When it became evident in August that Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was to be a contender for the White House, he became an object of study. Accounts of him presiding over large prayer meetings and his acts as a governor became regular events in the media. The question quickly raised was whether he was really qualified to be a president, or was he just another flash in the pan, such as Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann.
With more exposure, we will get a more complete reading of his merits for the high office, but the following assessment of his management of higher education in Texas will add a portion for consideration.
Before examining Perry’s record on higher education, it is worth noting some issues that have already attracted attention.
He has suggested publicly that Texas would consider secession from the Union if Washington continued promoting more leftist policies. He has openly declared that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional.
While he is still regarded as a Republican, his views are really more in line with Libertarian ideology. At present, he is still considered to be a formidable challenge because of his good looks. He has been dubbed as a “Michele Bachmann with a better hairdo.” More important, one would think, is that like several other candidates, he has divine endorsement.
Much can be learned about Perry by taking a look at his plan for higher education in Texas presented in 2008. Perry proposed that the state’s top colleges design a four-year degree that will cost no more than $10,000. This was but one of “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” to higher education problems in Texas crafted by a conservative think tank. A prominent member on the board, Jeff Sandefer, a former wealthy oil man, has contributed large sums ($300,000) to Perry campaigns since 2000. This makes it obvious why these “solutions” have so much of a pro-business orientation.
Faculty members will be measured on a profit/loss basis, using a business style, market driven approach — in other words, by the tuition revenue they generate. Even worse, universities “would treat students as customers.” It should come as no surprise that faculty members were quick to register their objections and a team of their leaders drafted a 17-page critique that systematically diced up Perry’s whole program. The most prevalent criticism directed at his “reforms” was “over simplicity.” However, this is standard fare for tea party and Libertarian “solutions.”
Using class size (or tuition income) as a measure of success is truly a bad idea. Required classes such as American History 101 will always generate large classes while physics 401 will be lucky to have half the classroom seated. It is a mistaken proposal to incorporate a business model into education on any level. Education is a necessary service offered by society to equip more citizens to manage a democracy and become good human beings — we should bear the cost with joy. Preparing individuals to have the appropriate knowledge, intellectual skills, enlightened values and creative urges and habits of mind cannot be achieved by cost effective, “cookie cutting” methods. If the business model is so superior to a cost according to need model, why is it that so many businesses fail and so many universities are still in operation?
The most wrong-headed idea put forth by the governor and his advisors is that students should be treated as customers. This is the business model run amuck. There is a huge difference between seeing the student as a “customer” and a “learner.” A customer is one who has the means to pay for a product. There are no demands made upon a customer except to have the required means to pay the cost. This transaction may last only a minute to pay the cashier and be as impersonal as watching a passing truck. This is not education.
On the other hand, a student is a learner. The teacher must inspire and instruct with skill, passion and care in a relationship that may last a lifetime. There has yet to be a cost effective way to measure that rare and unique process that transforms a learner into an independent and accomplished person.
There is no need to belabor the misguided ideas in Perry’s education “solutions.” They are probably going nowhere. In addition, columnists who are analyzing his record are having a field day. Paul Krugman, the renowned economist, has charged that his “Texas miracle” is vastly inflated. He points out that Perry’s figures on high employment are misleading. According to Krugman, “almost 10 percent of Texan workers earn the minimum wage or less, well above the national average.”
Since it is possible that this charismatic governor of a very large state cannot be ruled out as a presidential candidate, the public must know more about his record and his character.
Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.