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The Texas-Florida Axis of Evil

The title of this post is roughly how I suspect people at the capitol of American higher education, 1 Dupont Circle in D.C., will characterize the governors of Texas and Florida when they learn of the Florida Governor’s interview published Monday in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

Governor Rick Scott says he wants to shake up Florida higher education.  He thinks the state is training too many anthropologists, and not enough in the STEM disciplines. He wants to use the funding stick to reallocate resources. Scott said, “I want … money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.” He also does not like tenure, and wants to abolish it.  Unproductive professors should be eased out.

Moreover, Governor Scott explicitly ties his proposed reforms (that seem to have a good deal of support in the Republican party that controls the legislature) to those proposed in Texas by entrepreneur and teacher Jeff Sandefer.

In Texas, the opening salvo in a controversy occurred when Texas A & M and the University of Texas published detailed data on the faculty—how many students they teach, how much they are paid, the amount of research grants they have secured, etc. This data is, in my judgment, a gold mine for researchers interested in what faculty members do, the distribution of teaching responsibilities and the difference between flagship campuses (e.g. UT Austin) and their branches (e.g. UT San Antonio, El Paso, Arlington).

Already the Florida higher-ed establishment is lining up in opposition, even before anything substantive has happened. Former University of Florida President Charles Young said “it’s sheer and utter nonsense.” Former University of South Florida president Betty Castor said she didn’t know of any presidents wanting to go after tenure or criticize the faculty. The issue isn’t whether we should go after them, but whether: Is the work they are doing worth the amount we are spending to fund it? Are we, for example, allocating too many resources to subsidize research that gets little recognition among peers (on this, be on the lookout for the forthcoming Center for College Affordability and Productivity study by Emory professor and Chronicle blogger Mark Bauerlein). Would we get more social utility by asking professors to return to teaching more, as their predecessors of a generation or two ago did?

To be sure, there are aspects of Governor Scott’s plan that make me uneasy. Just as I don’t like politicians giving subsidized credit and tax revenues to private firms ostensibly to promote economic development, I don’t like them trying to outguess labor markets, or determine the optimal distribution of majors. I don’t like the seeming disdain for the liberal arts, or the unspoken assumption that college is all about “getting a job” and that somehow the nature of a college education importantly determines vocational eligibility. While I am certainly not wild about tenure, I think some put excessive emphasis on the impact of tenure abolition on university reform (although a review of this institution is no doubt desirable).

Yet, the governor is probably more right than wrong. Why should the state of Florida subsidize the education of some students who, on average, likely will earn after college very little more than what high-school graduates receive? How much should we subsidize anthropology studies? It is a legitimate question. What is the return to Florida taxpayers on investing in area A, say engineering, versus area B, say psychology?

What are the faculty doing? Is their research productive in some ultimate sense? These are legitimate questions. The governor’s call for full transparency and accountability resonates well with many taxpayers and policy makers. I think higher education needs shaking up, and it will come from outside the traditional academy, through new innovations and through a rethinking of the government’s role.

The ultimate question is: Where state monies are involved, should decision-making authority be left solely to universities’ own discretion? On the one hand, there is some validity to concerns university folks have regarding political interference, in trying to excessively control their destiny from far away (Washington or Tallahassee or Austin in this case). But universities have abused their independence, growing costly, inefficient, secretive, and arrogant—while maybe (or maybe not) doing a decent job of performing their main functions. We don’t know for sure, because the thing that universities research the least, practically, is themselves.

For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for thee, higher education, and it is being rung by those folks paying a lot of your bills. Ignore the call for information, accountability, and efficiency, and you will pay a price. So, on balance, I say, “three cheers for Governors Perry and Scott.”

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