Privatizing UT?

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, yes, but a story on KUT this morning discussed UT’s desire to have freedom in setting tuition in exchange for less state money.

The report made it sound as if UT will be unable to attract and retain good professors if it doesn’t have more money to offer them. This is ironic because money is exactly what UT uses, lavishly. The report has a quote from a UT official saying that private universities offer on average $22,000 more to their professors [than does UT, we assume he means]. That “on average” part is a key weasel-word here, since my hearsay understanding is that the school rolls out the red carpet for its star professors.

Anyhow, the university says it needs more money, and that higher tuition is the only way to get it; that sacrificing its mandate to provide a top-quality education at reasonable rates to the state’s residents is worth preserving a reputation for excellent academics.

Even if we allow that UT does need more money–which strikes me as hard to swallow–the report conspicuously failed to mention the Permanent University Fund. The PUF is an enormous endowment ($6.7 billion as of 2002) for the state university system, managed by the shadowy UTIMCO (don’t get me started) that is dedicated to construction. This has resulted in an absurd amount of new construction around UT over the past ten years or so–much of it dedicated to athletics. A new upper deck and skyboxes for Memorial Stadium. A new practice field for the football team (in addition to the practice field UT built when I was a student). A new track stadium. A new practice field for the marching band. The marching band! There’s been other construction, of course–the Jim-Bob business building. There’s a giant new administrative building where my department’s humble offices once stood. I can’t count the number of new multistory parking garages that have gone up.

Of course, UT would still be a massive state institution: it would still have its extensive land holdings; it would still be a law unto itself (it complies only voluntarily–and reluctantly–with the city fire code). But it would have more freedom to act like a private institution.

So, although changing the fundamental relationship between the University and the State, and changing the University’s basic mission is OK to put on the table, the idea of tapping the PUF for anything other than frivolous growth projects that proceed like a cancer is clearly unthinkable.

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