Selecting a Reforming President for the University of Texas

Publius Audax

Editor’s note: This essay follows up on two previous articles by the same author, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin who requested to publish under a pseudonym.

While the National Association of Scholars does not take an official position on his resignation, we uphold the principles of fairness and integrity in college admissions, and we advocate public accountability for the leaders of today’s colleges and universities.

The Regents of the University of Texas have an opportunity to appoint a far-sighted reformer as president of the state’s leading public university, due to Bill Powers’ announcement of his resignation (effective June 2, 2015) as president of the UT-Austin campus. Reforming presidents are rare. I can think of only two at major research universities in the last fifty years: John Silber at Boston University (1971-1996), and Mitch Daniels at Purdue (2013 to present). Two out of hundreds of (or perhaps a thousand) comparable appointments.

Why are 99.8% of major university presidents staunch defenders of entrenched interests? Why do they increase the costs and burdens on students, while enriching administrators and politically favored professors? Why do they give only lip service to improving the quality of undergraduate education, while fueling those fires that threaten to destroy it—political correctness, cultural monotony, grade inflation, unrigorous requirements, the party school ethos, absentee professors? The answer lies in the process by which presidents are selected, and the University of Texas at Austin provides a useful case study.

In 2005, the Board of Regents approved Rule 20201, laying down a procedure to be used for filling vacancies in the office of president at any of the constituent campuses of the UT System (including the University of Texas at Austin). It was this procedure that selected Bill Powers as president in 2006, a president who has been the antithesis of meaningful reform and who was forced to resign as a result of the impression that he had allowed UT to become a bastion of political cronyism. Rule 20201 severely limits the freedom of the Board in selecting a campus president: it must select from a list of names, each of whom has been pre-approved by a majority of an “advisory committee” on which the vested interests who would oppose reform enjoy mandatory representation.

Specifically, Rule 20201 requires that the committee include three representatives elected by the faculty (excluding adjunct and clinical professors, and non-tenure-track instructors with less than two years of service), one administrator elected by the council of deans, a Vice Chancellor, the president of another campus in the System, the student body president, the representative of the non-academic staff, the president of the alumni association (the “Texas Exes”), at least one regent, and at least two representatives of “external constituencies.” Of the twelve mandated positions, seven are to be filled by administrators, professors, and staff.  In addition, the representatives of both student government and the alumni association will always be reliable defenders of the status quo, including administrative privilege. Canny administrators have a wide arsenal of means (including the control of the flow of information and the dispensing of honors) to ensure that both the student government and the alumni association consistently do their bidding, even when doing so is contrary to the interests of their own constituencies. Student government at UT-Austin, for example, has consistently supported the administration’s astronomical increases in student tuition and fees.

Reforming presidents, like Silber or Daniels, must act in ways that earn them the ire of administrators and powerful professors, since they will sacrifice the short-term interests of such “stakeholders” for the long-term benefit of the whole community, including future generations of students.  An advisory committee as constituted by Rule 20201 will never forward the name of anyone with the slightest chance of embracing such an agenda.

Fortunately, it is not too late for the Board of Regents to scrap, or at least to revise substantially, this ill-designed rule. Here are the most critical revisions to make:

First, Rule 20201 provides too much power to one man, the current Chairman of the Board, who is empowered to appoint any regents and any outside members. The appointment of the advisory committee should be explicitly a collective act of the whole Board.

Second, the Board should dramatically reduce the number of mandated positions on the committee. There is no good reason for the committee to contain a representative of the deans’ council (deans are the main source of administrative bloat), a president of a UT campus, a representative of the nonacademic staff, or the president of the alumni association (currently former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, an outspoken defender of Powers and critic of reform efforts). The faculty could be represented by a single member, in place of three.

Third, non-tenure-track faculty, including adjunct and clinical professors and instructors with fewer than four semesters of tenure, should be enfranchised on an equal basis with tenure-track professors. These instructors do nearly half of the undergraduate teaching (and 30% of graduate and professional teaching), with little security, low pay, and few benefits, enabling the administrator to divert resources to extraneous ends having nothing to do with the quality of education.

Fourth, the Rule should permit the Board to appoint additional professors and students (not just outsiders) to the committee.

Fifth, and most importantly, the Board must empower a minority of the committee to forward its recommendations. Any name supported by one-quarter of the committee should be available to the Board as a candidate.

Once the Rule has been revised, the Board must act prudently in filling the optional seats. It should appoint several Regents and a large number of representatives of external constituencies (fortunately, Rule 20201 places no maximum on these numbers). In addition, the Board should find reform-minded professors and students to serve on the Board, so that opponents cannot frame the debate as one of Experts (them) versus Activists (us). Many students have experienced the oppression of political correctness firsthand (e.g., the Young Conservatives of Texas), and reform-minded professors know exactly how resources are wasted and pedagogical ends are subverted. Having eminent scholars and scientists on the committee who can effectively articulate the case for reform will neutralize the charge that opponents don’t value liberal education or scientific research.

Don’t doubt that such professors exist, even at the University of Texas. The Regents can find them by consulting the National Association of Scholars, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and other contrarian societies.

What sort of candidate would be ideal for the job?  The first thing to realize about the job of president of a university is that it has little to do with administration or management (those functions are handled entirely by various vice-presidents and by the provost). This is why few business CEO’s have been noteworthy in that office. The post is a political office – its most important function is the bully pulpit, the effective use of rhetoric. Historically, the best college presidents have been significant political thinkers and philosophers: Robert Maynard Hutchins at Chicago, John Silber at Boston, Larry Arnn at Hillsdale. All that’s needed is a clear vision for the university and the skill to communicate and persuade.

There’s no great secret about what needs to be done to reform higher education. Most with any familiarity with the subject know precisely what to do: cut costs and tuition, trim administrative bloat, decentralize both authority and responsibility, measure and publicize educational outcomes with proven instruments, and make intellectual diversity and freedom a salient priority in hiring and promotion. The great difficulty is finding someone with the will to do what must be done, and with the political skill required to weather the storm and circumvent opposition. The last thing needed is a well-meaning president who is paralyzed with terror at the first explosion of controversy.

The Board must resist the temptation to choose someone with a long experience in academic administration. Academic administration has evolved into a career in its own right, quite separate from teaching and research, and anyone who has successfully climbed the ladder in that profession would be precisely the wrong person to appoint, since they will have been selected and shaped by precisely the forces that need to be resisted. Some experience as chairman of a department or the director of a research center would be more than sufficient, but not strictly necessary. Any experience above that level should be taken as an absolute disqualification. The best choice would be a scholar with both expertise in political theory or economics and talent as a writer and speaker, who has been seasoned and weathered by long years of conflict and controversy within the academy.

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