Academic freedom vs. ‘accountability’: Which will win?

Professors see the public policy foundation's proposals as undermining basic academic freedom.

When barbecue research is second-guessed in Texas, the turmoil in higher education must be getting serious.

Responding to soaring tuitions and sagging graduation rates, a conservative policy foundation and Republican Gov. Rick Perry have stirred a tempest on Texas campuses by questioning whether college professors are making good use of their state money and suggesting an assortment of efficiencies.

The foundation, for example, is asking whether there’s a need for more critiques of Shakespeare and other esoteric research that doesn’t generate money.

Academics and politicians don’t get along in the best of times. But with tuition increasing and budgets tight, the so-called “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” created by the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, has opened a new debate over the balance between academic freedom and reasonable cost-benefit analysis.

The backlash peaked last week at Texas A&M University—Perry’s alma mater—when more than 800 faculty members signed an online petition asking university regents to explain where they stand on the proposals, and one professor’s withering rebuke to regents made him a small YouTube star. National education institutions have begun to take notice.

“Texas has a prominent place in higher education,” said John Curtis, public policy director of the American Association of University Professors. “But the question popping up is that political perspectives and ideology are encroaching on individual autonomy. Some of the proposals are pretty radical.”

The “solutions” haven’t been implemented on any campus, or even formally proposed. Yet professors see those proposals as undermining academic research, a perception the Texas Public Policy Foundation strenuously rejects.

But foundation spokesman David Guenthner added, “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.”