There have been a number of recent appeals to Texas policy makers from business-related groups such as the Governor’s Business Council and the Build Texas Program to overhaul the structure and enhance the accountability and funding of the State’s publicly assisted institutions of higher education. In addition, the leadership of the two flagship universities, UT-Austin and Texas A&M, have appealed to opinion leaders and policy makers to recognize their combined economic and research impact on the state and acknowledge their value-added in considering their respective appropriations.
All of these appeals are well taken, and Governor Rick Perry has now responded with his own policy recommendations to the Texas Legislature. There is a lot to like about his proposals, particularly the accountability measures that will require some type of “exit exam” for graduation and hold institutions responsible for the graduation rates of their students with incentive funding.
But there are at least three items of emphasis that seem to be missing. The first is illustrated by the advice offered to his successor by departing UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner in his State of the University Address in September 2005: “Your greatest challenge will be to work out a new, stable financial model for the long-term sustenance of the university. For decades, we have been drifting away from a model built on public higher education as a public good toward one that treats all higher education, even in the public sector, as a private benefit…..we are approaching a point of no return. Will the university be forced to become essentially private to sustain its quality?” I have my own thoughts about the public-private issue which I have previously expressed (August 2003, April 2005) but President Faulkner is implying the need for a long-term strategy for Texas higher education, one that has eluded us for many years too long. Maybe the recent appeals will prompt the necessary vision to come together, but I don’t see it in the Governor’s proposals.
Second, if higher education is to fully return to its role as a driver of the public good, this criterion should be defined in terms beyond simply economic impact. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in its 1998 booklet, “What Every Educated Person Should Know”, reminds us that the principle espoused by G. K. Chesterton, that “education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another”, underscores a belief that a shared understanding, a shared knowledge, help unify and advance civilization and that, indeed, the American system of self-government is uniquely premised on the need for a citizenry so educated in order to sustain it. Regrettably, over the past several decades, there has been a breakdown in this commitment to a shared core of learning and understanding—of our culture, our ideas, our ideals, our history—in short, of the foundations of our civilization and how we can sustain them. There appear to be some initiatives underway directed toward the revival of a required core curriculum, and these should be greatly encouraged.
Third, we need much more accountability for the role of our higher education institutions in the preparation of teachers for our K-12 public school system. There are islands of excellence here, but, generally speaking, the traditional colleges of education are in bad need of overhaul. Our organization, the Texas Institute for Education Reform, has developed detailed policy recommendations on how to accomplish this enhanced accountability, but it needs much more attention from state political leaders and the leaders of these institutions, and the best way to get this attention is through tying accreditation and state funding to the value-added to enhanced student achievement by their graduates.
Again, I applaud the Governor for these initiatives; on balance, they are a big step in the right direction, but we need much more.