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Cooler Tempers Prevail at Opening Session of Texas Oversight Panel

September 21, 2011

Corporate-style productivity strategies that fail to account for differences among academic disciplines and seek to churn out cheap degrees are "superficial and ill-suited to universities," the president of the Association of American Universities told Texas lawmakers here on Wednesday at the first public hearing of a new legislative oversight committee on higher education.

"They reduce the classroom to an assembly line, the library to a book repository, and the laboratory to a for-profit business," said Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the association, a prestigious group of 61 top research universities in the United States and Canada.

Mr. Rawlings was one of several national higher-education experts who addressed the opening hearing of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency, whose charge is to ensure that governing boards follow best practices when developing and instituting policies.

The panel was created in May in the heat of a statewide debate over the future of higher education, including the proper balance of teaching and research at public universities.

The panel is led by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, and Rep. Dan Branch, a Dallas Republican. Both head their chamber's higher-education committee.

Senator Zaffirini said that some feuding over the state's public higher-education systems has subsided in recent months, but that the panel planned to continue monitoring the actions of the state's regents. The senator repeatedly questioned the panel's speakers about how the state could prevent outside groups and reform-minded regents from meddling in campus matters.

Two recent developments have helped cool tempers in Texas when it comes to higher education.

The University of Texas system's Board of Regents last month approved a plan, presented by the system's chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, that requires campuses to maintain an online database about the efficiency and productivity of their departments. The plan, which the chancellor said would be flexible, campus by campus, was generally well received by various factions in the debate.

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