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Education Reporter

College Profs Irked by New Texas 'Transparency' Law
When University of Texas at Austin junior Taurie Randermann complained to her boss that her course titled "Communication and Religion" was actually about fringe cults like Wiccans and Heaven's Gate, she kicked off a major change in how much information Texas colleges and universities provide students about course offerings.

Randermann's boss, Texas Republican State Representative Lois Kolkhorst, was already seeking ways to make state higher education more transparent, and Randermann's experience led her to draft a bill requiring public, online access to course information. Texas House Bill 2504 sailed through the Texas legislature with unanimous bipartisan support, and Governor Rick Perry signed it into law in June of 2009.

Starting this fall, all of the state's public universities must post a detailed syllabus for each undergraduate course that includes class requirements, required textbooks and lecture topics. Other information, including each professor's educational background, published works, salary, previous student evaluations, department budgets and the cost of attending classes must also be posted. All of this data must be searchable, no more than three clicks away from the institution's home page, and accessible without a login or password. In other words, access will not be limited to students who have already paid tuition and committed to take the course, but will be freely available to the public.

Rep. Kolkhorst said the law is intended to help students and parents make better decisions as the cost of higher ed continues to climb. "If we can provide students and parents with more information before they pick a class, a major or a school, hopefully they will be able to spend their money more efficiently."

While the new law is popular with students and lawmakers, some professors decry it as an attempt to control curriculum and prevent open class discussion of controversial topics. One faculty organization, the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors, adopted a resolution this summer requesting the repeal of the bill. A newsletter published by the group characterized the law as "an attempt by cultural conservatives to identify course content they might view as undesirable, and thus clearly an attack upon academic freedom."

Murray Leaf, speaker of the Faculty Senate at the University of Texas at Dallas, said the directive indicates "an insulting mistrust of higher education faculty." He said 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."

Rep. Kolkhorst maintains that the law isn't intended to be "a 'gotcha' system," but a "great tool" to help students choose colleges on more than general reputation, distance from home, and the popularity of the football team. "All other major investments made by young people allow some level of transparency about what is being delivered for payment," and education should be no exception, said the lawmaker.

Conservative writer Charlotte Allen called the reaction of some Texas faculty "hysterical," and noted that many universities and their faculty already voluntarily post much of the same information on the Internet. She said it is difficult to take seriously the claims of some Texas professors that the new requirement places an unfair or prohibitively expensive burden on them and their institutions.

Indeed, many schools across the nation do post similar information on their websites, but not to the extent mandated by the Texas law, which is the first of its kind in the nation. The University of Florida website lists required texts and course tuition, but only a few sentences describing course topics. Some departments at the University of Michigan provide current syllabi, but only to enrolled students. Even within the state of Texas, some schools will only have to tweak current policies. University of Texas at Arlington spokeswoman Kristin Sullivan said the school has been posting detailed professor profiles online since 2005.

John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association University Professors, agrees that the legislation doesn't place any "burden" on faculty, but says the mechanics of providing the extra information isn't really the problem. "Really, this bill is about control," he said. "It is a way to target professors who may get 'out of line' or deviate from the rigid syllabus."

It is telling that the primary objection voiced by Texas professors concerns the posting of course textbooks and lecture topics rather than salary information or student evaluations. Even some supporters think posting student course evaluations is a questionable component of the law, since college students have a notorious affinity for entertaining, lenient professors, and may use the information to choose easier courses and bash professors who demand academic rigor.

At least one former Texas professor is pleased with the new law. Marvin Olasky taught at the University of Texas at Austin for two decades and noted on his WORLD Magazine blog last year that "Humanities and social sciences students still have to major in fields that typically offer two competing points of view: liberal and radical." When asked his opinion of HB 2504, Olasky offered his congratulations to the Texas legislature. "Taxpayers should know where their money is going. If propagandistic state-paid professors become fearful enough to add a bit of balance to their reading lists, that's terrific," he said. (Dallas Morning News, 7-10-10; abcnews.go.com, 8-14-10; popecenter.org, 10-30-09)

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