the universities for student benefit and to reform business practices to ensure efficient use of their resources.


“If the issue is change, then we embrace it and have been doing it for a long time,” Powers said.


He said the debate is over what functions to value as universities implement efficiency measures. Powers said the University exists to produce new knowledge and new leaders who apply that knowledge.


He said recent debates initiated by alumni on higher education reforms stem from the desire to preserve the core of the University’s mission, which some proposals threaten by devaluing academic research.


Powers said the 21,674 scholarly articles published on Shakespeare since 1980 illustrate the continuous reinterpretation of how great works of literature apply to each generation. Trowbridge, who stated the number first, said the articles represent waste in academic research that more transparency would eliminate.


Applying free-market logic to public aid to higher education allows universities to expand spending in pursuit of prestige and rankings, while losing focus on the quality of their instruction, Neal McCluskey and Matthew Denhart said in a separate two-person panel discussion. McCluskey is an associate director for the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, and Denhart is an administrative director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.


They said continually increasing student costs have created barriers to access to education. The aid money that gives many students their only possibility of attending college also drives inefficiency and higher costs, they said.


“If you’re using your own money, you are going to demand you are getting something of value for it,” McCluskey said. “Students are using other people’s money for higher education. That means they have greatly limited incentives to say, ‘Be very transparent about what I’m going to get for my education.’”


He said federal aid, mostly in the form of student financial aid and research funding, has almost tripled per pupil since 1985, but state and local aid, mostly paid directly to institutions, peaked in 2000 but is now below 1985 levels.


Journalism professor Robert Jensen said quantifying educational gains as products degrades and ignores what successful educational outcomes look like.


“Education is not a producer providing a product to a consumer,” Jensen said.