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Texas fight highlights higher ed culture clash

Sunday - 2/3/2013, 12:02am  ET

By JUSTIN POPE
AP Education Writer

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - If colleges were automobiles, the University of Texas at Austin would be a Cadillac: a famous brand, a powerful engine of research and teaching, handsome in appearance. Even the price is comparable: Like one of the luxury car's models, in-state tuition for a four-year degree runs about $40,000.

But in an era of budget-cutting and soaring tuition, is there still a place for "Cadillacs" _ elite, public research institutions like Texas, Michigan, California-Berkeley and Virginia that try to compete with the world's best? Or should the focus be on more affordable and efficient options, like the old Chevrolet Bel Air?

It's the central question in a pointed clash of cultures in higher education. And when Gene Powell _ the former UT football player and San Antonio real estate developer who chairs the Texas board of regents _ raised it with precisely that automotive comparison, reaction was swift and angry.

Convinced the state board was hell-bent on turning their beloved "university of the first class" required by the Texas constitution into a downmarket trade school, faculty, students and alumni have rallied behind campus president Bill Powers in protest.

Powell insists he wants UT-Austin to be great _ but also accessible, and for students to have options. Republican Gov. Rick Perry and many of the reform-minded regents he's appointed have made clear they think UT's quest for global prestige has produced too much ivory-tower research, and too little focus on teaching and keeping college affordable for Texans.

In Perry's push for accountability and productivity, many here see something nefarious: a campaign, rooted in a longstanding anti-intellectual strain of Texas politics, to gut a university that shouldn't have to apologize for being "elite."

"I just don't understand why they want to dumb down a public institution of this magnitude," said Machree Gibson, chairman of the Texas Exes, UT's powerful and independent 99,000 member alumni society, which has pushed back.

With Perry due to appoint three new regents this month, the fight is set to flare up again. But the debate is bigger even than Texas.

Like-minded governors in Florida, Wisconsin and elsewhere are watching how Perry and his allies fare. Unusually, it's political conservatives who are the radical reformers, and their opponents the ones digging in to resist upending well-established institutions.

Along the way, career casualties are piling up. Over the last 18 months, presidents of 11 of the 35 leading public research universities have quit or been fired. That doesn't include the University of Virginia, where a reform-minded board fired President Teresa Sullivan, only to reinstate her two weeks later after a faculty revolt.

But Texas is "ground zero" in the national debate, said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 top public and private research institutions. Among the combustible elements here: fanatical alumni, an ambitious governor with unique power over his state's universities, and an influential conservative think-tank _ all situated within a few blocks of each other in downtown Austin.

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Public research universities, with a mission of both teaching and research, date back 150 years. They produce 70 percent of scientists, engineers and physicians, and two-thirds of U.S. campus research _ the value of which isn't always obvious in advance.

"During the Second World War, it was radar and atomic energy that came off of these campuses that saved us," said James Duderstadt, the former University of Michigan president who helped lead a recent National Research Council study of the sector. Before the war, those technologies "looked like the most abstract, frill research."

But lately these globally ambitious institutions have strained against the reins of what some call an anachronistic system of state control and funding. Duderstadt calls them "critically endangered." Another recent report, by the National Science Foundation, found state support for the 101 major public research universities fell 20 percent between 2002 and 2010.

Those institutions are "the backbone of this nation's knowledge economy," Duderstadt said. "If the states turn their back on them, they're committing a grievous act against the national interest."

UT-Austin, the flagship of the 216,000-student UT system, is among the biggest With more than 52,000 students, the university has 3,166 faculty, plus more than 10,000 professional staff. About 10,000 students also have jobs in labs, classrooms, libraries and elsewhere on campus. Recent discoveries range from lithium-ion batteries to the two largest black holes in the universe. It's also spun off hundreds companies and helped make Austin a tech hub, which in turn benefits the university. On Thursday, UT announced a $50 million gift to establish a medical school from the family foundation of Michael Dell and his wife. Dell dropped out of UT-Austin to start his namesake computer company in Austin.

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