Last month I mentioned the current debate mainly centered on the respective values of research vs. teaching in our flagship universities sparked by my friend Jeff Sandefer’s “seven breakthrough solutions” to higher education reform and their possible implementation at The University of Texas and Texas A&M. Never did I suspect that the issue would have such “legs” and I have been surprised at how this dialogue has spun into such a media firestorm, with plenty of histrionics across the board. UT Board Chairman Gene Powell seems to be almost thinking out loud with many of his reform ideas, some of which are suspect at best. On the other hand, this quote from the UT System Faculty Advisory Council Chairman, apparently typical of the outlook of many in our leading universities, is equally off base: “You can’t really assign a dollar value to what a faculty member does”. Obviously, we do this every time we sign a faculty paycheck and there must be accountability for the value so assigned; the question that higher education must begin to ask in earnest is, what should be the weighting of the value criteria? And the transparency and introspection involved in gathering and analyzing the relevant information should not be resisted or considered such a foreboding exercise, however the process might have been mishandled in this case.
Although I don’t agree with all of them as presented, I find the “seven breakthrough solutions” generally reasonable reform ideas for serious discussion, albeit in need of fleshing out in terms of proposed implementation. Certainly they are not as totally outlandish as they have been characterized by many in the education establishment. Likewise, I believe that the dialogue on higher education accountability that resulted from the recent national higher education commission chaired by Charles Miller deserves more serious discussion than it has received.
On one key point that surfaces in all of this dialogue I think we all should agree, and that is that we must move to a new and much more productive delivery system for higher education as well as elementary and secondary education, and that the underlying economics will drive the outcome whether we embrace it or not. I hope this media-frenzied dialogue and paranoia don’t abort productive discussion about how we get there.