It’s hard to tell whether it’s a news story or a media meme: Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a fan of Texas Republican Gov. (and current GOP presidential candidate) Rick Perry, is reportedly considering foisting on Florida’s public universities the same much-criticized reform proposals that Perry has been trying to foist on public universities in Texas. Behind the scenes in all of this–or so the news reports imply–is the looming presence of Jeff Sandefer, Voldemort to the Texas higher-education establishment. Sandefer, a Texas oil entrepreneur, disgruntled former business professor at the University of Texas-Austin, and major contributor to Perry’s gubernatorial campaigns, authored the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” a 2008 document mostly calling for public universities to abandon their research missions and focus on undergraduate teaching. The “Solutions,” which formed the centerpiece of a 2008 conference involving Perry and the regents of the University of Texas (UT) system, reputedly underlay recent efforts by Perry to assess and reward teaching productivity at UT-Austin and Texas A&M–and now they’re said to underlie similar efforts under consideration by Scott in Florida.
Trouble is–it’s hard to find the story in this story of Sandefer’s tentacles stretching across the Gulf of Mexico to entangle Tallahassee. On July 26 an article by Lilly Rockwell of the News Service of Florida appeared on the WCTV website. It was titled “Scott Promotes Controversial Education Reforms: Controversial changes that have rocked Texas higher education system may be coming to Florida.” Rockwell had interviewed Scott.
She wrote: “Scott told the News Service of Florida…that he has discussed the Texas reforms with his appointees to university and college governing boards in an effort to line up support for a nascent campaign to dramatically change how universities and colleges are funded, overhaul professor tenure, emphasize teaching over research, and give students more influence.” She added: “Scott appears to be taking a page out of that part of Perry's playbook. Scott said when he interviews people for positions on a university or colleges board of trustees, he gives them a copy of Seven Breakthrough Solutions." "I send them a copy of (the proposals) and say 'What do you think?'", Scott said.
That was it. Most of the rest of Rockwell’s 35-paragraph story on the website was about Texas and some unsuccessful efforts in 2010 that were apparently designed to implement Perry-inspired reforms at Texas A&M. One involved a productivity spreadsheet, available to the public, that rated every instructor there in red or black ink that signified whether he or she had brought in enough outside research dollars to cover his or her salary. The spreadsheet proved to be so inflammatory that the university promptly withdrew it. A bonus plan for professors based on student evaluations was also short-lived.
I called Scott’s press secretary, Lane Wright, to find out whether Scott had anything more specific about his plans for transforming Florida higher education á la Perry—or whether he had formulated more specific proposals. Wright said no. “The interview was her idea,” he told me. “She asked for an interview about his thinking about higher education, so he gave her his general thinking.”
That Rockwell was able to spin a lengthy news story from the thin fibers of Scott’s remarks is testimony to the fear that Sandefer and his ideas strike in the hearts of even geographically distant higher-education administrators. Sandefer had taught, on a part-time basis, a popular series of courses in entrepreneurship at UT-Austin’s business school for several years, until the business school decided to pursue a more conventional academic model by hiring several tenure-track professors who were supposed to pursue research as well as teach. Offended, Sandefer and several associates quit UT-Austin in 2002. Sandefer founded the Acton School of Business (affiliated with Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas), where all courses are taught by working businesspeople.
Sandefer also seemed to launch a campaign against academic research in principle. His “Solutions,” adopted by the Texas Public Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, include such features (besides bonuses and publicly available faculty evaluations) as splitting universities’ research and teaching budgets, requiring evidence of teaching skill for tenure, and vouchers that go directly to students as a substitute for state aid to public institutions. He also became intensely involved behind the scenes with the reform efforts at Texas A&M, firing off irate e-mails suggesting that some regents of Texas universities were “impostors” if they did not agree with his agenda. Sandefer was also reputedly behind an successful push by UT regents earlier this year to publicize faculty salaries and number of courses and students taught.
Despite the lack of specificity in Scott’s plans for Florida higher-education didn’t stop Daniel Luzer from blogging quite specifically on July 28, two days after Rockwell’s story appeared: “Florida Governor Rick Scott has apparently now fallen under the spell of Texas Governor Rick Perry and his half-baked plans to ’revolutionize’ academia by rewarding schools for things like how many undergraduates professors teach.”
Elsewhere Rockwell’s story was picked up and reprinted by numerous media outlets, especially in Florida, and Inside Higher Education, the online academic trade paper, linked the article as well. Finally, on Aug. 22, The Orlando Sentinel ran a story: “Scott Explores Changes in Higher Education.” The story, by reporter Denise-Marie Balona, went like this:
“Scott has been quietly promoting the ideas among candidates he's considering appointing to college boards of trustees. He said he has been sharing copies of a report on which the Texas proposals are based — the ‘Seven Breakthrough Solutions’ written by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.”
The story continued: "’It does get the conversation going,’ Scott told the Orlando Sentinel recently, although he wouldn't discuss a timetable.”
In other words, Scott told Balona exactly what he had told Rockwell almost exactly one month earlier. And the rest of Balona’s article was…yes, filler about Perry’s higher-education adventures in Texas.
What to think of this story that really isn’t much of a story? That Rick Perry’s plans for revolutionizing Texas higher education may be “half-baked,” as the Washington Monthly’s Luzer put it, and Sandefer might be an anti-research fanatic who knows how to operate a business and a business school but doesn’t understand how academia works in general. Nonetheless, Rick Perry and Jeff Sandefer have made some Floridians in higher education very afraid. In March Scott signed into law a measure that ends tenure and provides for merit pay for K-12 teachers in Florida. A recent poll indicates that 73 percent of Floridians, including 66 percent of Democrats, approve. That doesn’t bode well for those who seek to preserve the status quo in Florida Higher education.