A University that Administrators Can Be Proud Of

Conservative critics regularly assail the University of California for its cartoonish devotion to diversity and the latest fads in political correctness. Mocking UC is practically Heather Mac Donald’s beat at City Journal and UC President Janet Napolitano’s recent campaign against “microaggressions”—including the allegedly offensive statement “America is the land of opportunity”—was roundly condemned by commentators across the spectrum, even the left-leaning Los Angeles Times. We expect as much from California, led by Governor Moonbeam, but what are we to make of the University of Texas at Austin’s increasingly desperate attempt to follow in UC Berkeley’s footsteps? 

In recent years, UT-Austin has insisted on using race-conscious “holistic” admissions over and above the neutral “Top 10 Percent” rule that grants admission to the top graduates of every Texas high school, despite a legal challenge by Abigail Fisher (represented by the Project on Fair Representation) that is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court for the second time this term. UT has adamantly defended its use of race in admissions as necessary to achieve the purported “educational benefits of diversity,” even though its counterpart, Texas A&M, does not supplement the “Top 10 Percent” rule. Moreover, the student body at UT-Austin was more diverse under the pre-Grutter, unadorned “Top 10 Percent” rule than it was during the heyday of race-based affirmative action before it was banned (sadly, temporarily) by the Hopwood decision in 1996.

Second, the university has created a degree program in “African and African Diaspora Studies,” a major that (according to the AADS webpage) joins “UT faculty, staff, and students in conversations about race, gender, sexuality, class, and the concept of global Blackness.” The AADS webpage continues: “Faculty in our department study Queer Theory, Diaspora Theory (particularly in Central and South America), Performance Theory, Engaged Scholarship, Social Justice, Policy, Black Feminism, and Black Women’s Studies.” UT-Austin confers undergraduate, masters, and Ph. D degrees in AADS. Good luck with the job search!

Third, UT-Austin has established a Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, with a staff of 42 employees to oversee programs such as the “Social Justice Institute” and the “Gender and Sexuality Center” (which serves the “Women and LGBTQA Communities”). The DDCE also “cultivates an inclusive campus culture,” which means deploying a “Campus Climate Response Team” —in other words, the PC police—to investigate alleged bias incidents, such as fraternity parties with derogatory or offensive themes. Earlier this year, the DDCE sprang into action when the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity held a party where guests were encouraged to wear Old West attire. Some attended wearing sombreros, ponchos, and even border patrol costumes. DDCE Associate Vice President Erica Saenz deplored the party as not being “inclusive and welcoming,” but ultimately did not punish the fraternity on the grounds that the conduct was protected free speech.

There are many more examples of UT-Austin’s embrace of Leftist fads. How does one explain this phenomenon in a state led for 14 years by the stalwart conservative Governor Rick Perry, and where Republicans hold every statewide elective office—and where Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama by 16 percentage points in the last election?

Unfortunately, these trends in higher education are not unique to the University of Texas. At colleges and universities across the nation, administrative payrolls are growing and becoming festooned with highly-paid positions promoting various ideological fashions. At many schools, the ranks of “administrators” exceed the number of full-time faculty members. Not only has this administrative bloat contributed significantly to the astronomical rise in tuition in recent decades, it affects the internal operation of colleges and universities.

As Benjamin Ginsberg, author of The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (2011), notes:

universities are filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.” Ginsberg, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, believes that the solution “begins with taking a pair of shears to the overgrown administrative bureaucracy.

Higher education governance—at UT and elsewhere—has failed to provide the type and degree of oversight needed to counter these institutional pressures. Boards of trustees (in the case of UT, the regents) are supposed to be the “adult supervision” in academia, ensuring that the faculty and administrators are serving the interests of students (and, in public universities, taxpayers). But university boards are notoriously lax and inattentive, and UT is no exception. Their members are usually selected based on their loyalty to the institution. In public universities, an appointment to the board is often a political prize—like an ambassadorship—earned by making large contributions to the state’s Governor. Thus passive governance by a board of regents averse to confrontation and controversy is the norm.

Former Governor Perry had a reform-minded agenda in mind but faced massive pushback from the UT administration (which was supported by legislative cronies and influential donors).  Among current regents, only Wallace Hall has exercised effective oversight, and he has been severely rebuked. even threatened with impeachment and criminal prosecution for his trouble. In a stunning reversal of position, Texas’ current Governor, Greg Abbott, abandoned any pretense of a reform agenda by appointing Houston lawyer (and longtime UT crony) David Beck to the UT Board of Regents and reappointing Wallace Hall’s biggest opponent,  Steve Hicks, for a second six-year term. Business as usual, in other words.

The Texas legislature plays an ignominious role in UT’s dysfunctional governance. Part-time legislators are willing to look the other way in exchange for preferential admission to UT for their children and/or tickets to UT football games. Statewide elected officials yield to wealthy donors, who condone (or even support) UT-Austin’s PC agenda as the price for insider access. (Being a UT crony is the most exclusive—and therefore prestigious—social status in Texas.) UT-Austin alumni are myopically concerned about only two things: UT’s continued national academic ranking, and the Longhorns’ football record (not necessarily in that order).

“Diversity” and PC fads are certainly not demanded by the mainstream of UT students or Texas taxpayers. The motivation is entirely internal. Consistent with O’Sullivan’s Law, in the absence of any countervailing influence, UT-Austin is becoming, and will continue to become, increasingly Leftist. Academic types—faculty and administrators alike—aspire to the type of power that comes with emulating the rarified atmosphere of Berkeley, whether we are talking about the school (home of the 1960’s Free Speech Movement) or the city (generally regarded as the most liberal municipality in California).

The price of these silly trends is not trivial. Tuition at UT continues to rise. The specter of racial preferences taints what should be a meritocratic admissions system at UT’s flagship campus. Four year graduation rates are disappointing.

Most importantly, UT students are not learning the critical thinking skills that are the ultimate purpose of higher education. According to the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a nationally-administered test (scored like the SAT) that measures how much students gain from their freshman to senior years in “general collegiate skills’—critical thinking, complex reasoning, computational and writing skills—UT students score in the lowest quartile (23d percentile) when compared with peer institutions. At UT, the average score for freshman was 1261, and on average increased only slightly to 1303 for seniors. Again, the failure of universities to impart academic “value-added” is a national trend, not limited to UT. Nonetheless, Richard Arum, lead author of the landmark 2011 study, Academically Adrift, summarized UT seniors’ performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment in these damning terms: they “have spent four years there, and the scores have not gone up that much.” The whole point of going to college is that you are supposed to leave knowing more than you did when you enrolled.

Creating a bloated administrative bureaucracy, promoting political correctness, granting racial preferences, removing statues, celebrating diversity, and policing fraternity parties may make sense to some liberal academics at UT, but they do not improve—and may in fact hamper—UT’s ultimate mission, which is to provide a quality education to deserving Texas students. The failure of UT’s administration and Board of Regents to insist on better academic performance is a disgrace.

As a UT-Austin alumnus, and a refugee from California, I can only sigh, “Say it ain’t so, Bevo.”