Texas, Perry wrestle with higher education unrest

When barbecue research is second-guessed in Texas, the turmoil in higher education must be getting serious.

Responding to soaring tuitions and sagging graduation rates, a conservative policy foundation and Republican Gov. Rick Perry have stirred a tempest on Texas campuses by questioning whether college professors are making good use of their state money and suggesting an assortment of efficiencies. The foundation, for example, is asking whether there's a need for more critiques of Shakespeare and other esoteric research that doesn't generate money.

Academics and politicians don't get along in the best of times. But with tuition increasing and budgets tight, the so-called "Seven Breakthrough Solutions," created by the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, has opened a new debate over the balance between academic freedom and reasonable cost-benefit analysis.

The backlash peaked last week at Texas A&M University — Perry's alma mater — when more than 800 faculty members signed an online petition asking university regents to explain where they stand on the proposals and one professor's withering rebuke to regents made him a small YouTube star. National education institutions have begun to take notice.

"Texas has a prominent place in higher education," said John Curtis, public policy director of the American Association of University Professors. "But the question popping up is that political perspectives and ideology are encroaching on individual autonomy. Some of the proposals are pretty radical."

The "solutions" haven't been implemented on any campus, or even formally proposed. Yet professors see those proposals as undermining academic research, a perception the Texas Public Policy Foundation strenuously rejects.

But foundation spokesman David Guenthner added, "You can talk about the double helix on one end of the spectrum, but on the other end of the spectrum you have the professor who does the study on Texas barbecue."

Perry, who has donated proceeds from his Washington-bashing book "Fed Up!" to the think tank, dismissed the controversy as overblown. In an editorial last month, he called university research the "lifeblood of our state's innovation" and trumpeted the hundreds of millions of dollars the state has put toward technology and cancer research. But he said universities should be more efficient with resources, noting that fewer than three in 10 students graduate in four years. Meanwhile, the average semester cost for students has climbed 72 percent since 2003.

Perry broadly endorsed the "seven solutions" at a meeting of state university leaders in 2008, and while he has not publicly pushed for specific measures, Perry has called for more accountability.

"These efforts to protect taxpayers and get more results from our schools are not universally welcomed in academia," he said. "The attitude of some in the university world is that students and taxpayers should send more and more money, and then just butt out."

Among the foundation's "solutions" are rewarding professors with bonuses based on student feedback. Another recommends compiling data to calculate professors' efficiency. Splitting teaching and research budgets, to make clearer how money is spent, also was suggested.

Professors grumble it's the Seven Deadly Sins.

At the University of Texas at Austin, one of the nation's largest campuses with 50,000-plus students, in-state tuition averaged $8,000 last year. The national average at four-year public universities was $7,605, according to the nonprofit College Board. Perry has called on universities to come up with a way to offer $10,000 bachelor's degree programs.

For anyone who thinks research on Texas barbecue isn't worth taxpayer dollars, UT professor Elizabeth Engelhardt begs to differ. She wrote "Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond The Brisket," a history that started as a graduate student project. She said her book, which has sold 2,100 copies, views the state's famous dish through an academic lens, weaving in histories of railroads and refrigeration.

The university said Engelhardt's research cost her department less than $750. Engelhardt maintains Texas taxpayers benefit by better understanding their culture.

Jaime Grunlan, a mechanical engineering professor at Texas A&M University, quantifies the value of his research another way: $1.3 million, which he said is how much his work in nanotechnology has generated for the university in the past two years. Grunlan is the face of faculty opposition — and it's not one of a bookish, gray-haired professor. Square-jawed and 6-foot-8, Grunlan is a former college defensive tackle who delivered a defiant, stop-meddling demand to Texas A&M regents last week. The clip drew more than 4,300 views on YouTube in four days, which is practically a ratings grab for a low-quality feed from a dry board meeting.

"If guys like me leave Texas, it will be very bad for Texas," Grunlan said. "It's lost jobs, it's lost technology. It's companies that won't be coming to Texas."

Although no proposals were on the agenda, faculty members suspected that regents had been discussing the "solutions" behind the scenes. A&M regents chairman Richard Box tried to quell the concern, saying the proposals were simply meant to stimulate ideas. Yet A&M vice chairman Phil Adams, who's also a Texas Public Policy Foundation board member, said the university can't sit still.

"In 1975, they said Sears was the best company in America. In 1975 they probably were, but they couldn't see down the road," Adams said. "And their board of regents wasn't strong enough to put policies and management in place to take care of what was coming."

Adams then cupped his hands around his mouth, as though he was making a megaphone.

"The best company in 1975 was what by 1990?" Adams said. "Not. Even. Relevant."

At the University of Texas at San Antonio, president Ricardo Romo knows the pressure of trying to keep college affordable and accessible. His enrollment of 30,000 students has swollen by more than 50 percent over the past decade, and his professor-to-student ratio of 25 to 1 is among the highest in the state.

He concedes that many families see the $8,000 tuition as a burden, but he still considers it a bargain. As for $10,000 degrees, Romo said, "''I have no idea how they would do it. But if they have some ideas, we'd be certainly willing to listen."