In this Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, photo University of Texas students Henri Kejellberg, Cheralyn Salone, left, and Robert Rajput, right, work in an aerospace engineering lab on the Texas campus, in Austin, Texas / Eric Gay, AP
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A national clash of cultures in higher education these days could be boiled down to a question about cars.
In an era of budget-cutting and soaring tuition, is there still a place for "Cadillacs" - elite, public research institutions like the Universities of Texas, Michigan or California-Berkeley that try to compete with the world's best?
Or is it better to focus on more affordable, efficient options, like the old Chevrolet Bel Air?
Here in Texas, the debate is on colorful display in a fight over competing visions for the state university's flagship Austin campus. When Gene Powell - the former UT football player and San Antonio real estate developer who chairs the university board of regents - made precisely the Cadillac-versus-Chevy comparison last year, reaction was swift and angry. Convinced the state board was hell-bent on turning their beloved "university of the first class" required by the Texas constitution into a downmarket trade school, faculty, students and alumni rallied behind campus president Bill Powers in protest.
Powell insists he wants UT-Austin to be great - but also accessible, and for students to have options. Republican Gov. Rick Perry and many of his regents think UT's quest for global prestige has produced too much ivory-tower research, and too little focus on teaching and keeping college affordable for Texans.
In Perry's push for productivity, many here see something nefarious: a campaign, rooted in a longstanding anti-intellectual strain of Texas politics, to gut a university that shouldn't have to apologize for being "elite."
"I just don't understand why they want to dumb down a public institution of this magnitude," said Machree Gibson, chair of the Texas Exes, UT's powerful and independent 99,000-member alumni society, which has pushed back.
The battle is bigger even than Texas. Like-minded governors in Florida, Wisconsin and elsewhere are watching how Perry and his allies fare. Unusually, it's political conservatives who are the radical reformers, and their opponents the ones digging in to resist upending long-established institutions.
The career casualties are piling up. Over the last 18 months, presidents of 11 of the 35 leading public research universities have quit or been fired. That doesn't include the University of Virginia, where a reform-minded board fired President Teresa Sullivan, only to reinstate her two weeks later after a faculty revolt.
But Texas is "ground zero" of the national debate, said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities. Among the combustible elements: fanatical alumni, an ambitious governor with unique power over his state's universities, and an influential conservative think-tank - all situated within a few blocks of each other in downtown Austin.
Public research universities, with a mission of both teaching and research, are the "backbone of the nation's knowledge economy," said James Duderstadt, the former University of Michigan president who helped lead a recent National Research Council study of the sector.
They produce 70 percent of scientists, engineers and physicians, and two-thirds of U.S. campus research - the value of which isn't always apparent in advance.
"During the Second World War, it was radar and atomic energy that came off of these campuses that saved us," Duderstadt said. Before the war, those technologies "looked like the most abstract, frill research."
But today, the nation's 101 public research universities are falling behind private competitors. A recent National Science Foundation study found state support for the 101 major public research universities fell 20 percent between 2002 and 2010.
UT-Austin, the flagship of the 216,000-student UT system, is among the biggest. With more than 52,000 students, the university has 3,166 faculty, plus more than 10,000 professional staff. About 10,000 students also have jobs in labs, classrooms, libraries and elsewhere on campus. Recent discoveries include lithium-ion batteries and the two largest black holes in the universe. The university has also spun off hundreds of companies and helped make Austin a tech hub.
Thirty years ago, Texas taxpayers funded more than half of UT-Austin's budget. This year, they provide about 13 percent, or $295 million.
But while budget cuts have been devastating, Duderstadt says universities and their growing legions of well-paid administrators haven't helped their cause with the public. "They're just totally deaf, dumb and blind on how the crazy things they do on campuses convince the American people that they don't have any ability to control costs," he said.
At UT-Austin, the $10,000 in-state tuition remains lower than comparable schools. But an ascendant group of critics with Perry's ear thinks the flagship university has lost site of a key mission: affordable and efficient undergraduate education.
"We've gone too far in the direction of research at the expense of our students," said Thomas Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think-tank with ties to several of Perry's regents. He cites a (much-disputed) study arguing the research of most UT-Austin faculty isn't top quality, and that reassigning some research-focused faculty to teach more could halve tuition.
Powell, the regents chair, insists he supports UT-Austin's research mission, and values its world-class reputation.
But "we are a public institution that (is) paid for by the citizens of the state of Texas," Powell said. Texas has "a lot of students who cannot afford an institution that is a very high-priced, Ivy League-type institution."
Many on campus see a clash of fundamentally different visions of the very purpose of a university.
"There seems to be a political move, and it's not just in Texas, away from the classical mission of the university - cultivation of the mind and pursuit of knowledge - to a concept of a public university as sort of a job corps or a trade school," said Peter Flawn, who came to Texas more than a half-century ago and was UT-Austin's president from 1979 to 1985, then again in 1997-98.
In an interview, Flawn, now 86, recounted UT's efforts to build a world-class university in a state with little history of generously supporting education.
Governors like John Connally and Bill Clements, working with UT loyalists in the Texas legislature, grasped the potential of a great research university to diversify Texas away from a boom-and-bust commodities economy, Flawn said. Donors like Dallas investor Peter O'Donnell, who has given more than $135 million to the university, helped retain world-class researchers who would otherwise have been poached by private institutions.
"It takes a long time to build a first-class university," Flawn said. "You wonder, how long would it take to destroy one?"
Perry's made affordability a top priority, and he's pushed Texas universities to offer degrees costing $10,000 - for all four years. Re-elected with strong Tea Party support to a third term in 2010, he now has unprecedented power, having appointed all 60 regents of Texas' six public higher education systems. Perry and his regents have encouraged Texas public universities to expand enrollment and online offerings.
But critics complain the effort is hurting quality to boost quantity. Early alarm bells rang with a push from Texas A&M regents for business-like metrics for faculty productivity, reporting how much faculty "made" or "lost" for the university. Worries grew when the UT board briefly hired a consultant who was openly skeptical of the value of academic research.
So when Powell made his "Chevy Bel Air" comments, shortly after becoming chairman in February, 2011, the car metaphor struck a nerve.
The Texas Exes president e-mailed alumni warning the university's "mission and core values ... are under attack." A high-profile group of state business and political leaders called the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education was launched, roiled by a study arguing UT-Austin could get by with one-third its current faculty if they taught more.
Campus liberals weren't the only critics. O'Donnell, a state GOP stalwart, has publicly criticized Perry's higher education priorities. Republican former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who previously headed Texas A&M, seemed to do the same in a speech in November, calling the contention that research comes at the expense of teaching "a profound misunderstanding of how universities become great and stay great, and a profound misunderstanding of the higher education enterprise as a whole."
Southern Methodist University political scientist Calvin Jillson says UT grads of both parties occupy an "urban elite" that sees UT-Austin's benefits in their communities. But Perry's base among Texas' rural residents sees more "value in a '3Rs' preparation for the job market," and is less likely to think UT-Austin's work improves their lives.
Recent events follow a pattern of "anti-intellectual populism that has assaulted UT regularly over the school's history," Jillson said.
"Political authorities find the faculty and their research interests to be counter to the political culture of the state and therefore dangerous," he said.
Last spring, a fight over tuition became a litmus test for competing visions of the university.
Perry let it be known that despite sharp state funding cuts, UT-Austin shouldn't ask to increase tuition for the coming year. But Powers requested a 2.6-percent increase anyway. The board turned him down.
"It was viewed as a personal attack on the campus," said Alan Friedman, a longtime faculty Senate leader. It was more than a swipe at the faculty's job performance, he said. "It's that they don't like the job at all. It's a right-wing backlash against higher education."
But the defeat was an Alamo moment - a tactical loss that galvanized supporters. Even students saw a tuition freeze as threatening the prestige of their degrees. When reports surfaced the board wanted Powers out, a Facebook group called "I Stand With Bill Powers" surged past five-figure membership.
Meanwhile, the University of Virginia fiasco was unfolding. Virginian's Sullivan had been a longtime UT professor and administrator, and was widely admired. The Austin campus followed events there breathlessly.
If the board wanted Powers out, it reconsidered the PR ramifications. His job now appears safe.
In an e-mailed statement, Josh Havens, the governor's spokesman, said Perry appreciates the value of research for the state economy and that "(f)alse claims that university research is under attack damage our schools and Texas as a whole." Asked if Perry thought Powers was the right person for the job, he said that was up to the regents.
Powell, the regents chair, passionately recounts his own upbringing in the disadvantaged Rio Grande Valley. He won't apologize for championing Texas students who could be priced out of the route to a better life that a University of Texas education offers.
"We have a duty to be an elite institution," he said. "But we also have a duty to be accessible and affordable, because we are an institution of the public."
For now, both he and Powers are clearly trying to lower the temperature. In an interview, Powers speaks carefully, emphasizing how seriously he takes cost-cutting and efficiency, rattling off recent money-saving reforms and undergraduate teaching initiatives.
But while "productivity" is important, it can't mean the same thing here as in a factory, he says. A great university's "outputs" must include research, he said. As for cost, he wants to make a UT-Austin education "as affordable as we can, consistent with it being a high-quality education."
Meanwhile, governors in Florida and Wisconsin are pushing their own $10,000 degree proposals, determined to take bold measures they think will curtail college costs - even in the face of criticism that quality will suffer.
"You've got the best research universities in the world here in America, and the idea you would reduce them to vocational schools seems particularly misbegotten," said Rawlings. "It seems just out of whack to ask the university to be something other than what it is."
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