Former Houstonian John Moores, currently Chairman of the University of California Board of Regents, hit upon an age-old problem in a recent op/ed essay, one that has vexed any number of Texas Higher Education Coordinating Boards and “blue ribbon commissions”—how to bring strategic order to the State’s system of higher education. There have been various plans advanced over the years by well-intentioned people, probably the most ambitious of which was developed by a commission led by Larry Temple in the 1980’s. It offered two alternatives—a functional and a geographic structure for higher education institutions. But like all other such proposals, it went nowhere. Why? Several reasons seem prominent (all of which I encountered when serving a six-year term on the board of one of our four-year universities): (1) intense regional competition for economic development and research, (2) board appointments are largely driven by school loyalty, (3) board members are or soon become provincial in their outlook and “boosterism” is the expectation of the alumni, (4) let’s face it–a certain level of anti-intellectualism is alive and well in Texas, and (5) politically, higher education access always trumps excellence. I could give many examples of these, but you get the point.Rather than spend more time and effort with top-down restructuring plans, we should be making bold moves toward marketizing the system, as some have suggested and as some other states are piloting. Market-based tuition is a good start, but we should be much bolder, as in spinning off entire departments and/or colleges of university systems as stand-alone schools, with certain services provided by the “parent” institution on a contract basis. Over time, this would produce a much better allocation of resources based on customer demand and preferences (and in the process probably eliminate much of the nonsense that now passes for meaningful curriculum), ultimately result in a re-structuring of delivery systems commensurate with the needs of the customers, and I would bet that much of this would eventually align itself along functional and geographic lines. The trade-off, of course, is state support, but why should the state bureaucracy dominate the governance of our flagship universities in exchange for 20% of their total funding? And when 75% of the parents of students at the University of Texas at Austin earn over $100,000 annually, why do they need the state subsidy anyway?
Frankly, I believe marketization is in many respects inevitable, because it will be forced by economics, not just in Texas, but throughout higher education, particularly the “flagships”. On a per student basis, the state appropriation to the University of California at Berkeley is three times that at the University of Texas and Texas A&M, and there is no way the gap can be closed without unacceptable concessions in excellence, which, ironically, would run counter to the primary reason for closing the gap! And the bottom line is that there is no long term economic growth without centers of excellence in higher education.