Paul Begala: Rick Perry U

University of Texas at Austin. Robert Glusic/Corbis

If you were thinking about fundamentally redefining the role of the public university in your state, to whom would you turn? Leaders of great academic institutions, perhaps? Powerhouse former government officials who have traveled the world and know our global competitors, maybe? Scientists and doctors who depend on universities for lifesaving research? Corporate titans like CEOs or labor leaders who understand the changing workforce?

Answer: all of the above. Unless you’re my beloved Texas, in which case you’re stuck with Rick Perry.

Other states, like Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin, and California, are wrestling with various proposals to reform higher ed, but it is Governor Perry who seeks to blaze a truly radical new path. That’s right: the man who pledged to abolish the Department of Education (as well as Commerce and, as he memorably put it in a presidential debate, “Let’s see—I can’t—the third one I can’t—sorry—oops”) is now trying to remake the University of Texas in his image.

Lest you think I’m being too hard on Ol’ Rick, fear not. Of course anyone can have a momentary brain freeze. But Perry’s brain has been at absolute zero for decades. As a student at Texas A&M University, Perry received a C in Reproduction in Farm Animals, as well as two C’s in other animal-breeding classes. Getting goats to go at it ain’t exactly splitting the atom. I myself have some beautiful boer goats that would get straight A’s in animal breeding.

If Perry is not blessed with great intellect, he is cursed with an utter lack of irony—or humility, or whatever human quality makes one know his limitations. But you know about fools and how they love to rush in. And so, Perry and his allies have gone to war against the state’s flagship research university, the University of Texas at Austin. (Full disclosure: I am a graduate of UT Austin, and I really don’t like Rick Perry messing with my Horns.)

Perry’s ideas include ranking professors in terms of the revenue they generate for the university. (The formula: tuition for students in their class plus research funds attracted minus salary.) That may be fine for a prof who patents a new microchip or gives history lectures to an auditorium of 600, but it shortchanges the English Department, where one-on-one learning is essential.

Research is another bugaboo for Perry. He and his supporters say they want academics to spend more time in the classroom, but it is doubtful America would have won World War II or created the Internet without basic research at public universities.

Intriguingly, Perry has called for a $10,000 bachelor’s degree. In the same vein a century ago, another governor, Thomas Riley Marshall of Indiana, proclaimed, “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.” Sure, we need to find ways to reduce tuition. But Perry’s approach would push universities to hire lower-cost and less-qualified instructors, explode class size, and leave faculty members little time for research.

The main cause of rising tuition costs is not research—research was vibrant when I was a student at the University of Texas in the 1980s and tuition was $4 a credit. Rather, tuition has gone up as state support has gone down. Where once the great state of Texas paid for more than half the cost of its children’s college educations, today the level of support has dropped to just 13 percent. And even with a state surplus of $8.8 billion, the genius politicians in Austin are calling for another $300 million in cuts to Texas higher education. No wonder tuition has gone up—it’s the only way a supposedly state-supported university can continue to keep the doors open.

Don Baylor, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, paints a bleak picture if the most extreme changes that have been bandied about come to pass, such as draconian reductions in the university’s faculty. “For more than a century,” he says, “UT has been one of the state’s most powerful engines for economic development and human talent. If UT cuts two thirds of its faculty, it would not be the University of Texas.”

No, it wouldn’t. It would be Rick Perry University.

Join the Discussion