SHORT TAKES


August 10, 2010

McCarthyism or Simple Transparency?

The hysterical reaction of some professors at Texas's public universities to a new state law requiring them to post their resumes and course syllabi online says more about the paranoia and elitism of the professoriate than about the supposed witch-hunting mentality behind the new law.

The law, Texas House Bill 2504, passed in May 2009, requires all instructors at state universities, starting this fall, to post online the syllabi for the courses they'll be teaching; their curricula vitae a list of their published works, and their salaries. The universities' per-student attendance costs and departmental budgets must also be posted. The information must be searchable, accessible without a user name and password, and no more than three clicks away from the school's home page.

The stated aim of the new law is transparency. It is one of several measures recently enacted by the Texas legislature designed to give state residents accurate information about the cost and activities of government, including the pay of state employees. Other states have similar transparency laws, although Texas is the only state so far to include institutions of higher learning in its transparency mandate.

From the reaction of some of the state's professors--recently reported in the Dallas Morning News--you would think that HB 2504 had been rammed through the legislature by the ghost of Joe McCarthy. The Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors, in a demand to have the law repealed, called it a costly "unfunded mandate" that would have a chilling effect on classroom discussion of controversial subjects. In a newsletter quoted by the Morning News the conference declared, "As far as any of us can tell, this is an attempt by cultural conservatives to identify course content they might view as undesirable, and is thus clearly an attack on academic freedom."

Mary Leaf, speaker of the faculty senate at the University of Texas-Dallas, took a How Dare the Great Unwashed? stance, telling the Morning News that requring professors to put their resumes online implies that they're not qualified to teach their classes--"an insulting mistrust of higher education faculty." Peer review, not the general public should decide who is qualified to teach at a university, she said. "Faculty in the United States decide the curriculum," Leaf said. "The people behind this are opposed to that and are trying to undermine it. The law really isn't primarily about giving students better information, but about giving people who want to attack higher education better information. We're not against transparency. We're against being attacked by our enemies."

Such objections don't seem reality-based, to say the least. For one thing, although HB 2504 had a Republican (hence potentially conservative) sponsor, State Rep. Lois Kolkhurst, whose district includes Austin, home of the University of Texas's flagship campus, it passed the state legislature on a unanimous vote that reflected bipartisan support. Second, Texas taxpayers--and students and parents of students in particular--certainly have a right to know how money is being spent by institutions supported by their tax dollars. On the issue of posting faculty salaries, for example, the Texas Public Policy Foundation points out that the state of Texas spends more than a half-billion dollars a year to pay the bulk of faculty salaries in the public system--and that other state employee salaries are a matter of public record. (Kolkhorst told the Dallas Morning News that professors who want to keep their pay confidential should be working for private, not public universities.) As for posting departmental budgets, the Texas Public Policy Foundation notes that average operating costs at Texas public universities have risen by $3,853 per student over the past eight years even though state appropriations have remained constant.

Furthermore, many universities and their faculty already use the Internet to post voluntarily the very information that Texas now requires to be placed online. Click onto the websites of elite institutions such as Duke or Stanford--not to mention hundreds of other colleges and universities public and private--and you will find detailed web pages for each faculty member, including publications, awards, and lists of courses taught. The University of Texas-Arlington, for example, has been posting professor-profiles since 2005. Many professors also place their course syllabi online for public consumption. It is thus hard to take seriously the claims of some Texas professors that the new mandate places an unfair or particularly expensive burden on them or their institutions.

In fact; it is hard to see how the public posting of course content and professors' backgrounds can be anything but helpful. If your interest is, say, Brazilian literature, you'd want to enroll in courses and on campuses where the professors have proven expertise on the subject. Conversely, you might not want to sign up for a course that purports to cover ancient history but whose syllabus indicates that most classroom hours will be spent watching sword-and-sandals movies. Furthermore, as the Pope Center's Jay Schalin recently noted, universities also benefit from the public posting of information about courses. Professors can use each others' syllabi as models for improving their own pedagogy, and such postings can "make comparisons between classes at different universities easier for the determination of transfer credits."

There is one legitimately questionable feature of the new Texas law (although it has not received much attention from the McCarthyism-fixated AAUP): the mandatory posting of student evaluations of professors. Since college students are notorious for their preference for instructors with colorful personalities who are relatively easy graders, online evaluations "may not be the most accurate way to gauge instruction," as Michael Moore, senior vice provost at UT-Arlington, told the Pope Center last October. Since such evaluations function as personnel records, which are typically confidential, posting them on the web may be overly intrusive.

Still, although HB 2504 may not be perfect, it seems overall an important step toward giving students, parents, and taxpayers in Texas the information they need in shaping their educations and monitoring the use of their education dollars. The currently crying witch hunt and calling for the law's repeal sound not only shrill, silly, and snobbish but remarkably ill-informed about the law's content and context.


Comments (2)

Saucy:

Charlotte Allen, in her zeal to impugn faculty as "shrill, silly, and snobbish," omits two very conservative possibilities for why faculty might balk at posting these materials online: property and privacy.

"universities also benefit from the public posting of information about courses. Professors can use each others' syllabi as models for improving their own pedagogy."

What Jay Schalin calls "other professors using my syllabi as models for improving their own pedagogy," I call "possible plagiarism." As a professor at a public university, I never post my syllabi online because I have no guarantee that the syllabi -- into which I put an enormous amount of work both in original design and in updating -- will not be lifted *in toto* by another, lazier, instructor elsewhere. It seems to me that there's a conservative case to be made that my syllabi, which are a written representation of my course content, are my intellectual property. (And even if one argues that my syllabi are the property of my university, or of the taxpayers of my state -- even though the state's yearly contribution is less than 11% of my university's budget -- it seems foolish to invite their theft by, perhaps, professors from another state.)

And the problem with posting curricula vitae online? Privacy and identity theft. Yes, my salary is already posted online, but that doesn't mean that I also want my academic qualifications, work in progress, journals for which I've reviewed articles, etc. publicly visible. If CVs must be posted online, they will be rewritten as to be mostly meaningless.

Do these issues of "transparency" apply to all public employees? Does the Manhattan Institute favor the government-mandated online publishing of all public employees' backgrounds and work product? Or are those opposed to such a mandate just "hysterical," "paranoid," and "elitist"?

Rupert:

Remember the time you spent the entire year's budget in a month and said the client was "too dumb to notice"? How did that backfire?

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