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Foster: Politics and academics don't mix

By John Foster
Sept. 3, 2011 at 1:21 a.m.


My last column looked into the Texas Legislature's failure to fund public and higher education at adequate levels. Those statistics are open and readily accessible, but there's another insidious problem university officials are facing - political meddling.

A recent edition of "Alcade," the University of Texas' alumni magazine, looks at current oversight by UT's board of regents and reviews a history of micro-managing by former regents to the school's detriment.

At issue is a movement by a few wealthy alumni and former UT educators who want to change the school's entire role and scope from research to teaching. They also advance the radical idea of evaluating faculty members with measurable results instead of traditional research and publishing efforts.

In an article written by editor Tim Taliaferro, he explains that UT's elite faculty has built the university into a national research powerhouse. The university garnered $642 million in grants and external funds this year, or about twice the amount legislators provide in state funding.

But a so-called reformers group is trying to convince UT regents that many faculty members are failing their teaching mission and wants to start measuring faculty "products."

The group's leader is a UT alumnus and former faculty member, Jeff Sandefer IV, who quit his teaching position after disagreeing with administrators. Sandefer is independently wealthy after making millions in the petroleum industry and, according to former colleagues, has an air of entitlement because of his money. He also has professional disdain for some former colleagues because they hold different opinions.

Sandefer is doing more than talking about making changes at UT and Texas A&M University. He's been in contact with former regents and officials at both universities and donated $400,000 to Rick Perry's political campaigns to gain the governor's ear.

Evidence of this influence surfaced in February when Sandefer's pal Rick O'Donnell was hired in secret as a special adviser to UT regents, during a UT hiring freeze, at a salary of $200,000 per year.

"When O'Donnell started asking UT for data on faculty salaries and workloads, it altogether raised suspicion that the regents were - and are - moving the university in a new direction and against its will," Taliaferro wrote.

Perry, now in his 11th year as governor, has appointed or re-appointed every regent in the state university system so his influence on the UT board is hardly challenged.

However, UT regents would be wise to consider the university's reputation as well as potential actions by outside accreditation agencies before changing UT's mission. Recent events at Texas A&M offer a warning, Taliaferro noted.

Last fall, A&M implemented one of Sandefer's recommendations by separating teaching and research budgets, then grading professors on how much money they "made" or "lost" the university. Shortly after, the Association of American Universities, gatekeepers of the cherished "tier-1" ratings, sent A&M a letter criticizing the change.

"Separating research from teaching and oversimplifying the evaluation of faculty does violence to the values that have produced the American universities that are envied and emulated across the globe," wrote AAU president Bob Berdahl, who was UT president from 1993 to 1997.

The underlying tone of Berdahl's letter is that A&M's elite status as one of 61 members of AAU's tier 1, a rating it only acquired in 2001, may be lost if it follows educational policies advanced by Sandefer and like-minded reformers.

More significantly, quantifying educational goals may head UT and A&M toward second-class status at the hands of a small group unhappy with policies at these schools that helped them ascend to "universities of the first class."

According to the "Alcade'' story, former UT President Larry Faulkner observed about Sandefer: "He has an extremely narrow experience, and a university has a vast range of consitutencies."

- John D. Foster is a Carthage resident and former editor of the Panola Watchman.

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