That day marked the beginning of an effort — spearheaded by the governor, one of his six-figure campaign donors and a conservative think tank — to re-engineer Texas’s leading public universities to become more like businesses, driven by efficiency and profitability.
The initiative stayed pretty much under the radar until last fall, when it became public that Perry’s alma mater, Texas A&M University, had compiled a spreadsheet ranking faculty members according to whether they were earning their keep or costing the school money. The university already had rankled professors with a program that paid bonuses based on anonymous student evaluations.
More recently, Perry has proposed that the state’s top colleges come up with a four-year degree that costs no more than $10,000 — a goal that skeptics say cannot be achieved without sacrificing academic quality and prestige.
As the governor edges toward running for president, with an announcement likely in the next few weeks, his embrace of those ideas — and the furor that has followed — tells much about his populist political impulses.
“It shows Perry is someone who is willing to take on the sacred cows,” said conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, who runs a project called Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. “Rick Perry is willing to challenge the people who proclaim themselves to be unchallengeable, and when it comes to stewardship of the people’s resources, he is at least willing to ask the questions others aren’t.”
But his critics and even some Perry supporters say it shows something else as well. The governor has a record of plunging into splashy ventures, at times despite the complexities, constituencies or sensitivities involved. Earlier in his tenure, for instance, he sparked a revolt from ranchers and property-rights advocates with his doomed proposal for a $175 billion, 4,000-mile transportation network across the state.
“What one can learn from here is that, while he has good political instincts, the solutions are too simplistic,” said a senior Republican Texas legislator who has been an ally and who did not want to be quoted for attribution assessing the governor. “It’s easy to find the red meat and to find the weakness — whether it’s in the federal government, or in higher education being too fat — but his policy solutions aren’t thought through well enough before they get launched.”
Perry’s qualities have made him a rare political cross-species — an establishment figure who is also a hero to the tea party movement. That is why many Republicans believe he has the potential to upend the GOP presidential field, should he join it.