Thirty years ago, Texas taxpayers funded more than half the university budget. This year, the state contributes about 13 percent, or $295 million.
In-state tuition at public research universities has increased 43 percent beyond inflation over the last decade, to more than $15,000. UT-Austin remains considerably less — around $10,000 per year.
Yet while state funding cuts have been devastating, Duderstadt says universities and their growing legions of well-paid administrators haven’t always helped their cause with the public. ‘‘They’re just totally deaf, dumb and blind on how the crazy things they do on campuses convince the American people that they don’t have any ability to control costs,’’ he said.
In Texas, an ascendant group of critics with Perry’s ear thinks the flagship university has lost sight of a key mission: affordable and efficient undergraduate education.
‘‘We've gone too far in the direction of research at the expense of our students,’’ said Thomas Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think-tank with ties to several of Perry’s regents. He cites a (much-disputed) study arguing the research of most UT-Austin faculty isn’t top quality, and that reassigning some research-focused faculty to teach more could halve tuition. That, he says, could also decrease class sizes and boost completion rates.
In fact, most of UT-Austin’s endeavors beyond basic teaching are supported by non-state sources — $700 million annually in outside research funding and $300 million in philanthropy.
Still, in spots on campus one could wonder if this isn’t more car than Texas taxpayers need. The law school’s faculty is highly regarded in academia — and very well paid. But could it use fewer theorists, and more practitioners? What about the seven museums, like The Harry Ransom Center, which has spent millions buying literary collections like Jack Kerouac’s notebooks, and recently spent $30,000 to preserve dresses worn by Scarlett O'Hara in ‘‘Gone with the Wind"?
Powell, the regents chairman, insists he supports UT-Austin’s research mission and values its reputation.
But ‘‘we are a public institution that (is) paid for by the citizens of the state of Texas,’’ Powell said. Texas has ‘‘a lot of students who cannot afford an institution that is a very high-priced, Ivy League-type institution.’’
In the broader debate, the two sides are separated by a common language — terms all agree are worthwhile in the abstract, but which carry associations that delineate a cultural divide.
Does ‘‘academic research’’ call first to mind tweedy professors expounding on poetry in journals nobody reads? Or scientists curing diseases and spinning off businesses?
Is ‘‘productivity’’ common-sense practices for cutting through academic inefficiency and lowering costs? Or code for replacing the nuanced work of nurturing young minds with crude, assembly-line widget-making?
In ‘‘affordability,’’ some hear a self-evident, primary mission for any university. Others hear ‘‘cheap.’’
Affordability is a top Perry priority, and he’s pushed Texas universities to offer a complete four-year degree for just $10,000 — about what UT-Austin currently charges per year.
Re-elected with strong Tea Party support to a third term in 2010, Perry has appointed all 60 regents of Texas’ six public higher education systems, including UT and Texas A&M. He and his regents have encouraged Texas public universities to expand enrollment and online offerings.
But critics say they’re destroying quality for quantity. Early alarm bells rang with a push from Perry’s Texas A&M regents for business-like metrics for faculty productivity, reporting how much they ‘‘made’’ or ‘‘lost’’ for the university. Worries grew when the UT board briefly hired a consultant with ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation who was openly skeptical of academic research’s value.
So when Powell made his ‘‘Chevy Bel Air’’ comments, shortly after becoming chairman in February, 2011, the car metaphor struck a nerve.
The Texas Exes president e-mailed alumni warning ‘‘the mission and core values of our beloved University are under attack.’’ A high-profile group of state business and political leaders called the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education was launched, roiled by a study from another conservative group arguing that UT-Austin could get by with one-third its current faculty if they taught more efficiently.
Last spring, a fight over tuition became a litmus test for competing visions of the university — and even higher education itself.Continued...