Showdown at the University of Texas

In June 2014 there was a showdown in Texas. The University of Texas Board of Regents and its chancellor, who runs the system, had been trying to fire the president of the university system’s flagship ...

In June 2014 there was a showdown in Texas. The University of Texas Board of Regents and its chancellor, who runs the system, had been trying to fire the president of the university system’s flagship campus in Austin for more than five years. They were tired of waiting.

President Bill Powers was popular because he consistently stood up for the interests of a great research university against forces that strove to denature it—defending the university’s research and teaching missions, lobbying for increased state funding, and urging modest tuition increases when financing from the state fell short. A long-time member of the Texas establishment, Powers enjoyed almost universal alumni support, a number of influential political donors included. The governor, however, was immune. Rick Perry has ruled over the state for nearly 14 years, and in that time has appointed every member of every university board in Texas. Perry, a graduate—not coincidentally—of rival Texas A&M University, picked the fight.

His appointees have been fulfilling Perry’s desires to apply more “accountability” in academic and personnel policies, reduce the role of research in the research universities, expand enrollment with less state support, weaken the influence of faculty on university decision making, and reduce the price of tuition at state institutions.

In June the University of Texas system Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced that he had demanded that Powers resign or be fired. Powers stood his ground, and after opponents organized a week of angry protest letters and lobbying efforts directed at legislators and regents, Cigarroa, himself soon to retire, relented. Powers would be allowed to leave on his own schedule.

Despite the win, UT will remain on the defensive. Perry’s term ends in January, but behind his agenda is millionaire and former UT business school professor Jeff Sandefer. Sandefer quit teaching and started his own business school after he grew frustrated with the university’s insistence that faculty conduct research and participate in the governance of the school. He and a handful of other radical “reformers” have been pushing position papers and campaign contributions at politicians who support reducing state universities to their bare essence: customer services geared toward job training and the accumulation of credentials.

I knew and covered Rick Perry when he was a member of the Texas House of Representatives and a Democrat, and I was a reporter for several Texas newspapers. And I got to know Jeff Sandefer in the 1990s when he was trying to research and write a Power Broker–style biography of Frank C. Erwin, the domineering chair of the University of Texas Board of Regents in the 1960s and ’70s. Erwin, like Robert Moses, was impatient with process and intolerant of faculty interests and input. He used his political connections to manifest his own vision of greatness in the university. Sandefer didn’t complete the book, but he clearly learned a lot from Erwin. Soon after, he began his assault on the universities of Texas.

Sandefer has already notched his own win in the Texas university wars. In 2010, the Texas A&M system’s chancellor, who refused to execute Perry and Sandefer’s plans to rank faculty by arbitrary quantifiable standards of productivity, was forcibly removed. That story never gained much traction with the media, though, so when the University of Texas drama hit its apex this summer, reporters and pundits reached for the closest antecedent they could find: the forced resignation, and subsequent restoration, of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan in June 2012.

Sullivan resigned without warning over the weekend of June 8. The university community was never given a detailed explanation, and it was clear from the start that the official justification, “philosophical differences,” was both accurate and appalling. Quickly and fiercely, faculty, students, and alumni rallied to Sullivan’s support, as she herself remained silent. These stakeholders demanded her reinstatement. After the university governing board realized that it had pushed a popular president to resign and failed, in the process, to convince anyone that this was a good idea, it retreated and invited Sullivan to come back to work on June 26, 2012.

Public higher education is under aggressive ideological and political—but not necessarily partisan—attack, and is fostering a fervent political defense.

The struggles at Virginia and Texas shared ideological and rhetorical origins. Helen Dragas, then rector of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, had been inspired by the talking points of Anne Neale, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Originally formed to promote conservative thought within the academy, ACTA gradually became involved in efforts to push out university leaders who support faculty-shared governance, research, and liberal education. Exercising more direct influence in Virginia were two Connecticut-based hedge-fund billionaires, both alumni and major donors to the university. Dragas and her backers all bought into the notion that the university must be “transformed” before it gets “disrupted.” These are the buzzwords of the higher education “reform” movement, one that echoes the rhetoric and ideology of both Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The emphasis is on pretending to measure things that can’t be measured, and structuring incentives for short-term return. But it also pushes academia to a more “flexible” (i.e., “temporary and part-time”) workforce, and to focus on “results” such as student “return on investment.” According to these ideologues, “disruption” is inevitable, as cheaper, more efficient means of information delivery arrive and “disrupt” the established players (i.e., universities) and thus universities must “transform” themselves into something leaner before they get “disrupted.”

The guru of “disruption” is a Harvard Business School Professor named Clayton Christensen. A fundamentally theistic thinker, Christensen achieved sainthood in Silicon Valley with his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. The book assured technology entrepreneurs that they were just as important as they thought they were, destined to topple all the established institutions they could get their hands on. Christensen has lately applied his gospel to higher education, lauding online course delivery and its “scalability” as the necessary future. And many leaders who should be able to detect a fraud—including the presidents of Arizona State and MIT—have been converted to his faith.

Unlike in Republican-dominated Texas, the Virginia debacle was led by Dragas, a supporter of Democrats, appointed to the board by then Governor (now Senator) Tim Kaine. The attacks on public higher education respect no party line. In Texas, the strongest supporter of the University of Texas is former US Senator Kaye Bailey Hutchison, a Republican.

President Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have contributed to the ideological assault on higher education by forging a useless ranking system that purports to measure the “effectiveness” of the thousands of institutions of higher education in America, regardless of whether they are actually comparable or not.

The takeaway of all of this is that public higher education is under aggressive ideological and political—but not necessarily partisan—attack, and is fostering a fervent political defense. It’s not natural or “inevitable.” It’s not the result of rapid technological change. It’s not because professors are suddenly overpaid (like almost every other profession, salaries in real dollars have fallen over the past 30 years). It’s not because of tenure (there is far less protection of academic freedom than at any time since 1969).1

It’s not because higher education is ripe for disruption (an ahistorical and specious concept). There are real humans behind these attacks. They are not mysterious. They are blunt and open about their desires to boil down universities into flat measures of inputs and outputs. And they are rich and powerful.

Some time in the 1980s, states forgot that universities benefit the broader society, not just the students who attend.

But there is another, older threat to public higher education, and it derives from a more general shift in American political spirits. It begins with state leaders, over the past 20 years, shifting the cost of state universities from taxpayers to students and faculty. That has meant in-state tuitions ranging from $5,000 to $14,000 per semester, though most states charged next to nothing as late as 1985. This, of course, often gets translated into a scary percentage increase in tuition, when the actual dollar increases are rather modest. For instance, the US General Accounting Office found that “between 1980 and 1995, average tuition at 4-year public colleges for in-state, full-time students increased 234 percent.”2

Then, legislators slashed state investment in higher education. State revenues for universities decreased on average by 14 percent over the past 20 years. Faculty have been pressured to teach larger courses, participate in fundraising efforts, and bring in more research money from both public and private sources. Universities typically take a cut of every research grant, and that money helps pay to keep the lights on.

Some time in the 1980s, states forgot that universities benefit the broader society, not just the students who attend. They are part of the cultural and social fabric of each state. They preserve and enhance local art, music, poetry, and drama. They make sense of our past and predict our future. State universities invented Mosaic, the most influential early Web browser, and made those “waves of grain” that feed much of the world possible and profitable.

The tuition increases and the realization that the payoffs from universities are deferred and unquantifiable pushed legislators and “reformers” to demand accountability and radical administrative transformations. This has only served to make it harder for faculty to teach and conduct research. It has made the richest nation in the history of the world act like it can’t afford to believe in its own future, respect its own culture, or foster the experimentation and knowledge that might serve the entire planet.


All of this political conflict is oddly absent from two recent films that try to capture the current condition of higher education in America: Ivory Tower, directed by Andrew Rossi, and Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley. If you watch them both in the same week, as I did, you could come away believing that all the pressures on higher education just happened, as if the weather changed. Ivory Tower, a documentary that covers turmoil and challenges at every level of American higher education, even features an interview with Christensen, but you would never grasp from his testimony that he plays a part in the effort to dismantle universities.

And At Berkeley, Wiseman’s latest long-cut documentary on the experiences of various members of the university’s community, barely mentions the long- and short-term political attacks on universities, even while acknowledging that state austerity has caused students to question whether they can afford tuition and have left the campus with only one person to cut the lawn.

Without the political context, you could get the idea that universities operate in a vacuum—that they sit on the edges of society. And you might wrongly assume that they cause their own problems by ignoring the changes and demands of the dynamic, market-based, technology-infused economy that they are failing to serve; the sort of bracketing employed by Sandefer and Neale. Nonetheless, both of these films offer valuable and, in some ways, beautiful insights into what universities do, and why.

Ivory Tower opens with a glimpse of Columbia University, a veritable movie set of a university. The voice of American Studies professor Andrew Delbanco, author of an excellent book called College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, reflects on the anxieties that those of us in the business confront daily: the costs and benefits of our jobs; justifying our contributions to society. The film then moves through a series of talking heads who have contributed to recent debates on higher education. Some of them are known as critics of the status quo, some as defenders of liberal education.

Delbanco soon returns to explain what many misunderstand about higher education, that the lecture derives from the sermon and that universities are progeny of churches and monasteries. Moving forward from the historical-philosophical register, journalist Jeff Selingo helpfully explains that tuition increases are related to the radical cuts in state appropriations. And Teresa Sullivan appears to decry the fact that costs are, as a result, borne by students.

Many of the interviewees offer helpful vignettes about the history of higher education. They outline many of the real problems afflicting higher education: crippling student debt loads; poor attention to maintaining rigor and high standards in the classroom; the push by state universities to lower standards and upgrade “lifestyle” facilities to attract more out-of-state students (who pay full-fare).

The most valuable segments of Rossi’s film feature students describing their doubts, misgivings, and setbacks—what might be called, taken together, their real educations.

From Columbia the film moves to Harvard, and then to Arizona State, where 76,000 students deal with its reputation as a party school, and its president strives to maximize enrollment by building its for-profit online venture. The producers were wise to include many levels and styles of institutions. The fact is that almost no one goes to Ivy League universities. Bunker Hill Community College, Cooper Union, Wesleyan University (though in terms of student profile it might as well be an Ivy), and the eccentric Deep Springs College in California fill out the portrait. It would have been helpful for the filmmakers to get away from the coasts and more fully explore the diversity of higher education opportunities in the United States. But the fact that they stepped beyond the interests of the over-educated upper-middle-class audience most likely to see a film called Ivory Tower should be applauded.

When the film dwells on the West Coast, we see just how loopy and idealistic Silicon Valley and its libertarian ethos can get when attempting to define the specific form that “disruption” would take. We hear Governor Jerry Brown extoll the virtues of online courses as a method for California universities to teach more with less money. And we meet a collection of students living in the no-doubt expensive “hacker house” in Silicon Valley. They have given up on the idea that a comprehensive college experience is worth the time and money, given that so much information is available for free via buzz-worthy Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other Web-based sources. The assumption that these “hackers” and their guru, entrepreneur Peter Thiel, carry into the endeavor is that a university education is nothing more than an inefficient and outdated information delivery system. “In Silicon Valley we don’t care about accolades or experience,” says the hacker house mentor, Elizabeth Stark. “We care about skills.”

The patron saint of the “uncollege” movement, as it has come to be known, is of course Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—a Harvard dropout. The fact that Zuckerberg, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates are all college dropouts seems to signal to the hacker house inhabitants that those übermensch successes can be replicated and—in fact—are best
replicated via dropping out and tuning in rather than exploring, researching, immersing, and learning in an environment that offers students many ways of pursuing the good and the good life.

The fact that Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin were not only college graduates, but PhD students, and are children of academics, never seems to come up when the “uncollege” myth gets shared. And neither the fact that Gates and Zuckerberg—both graduates of elite private schools before enrolling in, learning from, and benefiting from the social networks and faculty feedback of America’s oldest college—would not be where they are without the social incubator that is Harvard.

If we are not careful, we can let the struggles for control of our major universities distract us from the longer and deeper fights to keep alive and vibrant the life of all of America’s great public institutions.

The most valuable segments of Ivory Tower feature students describing their doubts, misgivings, and setbacks—what might be called, taken together, their real educations. David Boone, a young man who has enrolled at Harvard, takes us back to his underprivileged hometown, where he was recently homeless. He is frank about the skill gap he senses between himself and his peers at Harvard, who had mostly attended the richest schools in the country and had educated parents, not to mention roofs over their heads. His testimony makes clear that there is much more work to do than encouraging young people from poor neighborhoods to apply and giving them enough financial aid. There are significant chasms between their anxieties and expectations and the ease with which students from more privileged environments carry themselves. Boone feels the pressure not to let down his family and community. Their faith in him is moving, and while we don’t get to see how well he does, his journey makes him the star of this film.

We also hear from smart, reflective students at Arizona State, Deep Springs, and Bunker Hill. They describe why they decided to attend these institutions, and the challenges they face. But the best articulations come from Cooper Union students protesting the proposal to charge tuition for the first time in the institution’s history. We see students confront the board and president of the school. They mount a demonstration and take over the president’s office. They make their case. And they win—at least temporarily. The problems at Cooper Union were largely self-inflicted. The board decided to invest with criminal fund-manager Bernie Madoff, and borrowed $175 million for an extravagant building in the East Village of Manhattan. Justifiably, the students refused to pay for the board’s mistakes.

The battle for the identity and viability of Cooper Union is by far the most compelling plot within Ivory Tower. And it’s the closest the film gets to declaring how fundamentally ideological the state of higher education in America has become. The filmmakers allow the principles to summarize the issues and events succinctly, and the real-time chronicle of the protest and resolution, in which the students temporarily reverse the institution’s decision to charge tuition, is a gift.

That kind of efficient, pithy storytelling is not something Frederick Wiseman has ever been interested in doing. Through his long career offering almost anthropological observations of American institutions, Wiseman has generated deep respect from critics, film scholars, and other filmmakers. And, in the case of his masterful account of the horrific conditions of the Massachusetts mental health system in the 1967 film Titicut Follies, Wiseman contributed to a successful reform movement that has significantly improved conditions for mentally ill patients. But Wiseman’s day-in-the-life of the University of California at Berkeley carries no such hopes. He takes us from administrative budget and management meetings to both fascinating and boring classes, from a PhD student designing robotic prosthetics for the paralyzed to performances of a student a capella group and a student-written one-act play. We hear students, faculty, and administrators cope with the crippling budget cuts that the University of California systems suffered between 2007 and 2012 (more recent state budgets have bandaged some of these).

It’s clear from the portraits Wiseman offers that the people who make the University of California work and retain its status as the best public university system in the world do so under remarkable pressure. Their commitment is impressive. Wiseman is a master at revealing the dignity and complexity at work among his subjects. So, while he never lets any of his characters rant about the counterproductive decisions that state and federal legislators have made over the past 30—but most acutely over the past seven—years, and never lets anyone sermonize in support of Berkeley, one walks away from this very long film with a deep respect for the diversity of work that gets done there.

We must shake ourselves out of the assumption that universities only benefit those who graduate from them.

If we are not careful, we can let the struggles for control of the University of Texas, the University of Virginia, and other major universities distract us from the longer and deeper fights to keep alive and vibrant the life of all of America’s great public institutions. The fates of presidents are not as important as the conditions of classrooms, the diversity of students, and the ways faculty guide students through different modes of knowledge. These schools remain places of personal and societal exploration and transformation. They are our repositories of greatness. They showcase beauty and excellence, enrich communities, and heal the sick. They employ hundreds of thousands. They invent. They test. They launch. They host. They often fail in at least parts of their mission. And they cost a lot of money.

The public debates about higher education in America have been two-dimensional for too long. We have multiple, intersecting higher education systems in America. Wesleyan is as different an experience from MIT as MIT is from its neighbor Bunker Hill Community College. Each type of institution performs a different role in society; the big state universities try to perform almost all of them at once.

We won’t have mature, informed, sophisticated arguments over these important functions as long as we let “reformers” set the terms of debate. These two films do us a great service. They demonstrate through calm exposition how much is at stake if we squeeze America’s universities of their resources. We risk everything. After all, somebody has to figure out how we can stop warming the planet at such a dangerous rate. Those answers are not going to come from the press releases of Washington think tanks or the whiteboard of a bored millionaire. We must shake ourselves out of the assumption that universities only benefit those who graduate from them, and stop asking those students to bear the burden of these massive, necessarily inefficient systems. The diverse work of our great public universities benefits us all. icon

  1. Audrey Williams June, “Professors Seek to Reframe Salary Debate,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2012.
  2. Higher Education: Tuition Increasing Faster Than Household Income and Public Colleges’ Costs,” August 15, 1996.