Rick Perry wages an assault on the ivory tower

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Texas A&M University was the first university to road-test controversial higher-education policies that Gov. Rick Perry had advocated. The policies were implemented not just at the flagship campus in College Station, but also throughout the Texas A&M University system, which includes 10 other universities. All of them are overseen by the Texas A&M chancellor and board of regents.

August 3, 2011

In Texas, few institutions are as venerated as its flagship universities. Their alumni networks are vast and devoted. The state’s political power structure is woven by college ties that are as strong as party ones. And just about everyone’s athletic allegiance comes down to a choice: Longhorns or Aggies.

So former Aggie yell leader Rick Perry surely knew he was stirring something up on May 21, 2008, when he summoned the governing boards of the state’s six university systems to a hotel ballroom four blocks from the state capitol in Austin for what was billed as “Governor Perry’s Higher Education Summit.”

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.

Texas’s longest-serving governor has reinvented the constitutionally weak office he inherited in 2000, when George W. Bush left Austin for the White House.

Seven solutions

Because of that longevity, Perry has been able to leverage the influence of the governorship to a degree unprecedented in modern history. In a state where boards and commissions do much of the decisionmaking, Perry has filled them with loyalists who share his vision and owe their prestigious appointments to him. Few posts are as coveted as six-year terms on university boards of regents.

Minutes of the higher-education summit in May 2008 show that Perry appeared by video to introduce the event’s moderator: a wealthy former oilman named Jeff Sandefer.

The businessman has been a critic of the higher-education system since at least 2002, when he parted ways with the University of Texas over an entre­pre­neur­ship program he had set up there.

That feud centered in part on the university’s insistence on hiring tenure-track professors rather than part-time instructors with real-world experience, which Sandefer preferred. At the time, the Austin American-Statesman reported, the businessman said he might go to “his longtime family friend Gov. Rick Perry about his concerns.”

They have other connections besides friendship. Sandefer, who declined a request for an interview, has given the governor’s campaigns more than $300,000 since 2000. He was especially generous in 2008, the year of his starring role at the governor’s education summit, when he donated more than $125,000 to Perry. (In Texas, individual political contributions are limited only by the size of one’s bank account.)

At that gathering of the university regents, Sandefer outlined what have since come to be known as “Seven Breakthrough Solutions.” They were developed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank closely allied with Perry and on whose board Sandefer sits.

Professors are wasting time and money churning out esoteric, unproductive research, Sandefer and the foundation have argued, when they should be putting in more hours in the classroom. Among their suggestions: that individual faculty members be measured as profit or loss centers, that research budgets be separated from teaching budgets, and that student evaluations help determine how much professors are paid.

Perry appeared in person after lunch. The minutes note that he told his appointees that “there were not ‘one size fits all’ solutions and he said the proposals could be modified by different institutions.” But the governor also warned that the regents who sit on governing boards “will be judged by what happens after this meeting.”

Amid the subsequent controversy, Perry has of late been distancing himself from the proposals. He has, for instance, spoken favorably about the value of academic research.

As for “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” Mark Miner, his communications director, said the governor was merely “putting ideas on a table. People should welcome the debate of an idea.”

But internal documents recently obtained by Texas news organizations under the state’s open-records law suggest that Perry’s staff was eager to see them not only debated but implemented.

In December 2008, for instance, Perry aide Marisha Negovetich e-mailed university regents and chancellors: “The Governor is anxious to put together a cohesive plan of action . . . and also learn from you what progress you have made to move these reforms forward.”

In February 2009, Perry’s staff reminded them: “The Governor is anxious to learn what progress you have made to move these reforms ahead.”

While this has been going on behind the scenes, Perry has launched a public broadside on college costs.

“A bold, Texas-style solution,” the governor declared this year in an address to the legislature. “I’m challenging our institutions of higher education to develop bachelor’s degrees that cost no more than $10,000, including textbooks.”

That’s about one-quarter of what students at the University of Texas and Texas A&M pay for tuition and books. Although the state’s public universities remain a bargain compared with colleges elsewhere, their costs have more than doubled since 2003, even as it has become far more difficult to gain admission to the flagship institutions.

‘He bit the giant’

The idea of slashing college bills has obvious political appeal but has generated skepticism — especially after Gene Powell, the newly installed University of Texas regents chairman, suggested in March that nothing was wrong with his institution offering a low-cost degree akin to a Chevy Bel Air.

Comparing a UT diploma with a serviceable sedan of decades past did not sit well with students, faculty or alumni.

Critics — many of them longtime political supporters of the governor — accuse Perry and his allies of being on an ideological quest that will demolish the quality of the institutions and scare off the kind of faculty they must recruit to take their place among world-class centers of learning and research.

On May 3, nearly two dozen people who had been honored as distinguished alumni by the Association of Former Students of Texas A&M released an open letter to their fellow Aggies: “Our concern is the result of the extraordinary level of political intervention in our university. . . . It is our observation that individuals, including the Boards of Regents, often misunderstand the fragile nature of academic prestige.”

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, said of Perry: “He bit the giant, and that giant is the alumni, who care more deeply and passionately about their alma maters than they do about his politics.”

In June, an organization calling itself the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education formed to fight the changes, which it said could have “long-term damaging effects on our institutions of higher learning, our state’s economy and on our future.”

Its membership list of more than 200 reads like a who’s who of the Lone Star State: current and former university officials, former officeholders, philanthropic figures and business leaders such as Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly.

Some are powerful GOP backers, including mega-donor and TRT Holdings chief executive Robert Rowling, who gave $1 million to the conservative “super PAC” American Crossroads, which was founded with backing from former Bush strategist Karl Rove. And handling the new organization’s media operation is Karen Hughes, who was a top adviser to Bush when he was governor and then president.

The first university to road-test the proposals was the 11-campus A&M university system, whose chancellor, Michael D. McKinney, had served as Perry’s chief of staff.

It posted a 265-page spreadsheet on the Internet that calculated faculty salaries against their teaching loads and the research funding they brought in. Individual professors were labeled “black” if they were generating more than they cost and “red” if they were not.

Some faculty began referring to themselves as the “red brigade.” The complaints grew so loud that the university took the spreadsheet off the Web, saying it was a preliminary draft.

That and other moves drew a blistering letter last fall from Robert M. Berdahl, who was the president of the Association of American Universities. He also sent copies to UT officials.

Berdahl urged McKinney to “resist these ill-conceived calls for ‘reform’ ” and issued a none-too-veiled warning that A&M’s hard-won membership in the elite organization of 61 top universities could be on the line.

McKinney said in an interview that he considered the letter “completely out of line on Dr. Berdahl’s part. First off, my phone works.” He threw it in the trash.

The since-retired Berdahl — a former president of the University of Texas at Austin, as well as a former chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley — said he “wasn’t too surprised” by Mc­Kinney’s reaction to his letter.

“It’s just a crazy set of proposals, as far as I’m concerned,” he added.

McKinney abruptly announced his resignation in May, reportedly because the regents had grown frustrated by his missteps. He left the position on July 1.

The former chancellor explained his decision this way to The Washington Post: “You have a shelf life as the chancellor, if you’re going to do things — and I do things.”

Yet e-mails obtained in April by news organizations suggest that McKinney had not been moving quickly enough to satisfy those who were most eager for “Seven Breakthrough Solutions.”

In one, reported by the Houston Chronicle, Sandefer’s father, J.D. “Jakie” Sandefer, wrote A&M regent Jim Schwertner: “Jeff cannot understand why A&M has not gone ahead and completed Reform Number One [which would compile data on the ‘efficiency and effectiveness’ of individual faculty members]. . . . I think I told you that Jeff had lost interest because nothing has been done, but I told him about the enthusiasm of the A&M regents and they were . . . sure going to get something done.”

Schwertner replied: “Just tell Jeff to saddle up. We are doing a lot more than staff knows about.”

In the interview, McKinney confirmed that several A&M regents had been pushing him to move more aggressively and in ways he thought were unwise.

“The principles that underlie those — accountability, and hard work, and taxpayers’ return on investment — are great,” the former chancellor said. “But the details — I thought they got off on things they really didn’t know about. They were simplistic requests. . . . Higher education is not perfect. It’s also not broken.”

Meanwhile, some of Perry’s higher-education ideas could be catching on elsewhere. In Florida, they have attracted the attention of Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Last week, Scott told the News Service of Florida that when he interviews candidates for Florida university and college boards of trustees, he gives them a copy of “Seven Breakthrough Solutions.”

“I send them a copy of [the proposals] and say, ‘What do you think?’ . . . It starts the conversation,” Scott told the news service.

If Texas’s experience is any indication, it is going to start a lot of arguments, too.

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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