ThinkProgress intern Sarah Bufkin contributed to this report
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), a potential presidential candidate, has been quietly pushing initiatives that would transform the state’s public university system into a business-style model driven by “efficiency and profitability,” The Washington Post reported today. The reforms Perry is seeking to implement are favored by one of his top campaign donors and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), an affiliate of the American Legislative Exchange Council.
ALEC is a conservative public policy organization that often drafts model legislation for use in state legislatures across the country, and Republicans in several states have used its model legislation directly.
Perry’s push to turn the university system into profit-driven business centers began in 2008 with a higher-education summit led by oilman Jeff Sandefer — a long-time Perry family friend, a consistent top contributor to his campaigns and a TPPF board member. The proposals, based on “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” offered by TPPF, including measuring professors as “profit or loss centers,” separating research and teachers budgets to avoid wasting time on “esoteric, unproductive research” and basing professor pay, in part, on anonymous student evaluations. Perry’s alma mater, in fact, has already begun implementing some of these policies, the Post reports:
The initiative stayed pretty much under the radar until last fall, when it became public that Perry’s alma mater, Texas A&M University, had compiled a spreadsheet ranking faculty members according to whether they were earning their keep or costing the school money. The university already had rankled professors with a program that paid bonuses based on anonymous student evaluations.
Both ALEC and TPPF have established a close working relationship with Perry, donating around $2 million and $1.5 million, respectively, to his campaigns. Perry, who accepted ALEC’s highest award last August and spoke at its December conference, has benefited “far and away the most of any candidate” from its corporate donations. In turn, he donates the proceeds from his latest book to TPPF, which he describes as “a quality outlet.” Since becoming governor, Perry has appointed three TPPF board members to high-profile positions and can count on TPPF’s president as his former Deputy General Counsel and Policy Director.
But while Perry follows the legislative outline provided for him by ALEC and TPPF, higher education leaders have criticized the policies roundly. Distinguished Texas A&M alumni, the American Association of Universities (AAU), the chair of the state Senate Higher Education Committee, and other higher education groups urged Texas A&M and Perry to resist the “ill-conceived reforms,” and AAU president Robert Berdahl, a former president of the University of Texas-Austin, called the reforms “a crazy set of proposals.” Upon receiving a letter from Berdahl asking him to reconsider the policies, Texas A&M Chancellor Michael D. McKinney — Perry’s former chief of staff — threw it in the trash.
The perils of running higher education like a business, meanwhile, are well-known. The nation’s for-profit college system — which targets efficiency and profits the way Perry hopes Texas’ universities will — is rife with fraud and abuse of students, promising quick degrees and quality job opportunities at low prices. In reality, they more often leave students with “crushing debt and bleak job prospects,” hardly the situation one finds in the current Texas university system, which is regarded as one of the nation’s top statewide university systems.