Monthly Archives: May 2013

Session update on higher education

It has become hard for me to decide whether I’m more afraid of the Texas Legislature or the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). It’s a bad sign when a bureaucratic agency becomes as politicized and erratic as our legislature. However, those of us who have witnessed the incomprehensible and pointless process known as “assessment” have begun to look to our legislature for respite.

The regular session has wrapped up and the Austin-American Statesman has provided a end-of-session review (“Session featured drama, substance on higher education.”

  • Too much of the session was taken up by the ongoing obsession with the University of Texas. Perry’s appointees spend too much time trying to micro-manage UT and the Legislature spends too much time reining them in. The state’s leaders continue act as if UT and Texas A&M are the most important battleground for higher education policy and don’t seem to realize how dramatically different other campuses are.
  • In some good news, the “Texas Grants” program was increased. This will help more students afford college.
  • Governor Perry saw passage of his proposal to create “fixed-rate” tuition plans that mean students can count on tuition remaining steady over their four years of college. Of course, this means the schools will want to build in future costs increases as they consider what to offer incoming freshman. This becomes especially exciting because schools have learned that they can’t count on steady funding from the state.
  • “Outcome-based” funding was imposed on two-year schools. This makes a school’s funding formula based partially on how many students complete a semester (rather than how many begin the semester). Increasingly, “accountability” does not always apply to students. Everyone I know who has faced a room full of students knows how naive this his. However, their form of educational socialism that is much en vogue with some of Perry’s advisors. Expect them to continue to continue to push rules that make schools responsible for student success. Exactly how you pass those students who don’t show up and do the work will probably be left to the individual instructor.
  • Tuition bonds that would have funded new facilities perished in some kind of silly spat between the House and Senate. There are proposals to add this to the “call” of the current special session. Unfortunately, this is in the hands of the Governor and he has shown no interest so far. These project could get pushed back a couple of years when both construction costs and the costs of borrowing money increase.
  • The hottest issue (and, in my opinion, an issue important largely for its symbolic value) was “campus-carry.” This would have allowed individuals with permits to carry concealed weapons into campus buildings. The Legislature did pass a bill that allowed people to keep such weapons in their vehicle when the park on campus. However, the right to carry them into buildings was not passed.

I don’t believe that most of the individuals in the coordinating board or our legislature intend to inflict hard on education in the state. However, collective irrationality can emerge from both bureaucratic and legislative organizations. The THECB currently holds the edge in regard. Expect to see campuses hiring more administrators doing nothing but respond to demands for reports that the people in Austin will not read. However, the massive flow of paperwork will allow our state’s leaders to crow about “accountability” (even as we cancel office hours to attend meetings to generate these reports).


This session’s campus gun bill

It looks like a watered-down version of concealed weapons on college campuses is headed into law (“Campus gun bill heads to Perry“). This version of the legislation would allow people with concealed carry permits to keep weapons in their vehicles on college campuses.

I’m amazed that the more expansive version of the bill did not pass and allow people with permits to carry guns anywhere on campus. Texans like guns and the gun lobby has a lot of influence in Texas.

I think there are two possible explanations:

  1. Legislators understand that college campuses are complex environments that bring together classrooms, individually living areas, and (sometimes) K-12 charter schools. Every campus is different and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work and crafting a law that allows sufficient flexibility is hard.
  2. The gun lobby needs to lose occasionally. If would be hard for these gun rights groups to raise money if they  got everything that they wanted. This gives them something for next year’s fundraising letters.

Of course, it’s probably a little of both.


Campus Construction Bonds

According to the Texas Tribune (“Campus Construction Bonds Bill May Be at an Impasse“), tuition bonds that would be used for construction projects across the state may not be authorized because the House did not want to even consider the Senate version of the bill.

It’s hard to understand why the House took the “take it or leave it” approach they did.  House Higher Ed Committee chairman Dan Branch had been one of the legislators  anxious to authorize these bonds since construction costs are relatively low now. There may be much more to this story.


Dismissing a Tenured Professor

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (“Texas Community College Seeks Dismissal of Tenured Professor”) that a the College of the Mainland is trying to remove a tenure professor. There’s some concern that it was because of his Marxist views. It’s always worrisome to see a tenured faculty member removed when there aren’t obvious major problems.


China Bans 7 Topics in University Classrooms

According to a story (“China Bans 7 Topics in University Classrooms“) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, China’s political leaders have issued a ban on classroom discussion of topics including freedom of the press, the wealth accumulated by government officials, and the mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party.

I wonder how the Chinese will assess how effectively concepts like “universal values” are not being taught.


It’s in the syllabus.

If you’re not already reading PhD Comics  you should take a look. Here’s their perfect end-of-semester strip on the fragile role of the syllabus in the ecosystem of students.

phd051013s

It would be tempting to make this a mandatory part of every syllabus


Are Students “Academically Adrift”?

According  stories in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (” Students Might Not Be ‘Academically Adrift’ After All, Study Finds“) and Insider Higher Ed (“Less Academically Adrift?” ), a couple of new students suggest that students may be learning more than was indicated in the study behind the book Academically Adrift. This is an important development because  Academically Adrift represented a major indictment of learning on campus and had a major impact on the perception of the value of higher education.

Among the new findings:

Students at baccalaureate colleges demonstrated the highest average growth on the CLA, followed by those at master’s-level colleges and universities. Students at doctoral and research universities showed the lowest average growth.

It’s not clear which of these studies best reflects exactly how much learning goes on in college (although I think we need to agree that we need to do better ). However,  the most disappointing aspects of this debate is how little we know about what our students are learning.


Outcomes-based funding fizzles

According to the Dallas Morning News (“Higher university outcomes-based funding level reaches end of the line in House“), “outcome-based” funding appears to be dead for this session. Governor Perry and others have backed  linking state funding to the number of students completing courses (rather than initial enrollment). The idea is to give universities incentives for student success.

Apparently, members of the legislature understand that universities already care about student success–sometimes more than the students.


Standardized test in Texas higher ed… Maybe not

The movement to bring standardized tests to higher education seems to have fizzled (“Standardized Test Proposal for Texas Colleges Stalls“).  This shouldn’t be a surprise since many Texans have discovered that similar tests in K-12 have been much more trouble than they are worth. Still, the desire to centralize control over the college classroom is strong and we shouldn’t expect the state’s leaders to give up.