Friday, August 26, 2011

 

Carey: Perry Visionary?

Kevin Carey, whom I consider one of the more thoughtful and interesting higher ed writers out there, made a startling claim this week that Texas governor Rick Perry is an underappreciated higher ed visionary.

After wiping the spat coffee from my monitor, I actually read his piece. It’s contrarian, obviously, and I’d also say incomplete, but worth chewing on.

Carey bases his claim on the 7 principles for improving university education that Perry has endorsed. The 7 principles primarily center on the need to focus universities more on teaching and less on research. Carey even goes out of his way to attack faculty at research universities who accept the light teaching loads that are supposed to enable research, and then don’t publish anything.

Concur in part, dissent in part.

Working at a community college, I have to say that the idea of a teaching-focused institution isn’t terribly abstract for me; I see it every day. I’m fairly sure they have community colleges in Texas, too. (Full disclosure: I don’t live in Texas.) Has Governor Perry put his money where his mouth is and shifted resources from universities to community and state colleges? Are the teaching-focused institutions getting heretofore-unimaginable -- that is, visionary -- support?

Hmm. Didn’t think so.

If that hasn’t happened, has the Perry administration at least been strongly supportive of structural innovations in higher ed that are geared to improving teaching?

Hmm.

I agree with Carey that several of the 7 principles have much to be said for them, in the abstract. Yes, it’s reasonable to require decent teaching for tenure, given that teaching is a job requirement. (The reasonableness of tenure in the first place is another issue, but I’ll skip over that for now.) Public recognition and reward for excellent teaching strikes me as an obvious good, assuming that we’re measuring the right thing. And it’s certainly true - painfully, obviously true -- that some awful teaching goes on out there, especially at the university level. Given the disconnect among state needs, student needs,and faculty incentives, it’s not surprising that some pretty dysfunctional behavior goes on. (In my own graduate training, my professors told me bluntly to put as little time as possible into teaching, since it “didn’t count.” Thanks, guys. I’ll give them credit at least for practicing what they preached.)

Others of the principles are far more deeply problematic than Carey allows. “Split research and teaching budgets to encourage excellence in both” is either disingenuous or just stupid; splitting one pile of money into two piles doesn’t make it more money. If anything, the proposal would seem to ratify the split between highly paid researchers who don’t teach much and poorly paid teachers who don’t publish much. In other words, it’s at cross-purposes with the rest of the proposal. And the proposal to “put state funding directly in the hands of students” would set off a tuition skyrocket the likes of which we have never seen. (If a university moves from, say, twenty percent state funding to zero percent, it has to make up the difference somewhere. And Texas being Texas, it won’t come from football...) It also sits at cross-purposes with tenure, which the principles otherwise seem to endorse. What happens to a department that students ignore, but that several tenured faculty? The principles don’t say.

The larger flaw in Carey’s analysis, though, is that it mistakes saying for doing. If Governor Perry really wanted to remake Texas’ higher education system into something more teaching-focused and less research-focused -- a debatable goal, but not an absurd one -- I’d expect to see him beef up the teaching-focusd institutions that already exist. If he shifted state funding from, say, Texas A&M to the state and community colleges, then yes, I could start to buy the argument that he actually means it. If he decided that other parts of the country have the whole “research” thing well in hand, and he wanted to focus Texas on teaching, I’d expect to see him divert money from UT-Austin and send it to the K-12 districts and the community colleges. One could argue the wisdom of that, but at least it would be a vision.

No. He’s endorsing an attack on universities for not being high schools, an attack on community colleges for being high schools, and an attack on K-12 for, well, being there. Yes, some isolated bits of rhetoric could make sense in another context, but that’s not what’s happening. I agree with Carey on the oft-noted paradox that academics who are otherwise liberal become dogmatically, idiotically conservative when discussing their own profession, but their skepticism about Perry is fairer than that. Some of Perry’s rhetoric may be interesting, but at the end of the day, his only vision for higher education is hostility.

Comments:
“Split research and teaching budgets to encourage excellence in both” is either disingenuous or just stupid; splitting one pile of money into two piles doesn’t make it more money. If anything, the proposal would seem to ratify the split between highly paid researchers who don’t teach much and poorly paid teachers who don’t publish much.

Or it would make it harder to subsidize research by packing 1500 students into a single class (like my local university does for some first year courses).


And the proposal to “put state funding directly in the hands of students” would set off a tuition skyrocket the likes of which we have never seen.

It would effectively privatize education, right? Which may well be the whole goal here…
 
And it’s certainly true - painfully, obviously true -- that some awful teaching goes on out there, especially at the university level. Especially, nothing. I teach in a low tier private college - one of those places DD insists are dead any day now - and I'm always hearing how we have better teachers than they have at R1s because teaching is a bigger part of our workload. Bullshit. Research universities are filled with outstanding teachers. Almost by definition, these folks are passionately enthusiastic about their discipline, and nothing is more important for good teaching.
 
I think Perry, and most other politicians, miss the point that research money does not, in any large part, come from the state. Almost all of research money comes from the feds and is earmarked specifically for research and so can't be touched or it can't be received at all. At my R1, the indirect (overhead) paid by the feds subsidizes a lot of the education side of the house (and pays all of the state funded portions of faculty salaries for those engaged in intesive research) so if you split the budgets up, education would suffer.
 
R1 universities certainly are not the only place where poor teaching occurs, and some of the best teachers I've ever had (or watched) were employed at R1s.

On the other hand - nowhere but at an R1 have I **ever** heard a professor opine that teaching was a waste of time, that grad students & new faculty would be well advised to focus entirely on research at the expense of teaching (explicit, not implicit, trade-off), and that undergrads are a pain in the "rear" because they take one's time away from more important endeavors. Only at an R1 have I ever been told that my obvious love of, and skill at, teaching poses a threat to my success in my discipline, and that I'd be better off if I could pretend I don't care too much about being effective in the classroom.

Not everyone at an R1 may feel that way, but certainly, many do and it is acceptable, even fashionable, to express these sentiments.

If I were to say anything like that at the teaching-oriented institution where I now work, it would be met by stunned silence, and I probably would not have a job there next year. We have some awful teachers here too - but (often - not always) they get called on the carpet when they go through performance reviews, and they don't usually get promoted.
 
I teach at a cc in Texas, where we are stretching every penny beyond the point of recognition. What Texas' "education" governor did to education is a crying shame. Look at our high school drop out rate. While you're at it, take a gander at the state's poverty level and the pared to the bone college budgets. Hey, Texas is creating more jobs and we are all working 2 or more of them at Walmart, Kroger, Target, and HEB.
 
Conservatives are conservatives and Republicans are Republican.
 
@Anonymous : 9:21 AM, On the other hand - nowhere but at an R1 have I **ever** heard...Fair point. My graduate study was in a small department where teaching really was valued, and where anyone who opined that it was a waste of time would not have been looked upon kindly by their colleagues. I guess I've led a sheltered academic life, for which I'm grateful.
 
First, the irony of Gov. Perry's stated objectives coinciding with the planned expansion of additional Texas state universities from "regional" status where research is secondary into national research universities is not lost on me.

Second, it is simply not true that the state does not pay significantly for faculty research. You can see it in the UT and TAMU data. If someone has a 50% assignment of duties to research, that part of hir state salary and benefits is assigned to research. You may even see it budgeted that way at some universities. They pay a lot, and they pay a second time by having a Lecturer who makes up for the classes those people are not teaching while they write their next book.

Further, "indirect cost recovery" is based on audits that look at university-funded space and other services dedicated to research. The universities pay for those resources and then recover the costs that support grant-funded research. The return on investment from having a student/staff ratio of 2.5 is pretty good, but has never lowered tuition in my lifetime ... and I'm older than Dean Dad.
 
I hate to break it to you, but there are places (mainly R1s) where the teaching money is essentially split from the research money. Within the department, the choice is made to have the bulk of the undergrad course load taught by (if you are lucky) full time lecturers and adjuncts. I've even seen it where an R1 makes the claim that they are going to give a 'liberal arts' experience and then turn to lecturers to get it done. Even if the department wanted to buckle down and get their teaching done with the tenure lines (and therefore consolidating these quasi-separate pots of money), it would be unable to do so because the teaching loads for the research faculty would increase by 5-7 courses a year.

Formally splitting the money would at least pay homage to the contingent full time faculty actually doing the bulk of the teaching at these R1s. Perhaps there could even be a built in job security system that way.
 
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