In Texas university system, who really counts?
By: John Crisp, The Dickinson Press
Down here in Texas, politicians and educational leaders are committed to making institutions of higher education look and act more like businesses. They’re businesspeople themselves, for real or at heart, and they’re partial to the methods they understand best, like the “carrot and stick,” for example.
The stick is accountability. Funding for public education has been cut back severely in Texas at all levels for several decades. The documentation of successful results, as indicated by standardized testing, has become paramount. Schools that don’t “produce” are threatened with further cuts. One current proposal calls for a 10 percent cut in funding to higher educational institutions that fail to meet certain imposed graduation criteria.
On the other hand, the carrot is something that businesspeople also understand very well, in this case more money for the people who already make the most. On Aug. 23, the University of Texas Board of Regents passed a resolution approving incentive pay for the heads of the system’s 15 campuses, as well as for 11 other administrators and executives.
According to The Texas Tribune, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa left the door open to extending the incentive pay plan to provosts and other administrators, as well.
The plan provides for a bonus of as much as 10 percent of a president’s pay for achieving certain individually derived institutional goals. UT-Austin President William Powers Jr., who makes $667,212 per year, could pull down another $67,000 for finding ways, for example, to increase fundraising or graduation rates.
These aren’t the multimillion-dollar bonuses that executives in the corporate world enjoy, but it’s a start.
This idea isn’t confined to Texas, of course, and the country should take note. As the title of New York Times columnist Gail Collins’ new book implies, “As Texas Goes....”
Part of our country’s hard push to the right includes additional traction for the idea that all projects and endeavors that our culture undertakes can be better executed according to the principles of business, such as competition, incentive and the correspondence between empirical results and the financial bottom line.
But is pay-for-performance really a good idea when it comes to higher education? Even some of its supporters aren’t so sure. The president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Anne Neal, favors the plan, but she ponders why university officials should get extra pay for doing what they are supposed to do anyway.
Of course, extra money for doing one’s job well is unlikely to filter down to trenches of higher education in places like where I work, an unassuming community college in South Texas. That’s probably a good thing. A lot of what college teachers do is make judgments about how much students have learned. Objectivity, impartiality and disinterestedness are called for. Good judgment depends heavily on professionalism, conscience and a sense of responsibility; cash incentives inject a basic conflict of interest into the process.
Our culture’s grandest illusion is that everything is a business and can be run like one. But higher education is among the many exceptions, along with police departments, prisons, the water department and so on.
Still, pay-for-performance, Texas-style, suits the tenor of our times, as well as the Biblical principle found in Mathew 13:12: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance.”
Nevertheless, I like the thinking of the president of UT-Pan American, Robert Nelson, who told the Texas Tribune that he won’t be keeping any bonus that he receives for himself. He says, “There’s no question that if I do earn a bonus, it will go the university, because the entire university will have helped earn that bonus, not me personally.”
Powers would never miss that extra $67,000 — an amount that’s nearly enough to fund a teacher for a couple of hundred students for a full year at my humble institution.
Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.