If colleges were automobiles, the University of Texas at Austin would be a Cadillac: a famous brand, a powerful engine of research and teaching, handsome in appearance. Even the price is comparable: Like one of the luxury car's models, in-state tuition for a four-year degree runs about $40,000.
But in an era of budget-cutting and soaring tuition, is there still a place for "Cadillacs" — elite, public research institutions like Texas, Michigan, California-Berkeley and Virginia that try to compete with the world's best? Or should the focus be on more affordable and efficient options, like the old Chevrolet Bel Air?
It's the central question in a pointed clash of cultures in higher education. And when Gene Powell — the former UT football player and San Antonio real estate developer who chairs the Texas board of regents — raised it with precisely that automotive comparison, reaction was swift and angry.
Convinced the state board was hell-bent on turning their beloved "university of the first class" required by the Texas constitution into a downmarket trade school, faculty, students and alumni have rallied behind campus president Bill Powers in protest.
Powell insists he wants UT-Austin to be great — but also accessible, and for students to have options. Republican Gov. Rick Perry and many of the reform-minded regents he's appointed have made clear they think UT's quest for global prestige has produced too much ivory-tower research, and too little focus on teaching and keeping college affordable for Texans.
In Perry's push for accountability and productivity, many here see something nefarious: a campaign, rooted in a longstanding anti-intellectual strain of Texas politics, to gut a university that shouldn't have to apologize for being "elite."
"I just don't understand why they want to dumb down a public institution of this magnitude," said Machree Gibson, chairman of the Texas Exes, UT's powerful and independent 99,000 member alumni society, which has pushed back.
With Perry due to appoint three new regents this month, the fight is set to flare up again. But the debate is bigger even than Texas.
Like-minded governors in Florida, Wisconsin and elsewhere are watching how Perry and his allies fare. Unusually, it's political conservatives who are the radical reformers, and their opponents the ones digging in to resist upending well-established institutions.
Along the way, career casualties are piling up. Over the last 18 months, presidents of 11 of the 35 leading public research universities have quit or been fired. That doesn't include the University of Virginia, where a reform-minded board fired President Teresa Sullivan, only to reinstate her two weeks later after a faculty revolt.
But Texas is "ground zero" in the national debate, said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 top public and private research institutions. Among the combustible elements here: fanatical alumni, an ambitious governor with unique power over his state's universities, and an influential conservative think-tank — all situated within a few blocks of each other in downtown Austin.
Public research universities, with a mission of both teaching and research, date back 150 years. They produce 70 percent of scientists, engineers and physicians, and two-thirds of U.S. campus research — the value of which isn't always obvious in advance.
"During the Second World War, it was radar and atomic energy that came off of these campuses that saved us," said James Duderstadt, the former University of Michigan president who helped lead a recent National Research Council study of the sector. Before the war, those technologies "looked like the most abstract, frill research."
But lately these globally ambitious institutions have strained against the reins of what some call an anachronistic system of state control and funding. Duderstadt calls them "critically endangered." Another recent report, by the National Science Foundation, found state support for the 101 major public research universities fell 20 percent between 2002 and 2010.
Those institutions are "the backbone of this nation's knowledge economy," Duderstadt said. "If the states turn their back on them, they're committing a grievous act against the national interest."
UT-Austin, the flagship of the 216,000-student UT system, is among the biggest With more than 52,000 students, the university has 3,166 faculty, plus more than 10,000 professional staff. About 10,000 students also have jobs in labs, classrooms, libraries and elsewhere on campus. Recent discoveries range from lithium-ion batteries to the two largest black holes in the universe. It's also spun off hundreds companies and helped make Austin a tech hub, which in turn benefits the university. On Thursday, UT announced a $50 million gift to establish a medical school from the family foundation of Michael Dell and his wife. Dell dropped out of UT-Austin to start his namesake computer company in Austin.
Thirty years ago, Texas taxpayers funded more than half the university budget. This year, the state contributes about 13 percent, or $295 million.
In-state tuition at public research universities has increased 43 percent beyond inflation over the last decade, to more than $15,000. UT-Austin remains considerably less — around $10,000 per year.
Yet while state funding cuts have been devastating, Duderstadt says universities and their growing legions of well-paid administrators haven't always helped their cause with the public. "They're just totally deaf, dumb and blind on how the crazy things they do on campuses convince the American people that they don't have any ability to control costs," he said.
In Texas, an ascendant group of critics with Perry's ear thinks the flagship university has lost sight of a key mission: affordable and efficient undergraduate education.
"We've gone too far in the direction of research at the expense of our students," said Thomas Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think-tank with ties to several of Perry's regents. He cites a (much-disputed) study arguing the research of most UT-Austin faculty isn't top quality, and that reassigning some research-focused faculty to teach more could halve tuition. That, he says, could also decrease class sizes and boost completion rates.
In fact, most of UT-Austin's endeavors beyond basic teaching are supported by non-state sources — $700 million annually in outside research funding and $300 million in philanthropy.
Still, in spots on campus one could wonder if this isn't more car than Texas taxpayers need. The law school's faculty is highly regarded in academia — and very well paid. But could it use fewer theorists, and more practitioners? What about the seven museums, like The Harry Ransom Center, which has spent millions buying literary collections like Jack Kerouac's notebooks, and recently spent $30,000 to preserve dresses worn by Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind"?
Powell, the regents chairman, insists he supports UT-Austin's research mission and values its reputation.
But "we are a public institution that (is) paid for by the citizens of the state of Texas," Powell said. Texas has "a lot of students who cannot afford an institution that is a very high-priced, Ivy League-type institution."
In the broader debate, the two sides are separated by a common language — terms all agree are worthwhile in the abstract, but which carry associations that delineate a cultural divide.
Does "academic research" call first to mind tweedy professors expounding on poetry in journals nobody reads? Or scientists curing diseases and spinning off businesses?
Is "productivity" common-sense practices for cutting through academic inefficiency and lowering costs? Or code for replacing the nuanced work of nurturing young minds with crude, assembly-line widget-making?
In "affordability," some hear a self-evident, primary mission for any university. Others hear "cheap."
Affordability is a top Perry priority, and he's pushed Texas universities to offer a complete four-year degree for just $10,000 — about what UT-Austin currently charges per year.
Re-elected with strong Tea Party support to a third term in 2010, Perry has appointed all 60 regents of Texas' six public higher education systems, including UT and Texas A&M. He and his regents have encouraged Texas public universities to expand enrollment and online offerings.
But critics say they're destroying quality for quantity. Early alarm bells rang with a push from Perry's Texas A&M regents for business-like metrics for faculty productivity, reporting how much they "made" or "lost" for the university. Worries grew when the UT board briefly hired a consultant with ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation who was openly skeptical of academic research's value.
So when Powell made his "Chevy Bel Air" comments, shortly after becoming chairman in February, 2011, the car metaphor struck a nerve.
The Texas Exes president e-mailed alumni warning "the mission and core values of our beloved University are under attack." A high-profile group of state business and political leaders called the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education was launched, roiled by a study from another conservative group arguing that UT-Austin could get by with one-third its current faculty if they taught more efficiently.
Last spring, a fight over tuition became a litmus test for competing visions of the university — and even higher education itself.
Perry let it be known that despite sharp state funding cuts, UT-Austin shouldn't ask to increase tuition the coming year. On campus, many saw the move as a first step toward imposing a $10,000 degree.
The feeling was a university offering a $10,000 degree couldn't be great. It couldn't be a Cadillac.
Powers breached protocol, requesting a 2.6 percent in-state increase anyway. The board turned him down.
"It was viewed as a personal attack on the campus," said Alan Friedman, a longtime faculty senate leader. More than a swipe at the faculty's job performance, he said, "it's that they don't like the job at all. It's a right-wing backlash against higher education, especially the notion that campuses like this one are controlled by liberals."
But the defeat was an Alamo moment — a tactical loss that galvanized supporters. Even students saw a tuition freeze as a threat to the prestige of their degrees. When reports surfaced the board wanted Powers out, a Facebook group called "I Stand With Bill Powers" surged past five-figure membership.
Then, the University of Virginia fiasco unfolded. Powers declined to comment, and Powell said he hadn't closely followed what happened there. But by every other account, events in Charlottesville were followed breathlessly in Austin. Virginian's Sullivan was a longtime UT professor and administrator, and widely admired.
If the board wanted Powers out, it reconsidered the PR ramifications. His job now appears safe, though many here still think UT-Austin's reputation remains threatened.
Many observers share Friedman's view that the debates over tuition and research are really about something broader.
"There seems to be a political move, and it's not just in Texas, away from the classical mission of the university — cultivation of the mind and pursuit of knowledge — to a concept of a public university as sort of a job corps or a trade school," said Peter Flawn, who came to Texas more than a half-century ago and was UT-Austin's president from 1979 to 1985, then again in 1997-98.
In an interview in his office in the geological sciences building, Flawn, now 86, recounted UT's efforts to build a world-class university in a state with little history of generously supporting education.
Far-thinking governors, like John Connally and Bill Clements, working with UT loyalists in the Texas legislature, grasped the potential of a great research university to diversify Texas away from a boom-and-bust commodities economy, Flawn said. Donors like Dallas investor Peter O'Donnell, who has given more than $135 million to the university, helped retain world-class researchers who would otherwise have been poached away.
"It takes a long time to build a first-class university," Flawn said. "You wonder, how long would it take to destroy one?"
Campus liberals aren't the only critics. Neither the Texas Exes nor the Texas Coalition lacks Republicans. O'Donnell, a state GOP stalwart, has publicly criticized Perry's higher education priorities. Republican former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who previously headed Texas A&M, seemed to do the same in a speech in November, calling the contention that research comes at the expense of teaching "a profound misunderstanding of how universities become great and stay great, and a profound misunderstanding of the higher education enterprise as a whole."
Southern Methodist University political scientist Calvin Jillson says UT grads of both parties occupy an "urban elite" who see UT-Austin's benefits in their communities. But Perry's base among Texas' rural residents sees more "value in a '3Rs' preparation for the job market."
Recent events follow a pattern of "anti-intellectual populism that has assaulted UT regularly over the school's history," Jillson said.
"Political authorities find the faculty and their research interests to be counter to the political culture of the state and therefore dangerous," he said. "The question is always: 'Is this what we're paying for with our tax money?'"
Gibson, the first black woman to head the Texas Exes alumni group, sees the dispute through the lens of a growing and diversifying Texas.
"There are a lot of alumni that are upset that their kids can't get in," she said. "They've been coming here for generations. But there are so many more people in the state of Texas now." She also sees a racial element, with some resenting the university's diversity efforts, notably its recent defense of racial preferences in admissions before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lindsay, from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, says lower-income students get grants, and high-income kids can afford to pay. But "it's the middle class that's being squeezed." He adds, "none of us wants to compromise one bit" on UT's research mission. But he doesn't think making some faculty teach one extra class does so.
"To somehow say if we do that, we're somehow not going to discover a cure for cancer, I think they get a little hyperbolic about it," Lindsay said.
In an e-mailed statement, Josh Havens, the governor's spokesman, said Perry appreciates the value of research for the state economy and that "(f)alse claims that university research is under attack damage our schools and Texas as a whole."
Asked if Perry thought Powers was the right person for the job, he said that was up to the regents.
Regents chairman Powell passionately recounts his own upbringing in the disadvantaged Rio Grande Valley. He won't apologize for championing Texas students who could be priced out of the route to a better life that a UT education offers.
"We have a duty to be an elite institution," he said. "But we also have a duty to be accessible and affordable."
The Atlantic magazine recently named Powell one of 21 "Brave Thinkers of 2012" for taking on college costs.
But it was Powers, the UT-Austin president, whose name was floated in the Dallas Morning News for Texan of the Year.
In an interview in his library-like office, Powers speaks carefully, emphasizing how seriously he takes cost-cutting and efficiency. He rattles off recent money-saving reforms and undergraduate teaching initiatives.
But while "productivity" is important, it can't mean the same thing here as in a factory. A great university's "outputs" must include research, he said. As for cost, he wants to make a UT-Austin education "as affordable as we can, consistent with it being a high-quality education."
He and Powell clearly want to lower the temperature. Powell emphasized it would be up to UT-Austin whether to offer a $10,000 degree (three UT regional campuses have started such programs). Despite denying UT-Austin's tuition request, Powell says the board has directed other new resources there. Meanwhile, he and UT system Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa talked up a "Framework for Advancing Excellence" that the board and campuses agreed to in 2011 for cost-cutting and improving outcomes.
But asked if he agreed the framework showed everybody was now on the same page, Powers was laconic.
"We've complied and (are) following the framework," Powers said. "We're doing that stuff. That'd be my thought on it."
Meanwhile, Republican governors in Florida and Wisconsin have also pushed the $10,000 degree Perry first proposed (every Florida college offering a bachelor's degree now offers at least one such program).
Florida Gov. Rick Scott also has Florida faculty alarmed over a "job corps" approach to public universities, questioning whether the state should subsidize liberal arts degrees he contends often don't lead to jobs. This week, North Carolina's new governor, Republican Patrick McGrory, made similar points in announcing legislation to fund universities based on job placement (he was speaking to conservative talk show host William Bennett, who has a doctorate in philosophy from UT-Austin).
"It's clear that other governors are watching what Gov. Perry is doing," said Rawlings of the American Association of Universities, who calls such approaches "misbegotten."
"It seems just out of whack to ask the university to be something other than what it is," he said.
The most contentious word in this clash of campus cultures may be "elite" — and the different takes on it here are revealing.
Powers says he doesn't like the word. He prefers to see higher education as an ecosystem, with different institutions playing different parts, but a distinctive role for the likes of UT-Austin.
"Maybe it's an OK term," he later allowed, asked if UT-Austin should really shy away from calling itself elite. But he doesn't want to imply "other educational needs are somehow not important."
Powell says UT-Austin "absolutely" should aspire to be elite, "if by elite you mean providing an excellent education to all students at a reasonable cost."
"If you're talking about elite in the terms of, say, Harvard or Yale or Stanford, maybe that's different," he said.
Flawn, the emeritus president relieved of any duty to diplomacy, says the word is no cause for apology.
"Universities are by their very nature elite," he said. "Their job is to separate the sheep from the goats and the goat-sheep from the sheep-goats, and try to produce people who are knowledgeable and can reason, think and solve problems. As much as you would like everybody to be intellectually equal, they're not."
Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education http://texaseducationexcellence.org/
Texas Public Policy Foundation http://www.texaspolicy.com/
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