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Perry's Vision For University Of Texas Criticized


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. It's college graduation season, a time when young people stop worrying about final exams and start worrying about getting a job. In a minute we'll hear some popular career advice dished out by commencement speakers. First, there's an ongoing debate over how well universities are preparing graduates for the real world and whether colleges themselves should operate more like businesses.

GREENE: This debate is particularly heated in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry wants to see big changes at state colleges, including the flagship University of Texas at Austin. But the faculty, many alumni, and even lawmakers say those changes would destroy UT's mission and reputation. NPR's Wade Goodwyn is following the story and he joined us from Dallas. Hey, Wade.


GREENE: So this sounds like a pretty big battle on our hands here. Give us the background.

GOODWYN: It actually began five years ago when Gov. Perry called a special conference of all the university system regents to lay out this new vision for Texas universities. And most of the reform ideas had come from a close ally, an oil man, a former UT business school professor named Jeff Sandefer. And Sandefer believes that the modern university is a dinosaur.

He argues that professors concentrate too much on research and writing books, and the reformist solution is to essentially turn Texas's universities into the kind of super star community colleges where many professors would not be tenured or necessarily even full-time. They'd be experts working in their industries and they'd be paid for how much money they brought into the university and how many students they taught.

And Sandefer believes universities should be run more like a business with the students being the customers.

GREENE: Well, we should say, I mean we've done some reporting on this program, that this is a time when a lot of people feel like universities have to do some soul-searching about their mission but here we have this new vision. And I guess - how did Perry first implement it?

GOODWYN: It started at Texas A&M, which is Perry's alma mater. The reformer started the process by gathering data on all the professors, who's making money for Texas A&M and who's losing it. The professors who supposedly made money had their results listed in black ink and the ones who supposedly cost the A&M were in red.

And lecturers who taught a lot of big classes were moneymakers. If you were some biology professor setting up a research lab, you came back in the red. And you probably won't be surprised, David, to hear that the faculty hated this.

GREENE: I can imagine. Then it comes to the University of Texas. They get their own version of this.

GOODWYN: That's what happened. And it's causing the same upheaval as it did at A&M. But unlike at A&M, the UT alumni association reacted very strongly. And I think part of the difference here is that the A&M governor - you know, Rick Perry was seen as a powerful alumni insider but at UT he was seen as an interloper trying to dumb down the state's flagship university.

And like A&M, the first thing the reformers did was put out a list of the faculty at UT and divided them into five categories: coasters, dodgers, sherpas, pioneers, and stars.

GREENE: Wow. Actually labeling the different faculty members. You know, Wade, this philosophical debate is not just happening in Texas. I mean a lot of people who are interested in higher education are sort of questioning the value of what students get out of the experience. They're questioning how to measure value at schools. I mean, Texas isn't alone.

GOODWYN: I agree, but I do think that UT and A&M are absolutely on the frontline here. You know, for the reformers we've got to transform universities into profit-motivated corporations. And on the other side is the faculty, the university administration, the alumni association, and many powerful players in the state legislature. And this is important because even though the state legislature is Republican, there's a lot of loyalty to UT there. So it's a battle of the titans.

GREENE: What's the next step, Wade? What can we expect in coming days, weeks, months?

GOODWYN: Well, I mean some of this is being played out in the state legislature. I mean they're moving to pass bills to strip the board of regents of the power of the purse. You know, whereas at the end of the day these bills have to get past Gov. Perry and I don't think they will. So that's kind of where it's playing out right now, is inside the state legislature.

GREENE: All right. Interesting battles to follow over the state of higher education in the state of Texas. NPR's Wade Goodwyn joining us from Dallas. Wade, thanks.

GOODWYN: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.
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