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?


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.