02/23/2015 03:22 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2015

From a University of Texas Graduate Student: Our University Business Model Is Killing Our Education

The language of austerity has captured public universities around the country. Nowhere is this more true than the University of Texas-Austin. Faced with a largely hostile University of Texas System Board of Regents, a body appointed by the governor to oversee the university, UT's president William Powers presided over steep cuts to ethnic studies departments. Overall, he has faced demands from the state to cut the budget even as the Legislature has reduced its financial support from 48 to 13 percent since 1984 and reductions in grants and financial aid amid soaring college costs. State support and calls for cutbacks contrast with former Gov. Rick Perry's small-government "Texas miracle" which allegedly kept Texas out of a lot of the budgetary problems facing other big states like California. Powers' desire to cut also stemmed from a personal hostility on the part of some Regents who wished to impose their vision of private business on the state's leading institution of higher education. That hostility emerged during a debate over tuition freezes and rising college costs that halted a quick fix to the crisis of revenue streams.

What does this model portend for the future of higher education? The model wants to turn the public university into a business. But this thinking has two major flaws. Instead of doing "more" with less, current methods merely shifts funds to put the burden on the most vulnerable in the system. The model can also be a boon for contractors, who see a public-university captive audience as a consulting opportunity.

UT graduate students are now in austerity's cross-hairs. Failing to achieve sufficient savings through limiting admissions rates and implementing a 6-year maximum on PhD funding for all College graduate students, the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas-Austin is proposing to cut around 80 teaching assistant positions, or about 10 percent of all appointments. The college argues that such cuts will "increase competitiveness" by raising stipends for those graduate students remaining, a worthy goal. But reducing the appointments by 10 percent will not make up the $4.3 million dollar shortfall that the administration's 2013 TA summary claims COLA suffers to raise stipends and tuition benefits from $21,000 (current levels) to $26,500, a livable stipend for Austin. From cuts, assuming only a partial influx of new cash, from the $12 million budgeted for TAs, we would have to shed around a third of our TAs to bridge the gap. The college could go ahead and cut 30 percent of the TAs but such moves would be highly unpopular to implement, especially by the expected target range of one or two years. Instead, the College of Liberal Arts hopes to implement this smaller cut immediately and hope for a rash of new money specifically targeted at graduate programs from the new governor Greg Abbott, a UT graduate, and friendlier regents.

Admittedly administration officials face a tough situation. Powers has held on as UTs second- longest serving president by doubling down on his "business model" and balancing his need to shore up his support base among faculty and students with placating his higher education adversaries. Powers at the beginning of the 2008 recession promised greater aid to faculty and graduate students in his 2009 State of the University Address, pointing to individual achievements and scholarly pursuits. The President has switched his language in the last few years to focus on "core competencies." He sees students, that is, human beings, along with research and fundraising, as our "investment." This year, his last in office, Powers sought to redefine tenure as serving as an incentive mainly to areas where "competition is the keenest and where research is more central to the enterprise." He clarified that "[Tenure] is less necessary where those two features aren't present." Some faculty see danger in this approach. UT English professor Douglas Bruster wrote last semester that tying tenure to market forces could mean a "golden handshake" for those with connections, and danger for those with unpopular ideas. That controversy, which occurred right around the time of the first proposals for cuts, shows that the language of Higher-Education-as-business does not just endanger TAs, Assistant Instructors, and adjuncts, some of the easiest academic employees to cut. Cuts endanger those who feel secure in their positions. In short, everyone has a stake in how these cuts turn out.

In the name of efficiency, the University, in consultation with the outside contractor, Accenture, and following the lead of private Ivy Leagues such as Yale, attempted to implement a shared services plan last year that proposed to centralize departmental functions and cut 500 staff jobs mainly through attrition. According to the Texas Tribune, suspicions about potential conflicts of interest caused some Regents to step in. Even this normally business friendly body was "frustrated" by UTs lack of transparency, Accenture's inability to deliver on proposed business plans, and over-billing. Business language does not always translate into efficiency.

The model is not invincible however. After protests, UT eventually cut Accenture out of the restructuring plan and scaled the implementation back.

In late January, a task force of graduate students (I included) issued a report citing wide dissatisfaction with teaching assistant wages but also with TA workloads. Even the associate dean for research and graduate studies for the College, Esther Raizen admitted to UT's Daily Texan that cutting TAs to raise wages was a Faustian bargain that would lead us to "the point where we will not be able to do what we [need] in terms of instruction." She called for "new thinking about resources" to address the stagnant $12 million dollar TA budget. Responding to reports of similar TA cuts in the natural sciences, the graduate legislature here has also called for a wider discussion of budget issues.

Although some officials acknowledge the dilemma, don't expect university administrators to take the initiative. As, Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California System in the 1960s once suggested, a manager of a firm never talks back to his board of directors. Similarly, without popular pressures, administrators at UT dare not raise their voices too loudly to ask why a state recently "flush" with cash has insisted on privatizing and decreasing aid to a vital state institution.