By Reeve Hamilton
The current controversy dominating the higher education headlines in Texas is nothing if not nuanced. It’s hard for anyone to disagree with the broad buzzwords used by both sides: accountability, productivity, excellence, accessibility, transparency.
One might be hard-pressed to find an official of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has promoted the controversial “seven breakthrough solutions” for higher education, who openly opposes “great research” or an administrator of a research institution, such as the University of Texas, fighting against “great teaching” — though those two are often presented as being at odds with each other.
This may be because there’s more agreement than disagreement, even among the most strident players on either side. Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has been outspoken in her criticism of Gov. Rick Perry‘s agenda. At the same time, she carried — and passed — most of his office’s proposed higher education legislation. Alex Cranberg, one of Perry’s newly appointed regents at the University of Texas System and a strong advocate of reforming higher education, told the Tribune recently that he believes the differences between himself and those who have criticized him to be “relatively modest.”
Of course, the devil’s in the details.
For example, Jeff Sandefer, the TPPF board member who authored the “seven breakthrough solutions,” and Texas A&M University System Chancellor Mike McKinney both claim to be big supporters of research. But Sandefer says he is “a big fan of productive research,” while McKinney believes the purpose of research at a university is not necessarily to produce anything significant but simply to “institutionalize curiosity.” Put another way: the word “excellence” — and how to attain it — might not mean the same thing to the UT System’s Task Force on University Excellence and Productivity as it does to the Legislature’s Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency.
Clearly, though, they concur that, whatever it is, it’s something to strive for. Justin Keener, a former TPPF vice president of policy and communications who is now a spokesman for Texas Business for Higher Education, a recently organized group of business leaders who have been supportive of reform efforts, is focusing on the areas of agreement.
“Now that everyone agrees with the public that we need to improve the quality, affordability and accessibility of our universities, it is incumbent upon everyone involved to offer specific ideas and solutions,” Keener told the Tribune. “Simply complaining about what other people are saying doesn’t do anything to improve graduation rates, skyrocketing costs or student debt.”
Inspired by Keener, we have prepared the following quiz. It doesn’t focus on obvious differences — such as TPPF’s call to consider “placing universities under sunset review” or Zaffirini’s assertion that “Rick Perry doesn’t understand higher education” — but on the awfully similar public statements of figures that are often portrayed as having opposite positions in the debate.
Those figures are: UT President Bill Powers, UT System Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, TPPF officials, and Perry. Can you read between the lines and figure out which one of them made each statement? (Hint: Each answer is used twice.)
- Controversial Higher Ed Reforms Perry and TPPF Avocate Continue to Command Attention (timesoftexas.com)
- Open the Doors and Windows to the Ivory Towers (timesoftexas.com)
- Zaffirini “Very Perturbed” at TPPF, Jakie and Jeff Sandefer, and the Governor of Texas For Trying To Effect Positive Change (timesoftexas.com)
- Texas A&M System Regents Say TPPF Not at Fault For McKinney Departure (timesoftexas.com)
- Texas – Seeking Transparency and World-Class Leadership (timesoftexas.com)