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University reformers advancing with 'Seven'

Effect on research, views on profs questioned.

University professors are: a) Teaching too much b) Not teaching enough c) Wasting time on frivolous research d) Elitist whiners State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, joins a growing chorus choosing all but the first option.

"We have a lot of great professors. But we have a lot of whiners," Patrick said. "Tenure was never the greatest idea."

With budget cuts tightening around higher education's neck, reformers who want to shake up the ivory tower are gaining a foothold with changes that would favor teaching over research, boost productivity and focus more on the needs of the customers, or students, rather than faculty. In Texas, a wealthy entrepreneur named Jeff Sandefer has sold Gov. Rick Perry and many university regents on his "Seven Breakthrough Solutions," which urge Texans to spark fundamental change by starting their own accrediting agency and implementing a voucher system for universities. The most palatable solution, awarding professors bonuses for good teaching, has become a reality, and others are a topic of serious conversation among regents.

Many in academia agree with the spirit of reform but say some ideas being tossed around are simplistic and could harm Texas' mighty research enterprise. Others are troubled by the tenor of the debate, which paints faculty as pompous elites obsessed with esoteric research, grousing about having to teach undergraduates.

"All of a sudden, these shells started getting lobbed from north of the Nueces, and I don't even know who is doing it," said James Aldridge, a veteran psychology professor at the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg. "It's like there has been a growing suspicion that we are getting away with something or doing something wrong." According to Aldridge, he works 50 to 60 hours per week teaching three classes per semester, in addition to reading and doing research, mentoring students and sitting on university committees. Over the years, he has watched his advanced classes triple in size to about 60 students, forcing him to abandon essays for multiple choice tests and to spend less one-onone time with students.

Research expectations have also ratcheted up: Administrators want to see at least one article in a peerreviewed journal each year, and bureaucratic duties such as collecting data for government reports have multiplied.

Technology, which is often anointed the great messiah of higher education reform, has not yet swooped in to save Aldridge, making him skittish about other big ideas percolating in Austin. Gene Powell, a San Antonio businessman who is chairman of the UT board of regents, has appointed two task forces to study ways to boost productivity and online education.

"They could come up with some really helpful information, or they could be some sort of assault team," Aldridge said. "The atmosphere is such that I don't know."

A price war

From Sandefer's point of view, change is coming, like it or not. Traditional higher education can either be ahead of the curve or go the way of U.S. Steel, a behemoth corporation that lost most of its market share to more nimble competitors.

Online education has long suffered from mediocrity and a lack of imagination, but it has gotten a lot better in recent years, allowing entrepreneurs to offer a high-quality educational product at a fraction of the price, Sandefer said.

Expert faculty create curriculum, but the role of mentor is left to $15-anhour coaches, allowing classes to grow exponentially. In Arizona, the model has allowed Arizona State University to add 23,000 students with very little expansion of faculty. Members of a UT task force recently visited Arizona to study that model.

"They are going to start a price war," Sandefer said of the entrepreneurs. "It is happening all over the country." Can Sandefer's seven solutions help traditional universities survive?

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