The contentious debate over higher education in Texas has stunned academics and everyday citizens alike. There was a time when the one thing we could all agree on was the importance of education.
But thanks to Governor Perry and his minions, our institutions of higher learning are under attack — and it’s not just because of budget cutbacks. A philosophical war is raging over the future of Texas universities, and the University of Texas is smack in the middle of it.
Perry and the right-wing think tank, Texas Public Policy Foundation, are pushing so-called “breakthrough solutions,” including bonus pay for teachers based on student evaluations and academic research being questioned. Gene Powell, Chair of the UT Board of Regents, has proposed increasing undergraduate enrollment by 10 percent at UT-Austin and reducing tuition by half across the system.
As chair of the State Senate Higher Education Committee, Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), who has a PhD from UT, is a strong advocate for higher learning. Elected to the Senate in 1986, Zaffirini has been passionately fighting Republican attacks for years, and as the battle has heated up lately, she has been increasingly sharp and forceful.
A quick note: On the day before we were scheduled to interview Sen. Zaffirini about education, Senate Republicans launched a surprise redistricting attack, releasing a map that splits Austin into four districts with the Laredo-based Senator getting a portion of Austin and Sen. Kirk Watson losing a big chunk of his hometown base. What was planned as a one-topic interview turned into two.
QUESTION: That was a surprise, wasn’t it? Did you think that you would be given a district that stretches from Laredo to Austin?
ZAFFIRINI: No, I didn’t. It was a complete surprise. We didn’t even know the map was coming until we got it late Tuesday night. That was the first time we saw it.
QUESTION: So, what do you think of your proposed new district, and what do you think of slicing Austin into four?
ZAFFIRINI: I feel like I’ve been Doggett-ed. I can imagine the people of Austin will be very upset about it. If the tables were turned and the people in Laredo woke up to find that Sen. Watson was representing them, they probably wouldn’t be happy either. But this isn’t personal. It’s just not good for anyone.
QUESTION: The four-way split in Austin and Travis County really makes no sense. As Sen. Watson pointed out, it weakens the voice of minority voters and breaks up a clearly defined community of interests. Do you think the map will survive a challenge?
ZAFFIRINI: I would hope not, but I don’t know. They were very precise about following the letter of law, although I think they have definitely violated the spirit of the law.
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QUESTION: Now for your thoughts on the other assault by Republicans on our institutions of higher learning. You were quoted as calling Regents Chair Gene Powell’s proposals “ludicrous,” which they clearly are. What do you think is really going on here?
ZAFFIRINI: Jeff Sandefer, who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Rick Perry’s campaigns, developed the “seven breakthrough reforms” through the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Well, they are neither breakthrough nor reform, which implies negativity. If you have to reform it, it must be corrupt or inadequate. Sandefer taught part-time at the McCombs School of Business, but left in a controversy (over tenure) with the school because he doesn’t have a higher degree. He was quoted as saying he was going to discuss the problem with Rick Perry.
QUESTION: Why do you think Perry is doing this? If the goal is to make Texas universities, and specifically UT-Austin, the best of the best, this isn’t the way to do it.
ZAFFIRINI: I don’t think he realizes what he’s doing. Sandefer and the people with the Texas Public Policy Foundation convinced him that what they were suggesting was good. He thinks it’s a good idea for no tax payer money to go for research, but it’s ridiculous. Sandefer clearly approved Rick Perry’s appointments (to the boards of regents), and through those appointees Perry is trying to change the direction of higher education in Texas.
QUESTION: Perry graduated from A&M, which initially embraced the “reforms” (although A&M Systems Chancellor Mike McKinney faced a firestorm and resigned last week). Does Perry have something against UT?
ZAFFIRINI: Rick Perry doesn’t understand higher education. He doesn’t have a graduate degree, and he graduated a long time ago with a major in something like agriculture. I have a PhD, so I understand the value of research and teaching. He just doesn’t understand it. In the legislature, we’re used to dealing with regents who love their universities, who bleed orange or red or whatever their colors. These new regents appointed by Perry don’t seem to have any school spirit. They seem suspicious and cynical. They haven’t taken time to understand what the status quo is; they just want to change it.