Foundation Proposals Generate Unwelcome Heat In Texas

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June 5, 2011; Source: Houston Chronicle | If things aren’t hot enough in Texas this time of year, a right-leaning foundation focused on public policy is getting some people steamed up over its proposals to improve the effectiveness of taxpayer-supported higher education. What the Associated Press describes as the “so-called ‘Seven Breakthrough Solutions'” from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and which has the support of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, are being decried as an effort as to encroach on the rights academics to decide what topics they choose to research.

For example, if a university professor feels there is merit in studying Texas barbecue, that’s her choice. In fact, University of Texas professor Elizabeth Engelhardt says her book, “Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond The Brisket,” which has sold 2,100 copies, was a legitimate research topic that examined a famous state dish through an academic lens, while also touching on important and related topics such as the histories of railroads and refrigeration. To the foundation, it’s those kinds of projects that give rise to its recommendations that the AP says includes “rewarding professors with bonuses based on student feedback…compiling data to calculate professors’ efficiency…splitting teaching and research budgets, to make clearer how money is spent.”

While none of the proposals, which opponents call “The Seven Deadly Sins,” have yet to be implemented on any Texas campus, the foundation is fighting against perceptions that they’re meant to undermine academic research. Instead, it says it’s goal is simply to stimulate debate about the merits of more practical research at public universities. Says foundation spokesman David Guenthner, “You can talk about the double helix on one end of the spectrum, but on the other end of the spectrum you have the professor who does the study on Texas barbecue.”

The state’s governor favors the spirit of the recommendations, and while not publicly pushing any specific one of the proposals, he says their purpose is to “protect taxpayers and get more results from our schools.” Noting the ideas “are not universally welcomed in academia,” Perry adds, “The attitude of some in the university world is that students and taxpayers should send more and more money, and then just butt out.”

Professors, such as Jaime Grunlan, a mechanical engineering professor , who estimates that his research into nanotechnology has generated $1.3 million for Texas A&M University, says he considers the foundation’s proposals dangerous meddling. Grunlan, who lashed out last week at university regents in a YouTube video, said, “If guys like me leave Texas, it will be very bad for Texas. It’s lost jobs, it’s lost technology. It’s companies that won’t be coming to Texas.”—Bruce Trachtenberg