This story is interesting on two dimensions. It deals with incentives in academia, and with someone who tells us he wants to be President of the United States. The first I heard of this was from one of my friends, who moved from a well-regarded public university in Texas to a similarly well-regarded public university in another state, and this issue seemed to play a role in the move.
This article in the Washington Post lays out the details of the story, which involves Texas Governor Rick Perry, his friends/contributors in the business community, the Board of Regents of the Texas State University System, and the University system itself. You can also find information in this Huffington post piece. Basically, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), working in part through Jeff Sandefer, a Texan with personal and financial connections to Governor Perry, proposed Seven Solutions to what they perceive to be problems with the Texas State University System. It appears that the Governor shares the opinions of the TPPF and Sandefer on this matter.
In Texas (as in other states) the Governor can exercise a lot of power, if he or she chooses to, over how the state's public universities are run. In particular, Governor Perry appoints the Board of Regents. The media articles I link to above tell us that Perry is indeed excercising the power granted him. He has bought into the ideas of the TPPF, he is a man of action, and he wants the ideas implemented.
Indeed, officials at Texas A&M took the first step in implementing the first of the Seven Solutions, which essentially involves creating a bottom line for each professor in the university. Teaching a lot of students is a good thing. That brings in tuition dollars and enters as a plus. Earning a big salary is a bad thing. That enters as a negative. A grant is a good thing. That brings money into the university and enters as a plus. Not surprisingly, as you can see in the resulting spreadsheet, most of the Texas A&M Professors end up in the red.
A university that followed the Seven Solutions would look like the following. There would be a small number of adjunct faculty with low salaries, teaching a large number of students, and with salaries determined by scores on student evaluations. Research might be done at this university but, if so, it would be funded externally, and the research operation would be completely separated from the teaching operation. Indeed there is no reason for research and teaching to be conducted in the same physical location. One could imagine a Texas "university" system with separate teaching institutions and research institutions, though if the research institutions were totally dependent on external funding, it's hard to see why the state of Texas needs to be involved with those.
This is a particularly bad model for higher education. First, teaching and research are in fact complementary activities, both for the individual professors who work in research universities, and for the institutions themselves. It is important to have teachers in the classroom who are at the cutting edge of research in their respective fields, as those are the people with the best knowledge of what students should be learning, and who can best guide the curriculum in general. Further, one role of a university is to fund research directly - for example, the university may have better information about the individual researcher than does an outside funding agency.
Second, while students are perceptive and can pick up on some forms of misbehavior by professors - poor preparation, tardiness, lack of respect for students - in other ways students can be fooled. A student may find a course easy because they have an aptitude for the work. A course may also be easy because the professor is not challenging the students, and therefore not teaching them much. The student may find it hard to tell the difference, so the professor is rewarded for being unambitious. The student is none the wiser until he or she tries to apply what was learned in class, which may be years later. Thus, student evaluations, while they convey some information, need to be treated with a grain of salt.
A key problem with the Seven Solutions, and the top-down approach coming from the Texas Board of Regents, is micromanagement. In a university system, management starts at the department level. A good department chair understands who is good at teaching, who is good at research, allocates people accordingly to the correct tasks, and provides them incentives in terms of salary, teaching load, and other benefits. Deans set broad goals for departments. Provosts set broad goals for Deans. Presidents of universities set even broader goals and raise money, and in a state university system the Board of Regents oversees the whole thing. It is a very bad idea to have the Board of Regents - the people at the top of the system with little information about what is happening at the lowest level - trying to manage the faculty directly.
Now, the troubling part of this, with regard to Governor Perry, is that this episode reveals something of an impulsive nature. Some of your friends tell you something, and you act on it, apparently without much regard for the views of experts in the field. In this case, the friends seem to be zealots, whose ideas run counter to accepted practice among university administrators. Governor Perry is also on record as supporting the teaching of "intelligent design" in public schools, and appears to appoint people to the State Board of Education who are favorable to that. We might read into this a disregard for science in general.
In any case, we need to know more about Rick Perry. If we look at the current Republican Presidential field, and follow the money, this person is the likely nominee. Obama is currently looking weak, so Perry stands a good chance of being President of the United States. Right now, that looks pretty scary.