By Robert Koons
Governor Abbott has proposed a bold goal: to put five Texas universities in the top ten universities nationally. To accomplish this in the conventional way, by offering extraordinary salaries to academic superstars, could cost many hundreds of millions of dollars and necessarily becomes more expensive the more successful it is. There is another way to reach the same end, and its net cost would be zero.
The key to the quality of any university lies in its graduate and professional students. Graduate students are the growth ring of the academic tree. The most important segment of the graduate student body consists of those pursuing the PhD. If our top universities can attract the nation’s best PhD students, that fact will propel them to the top of the prestige hierarchy.
The greatest challenge for those pursuing PhD degrees is that of securing stable academic employment after earning the doctorate. Because of the huge oversupply of PhDs, fewer than 40% are able to find tenure-track employment within five years of graduation. This is true even in the STEM fields, although the situation is far worse in the traditional humanities and liberal arts.
Given the size of the State of Texas, we can use this dire situation to catapult our best universities to the top of the heap, in just two steps:
(1) Establish a rule that all universities in the State hire instructors only with PhD’s from Texas universities (except for a small number of senior positions) and put most of those instructors on the track to tenure.
(2) Cap the number of graduate students in each PhD program in the State, in order to ensure that at least 80% of PhD-earning students are able to secure tenure-track academic employment immediately upon graduation. In addition, each qualifying PhD program will be required to have 80% of their students complete their degrees within four years of admission. A department’s cap can grow or shrink from year to year, in response to the program’s meeting the placement and completion rate targets.
There are five advantages to this proposal over the conventional methods being used today:
First, we will, almost immediately, be able to recruit the best students in the U. S. and even the world into our Texas graduate schools. The security of a tenure-track academic position is the highest priority of all PhD seekers. We can out-compete the elite PhD programs of other States, without the additional spending needed to make our financial packages comparable.
Second, we will then be able to recruit the world’s best faculty, both at the senior level and at the entry level, since a professor’s number one priority is the opportunity to teach PhD students of the highest quality. That is how one has the maximum impact on the future of one’s field. Also, it is the most intrinsically satisfying kind of teaching—a form of academic reproduction. Thus, we will also be able to recruit the very best senior scholars and scientists, without needing to budget for extraordinary salaries. In addition, PhD students graduating in Texas universities will be motivated to stay and teach in Texas.
Third, the benefits are self-perpetuating. Once we have begun to attract the best graduate students because of the attractive job prospects, we will then continue attracting the best graduate students (and the best professors) simply by virtue of being so highly selective and thus prestigious. We will in effect pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
Fourth, overinvestment in PhD education, besides wasting tax and tuition dollars, involves great opportunity cost, taking many talented people out of the workforce for many years. The proposal’s cap on PhD students will ensure that few students waste these critical years.
Fifth and finally, this reform would address the problem of the cultural bubble inhabited by most professors. As things stand, the extreme insecurity of PhD students and non-tenure-track instructors ensures that academics must postpone having children until their late thirties, if at all. This acts as a powerful disincentive for conservatives and religious believers, who are generally married earlier and much more committed to bearing and raising children. In addition, both marriage and parenting are inherently maturing institutions, and their absence during the early adulthood of most academics contributes to the prolonged adolescence that associated with radical and utopian causes.
This proposal is, admittedly, not going to appeal to free-market purists. However, there has never been and probably never will be a free market in higher education. Reaching such a condition would require the privatizing of state universities, the creation of an equal playing field for non-profit and for-profit institutions, and the introduction of disinterested, third-party evaluations to provide both students and prospective employers with the data needed for informed choice. In the meantime, responsible conservatives must look for ways to leverage our size in order to make the most of the $19 billion per annum in State support for higher education. In any case, once Texas has become the Mecca for higher education, the regulations can be relaxed for future generations.
The proposal in effect takes us back to the standard practices in Texas in the mid-twentieth century, when most Texas colleges and universities recruited their faculty locally, and most PhD-granting programs regulated their size responsibly.
Rob Koons is a professor of philosophy at UT-Austin, where he has taught metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and ancient philosophy for 30 years. He studied at Oxford and UCLA, and he is the co-author (with Tim Pickavance) of two recent books on metaphysics, Metaphysics: The Fundamentals, and The Atlas of Reality: A Comprehensive Guide to Metaphysics, both from Wiley-Blackwell.