The (Texas higher ed) empire strikes back; O’Donnell out

As noted in today’s Daily Reading, the Texas higher education establishment finally managed to claim a scalp.

Here is advisor Rick O’Donnell’s parting letter (well worth a read).

As a consultant without much real power (the Austin American Statesman‘s overblown and silly “shadow chancellor” rhetoric notwithstanding), O’Donnell was always going to be in a tenuous position once administrators perceived him as raising questions about two sacred cows in the higher education establishment: Research and Academic Governance.

The higher education establishment was quick to frame O’Donnell’s questions about the value of research vis-à-vis other priorities as merely an attack on research — and those charges stuck for whatever reason (more on this below). The charges themselves are easy enough to explain. It’s hardly surprising that the higher education establishment really wanted to deflect scrutiny from its research practices, about which the general (taxpaying and tuition-paying) public knows very little. As someone who put in the time to get a Ph.D. from a research university and who maintains some interest in academia (while working in private industry), I can certainly understand that many university administrators at major research universities would prefer that the taxpaying and tuition-paying public not come to understand that undergrads at those institutions aren’t, in most cases, being taught by highly celebrated research professors, but instead (at the lower levels) by graduate students not much older than the undergrads themselves, sometimes in cavernous lecture halls.

As someone who might question whether the higher-education research-first status quo serves undergraduates, their parents (who have seen tuition bills skyrocket; academia and government are about the only two institutions that don’t respond to economic downturns), or taxpayers all that well, O’Donnell was going to be on shaky ground from the start. The fact that O’Donnell DID seem inclined to question that status quo — and that the mere governor of the state thought the questions worthy of consideration — also had to rankle the higher education establishment, which is not accustomed to scrutiny from public officials, or taxpayers, or even tuition-paying parents for the most part. Said administrators always cling to the notion of Academic Governance, which they present as necessary to preserve academic freedom so that institutions of higher learning can do their jobs (and which really is code for, “you elected officials and parents and taxpayers can just butt out, because we have Ph.Ds and know best how to spend your money and educate your children”).

The remaining question for me is why the state’s political media carried so much water for the higher education establishment, with so much one-sided reporting on the matter. So many stories were consistently framed poorly (Perry higher ed appointee hates research! Perry higher ed apppointee is shadow chancellor! Perry higher ed consultant screwed up a footnote once!) and without much balance (Are research and undergrad education in good balance? Is there too much emphasis on research for too little payoff? Who is teaching undergrads at the state’s larger research universities? Is there too much administrative overhead? These questions didn’t generally make it into the O’Donnell hit pieces). Why?

The best explanation I can come up with is some combination of the following:

  • O’Donnell arrived on the scene with some thoughts on higher education very different from those of the media’s normal sources inside higher education (who pushed back, effectively).
  • O’Donnell was perceived as a close associate of both Gov. Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, neither of whom can be called “favs” of the Texas political media.
  • Most nonacademics — including the state’s political media — simply don’t have a great understanding of undergraduate life at a major research university, and thus never grasped that raising questions about competing priorities (research versus undergraduate education, for example, or trying to measure the return on investment of research) is not merely an “attack” on research.

Still, that combination of factors isn’t a particularly satisfying explanation of how the Texas political media approached this story. So maybe it’s worth outsourcing to our smart readers — Is there some explanation for the media’s behavior that I’ve missed above? Please leave a comment.