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A Seven-Point Plan for Screwing Up Higher Ed

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My poor son is the child of two writers. When he was still preadolescent, his mother wrote something about him for a newspaper or magazine article, I forget which. His teacher saw it and showed it to the class. He came home and said to us in a very grave voice, "You guys need to get some new material."

So here I go again. He's in his mid-20s, a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin, a guy who reads, thinks, creates. He is generally and wonderfully intellectually alive. And now, once more, he is about to be embarrassed by a parent writing about him.

But I have to say this. Because of my son's career at UT, I love UT. I revere UT. And my reverence for it is based on exactly the qualities that Governor Rick Perry is attacking.

I love UT because UT doesn't want to be loved. It isn't a place that devotes itself to being nice, the way a lot of small private schools do these days, taking students by their little fingers and ushering them down the daisy trail of their college careers as if they were 3-year-olds.

At the core of Perry's proposed higher education reforms is a noxious notion purveyed by the ultra-conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin that universities and their faculties should be judged on the basis of how well they are liked by students and their parents. Perry wants to base faculty pay on anonymous student evaluations.

This notion and much of the rest of Perry's seven-point program for higher education happen to be consonant with the anti-intellectual populism of the Tea Party -- surprise, surprise. But I suspect some additional bad factors are at play, as well.

Middle-class American parents, and I do not in any way exclude myself from what I am about to say, hold on to their kids' fingers and usher them protectively through the world way too long and way too much anyway. Anybody who has been around it knows the syndrome: parents yanking their kid from school to school because they think some teacher has been mean to him.

We did not do that, but I think we were very protective. Maybe you know the term, "helicopter parents" -- parents always hovering over their kid ready to drop a raid on the school at the first sign of unhappiness. I always characterize my wife and myself thusly: We may have been helicopter, but we were not Black Hawk Down.

The fact remains: UT was just what the doctor ordered. It was academically rigorous every inch of the way. After the light came on and our son started getting committed to his courses, we could tell from the stories he told us that every course he took was taught by somebody with a vast gift of knowledge to impart.

That does not mean they were great teachers. Not the same thing. You shouldn't need great teachers after you grow up. You need great minds. Some of his instructors and professors were scholars at the tops of their fields, people who had taught at Harvard and came to UT bringing great bodies of knowledge and insight to share with students.

Some spoke lousy English. Some were shy and muttered into the dry-erase board. The trick was to move up front and listen harder.

UT turned the light on for our son. We didn't. And UT did it with an uncompromising rigor that we certainly had not brought to the table.

UT may even have been the opposite of us. I think our relationship with our kid was typical of our class and generation -- the Good Night Moon generation for whom the most important quality of parental devotion is its absolutely unconditional nature.

The great thing about UT was that its commitment to our son was absolutely and totally conditional. Get the grades or get out, and by the way, we've got a line all the way down the street of people eager and able to take your place.

He needed that.

The other thing I loved about UT was something I remembered about my own experience at a huge state university. UT, like my alma mater these days, tells parents all this crap now about how they're really not impersonal and they're going to watch over junior just like they do at Kenyon College.

It's bullshit. These places are huge, and when the rubber meets the road they're about as personal as the U.S. Postal Service. It's a factor of sheer institutional size, not policy or intent.

He needed that too. Every kid who gets through a big state university undergraduate program has what I call a New York moment where he has to wade into an implacable bureaucracy and make stuff happen for himself. For some reason it usually has to do with registration.

My wife and I were driving somewhere, and we kept getting cell phone updates all day. The university's computer system had changed his major on him by accident. He couldn't register in any of the course he needed, because now the computer thought he had a different major.

Nobody could fix the computer, because it was the weekend. Some counselor told him he'd have to take a semester off. My wife and I are parked in a Whataburger somewhere in the boondocks trying not to have aneurysms.

So the kid has his New York moment. He realizes, "This is a huge place that doesn't even see me. I am an ant. They're going to step on me."

The next thing we know, it's fixed. The kid has bulled past a secretary, barged into the office of some guy who can fix the computer, told him he won't leave until the guy takes 15 seconds to save his entire semester. The guy said, "Sure." And did it.

Like I say, I love UT because UT does not need to be loved by us. It needs us to crowd up to the front of the class and listen very hard.

I suspect that's what Perry, the Tea Party and the spoiled-brat conservatives don't like about it. They want universities that a Rick Perry could love. One shudders at the thought.

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