Issue LIII – Dispatch from Austin: Pass the Biscuits, Perry

8 Aug

While the world waits with baited breath whether ex-Democrat Rick Perry decides to throw his cowboy hat into the ring for president, those familiar with his Aggie antics roll their eyes.  Much ink will be spilled over his “record” as a career politician.  Starting out as a conservative Democrat representing West Texas in the 1980s in the state legislature, Rick Perry switched parties in 1989 to run against the populist Jim Hightower for agriculture commissioner.  In a dirty campaign advised by Karl Rove, Perry narrowly defeated this hero of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party by focusing on agriculture issues like, you know, Hightower’s endorsement of Jesse Jackson and stance against a flag burning constitutional amendment.

In 1998, Perry narrowly won a race to be the first Republican Lieutenant Governor of Texas of the 20th century.  In this position (widely believed to the be most powerful job in Texas), Rick Perry’s oh-so-lucky timing got him into the governor’s mansion when then-Governor George W. Bush resigned to become President.  Slick Rick’s never looked back since and has defeated every opponent to his governorship since.  Rick Perry is now the longest serving governor in Texas history having been in office since 2000.  He won’t leave until at leastJanuary 2015.

Counter-narrative to the “Texas Economy”
Rick Perry’s claim to fame is that the Texas economy has low taxes and little regulation of business.  Being so business-friendly has made it successful his boosters claim.  This is not really a new development though.  The business lobby has always controlled Austin and focused on making it “bidness” friendly.  Our poor rankings in health, environment, and education honestly pre-date Perry (or even Bush) so it is not fair to blame those problems on Rick Perry.  The fact that he has never tried to fix Texas’s widespread poverty and lack of social services is his fault.

But honestly, Texas is (or was) booming relative to the rest of the nation.  Can Perry’s blathering about a “Texas Century” or the Economist’s praise of us being the “New California” have any merit?  There is something to see, but perhaps not for the reasons conservatives like to think.  Honestly, a lot of it had to do with the 1980s, industrial policy, high taxes, regulation, and good luck.

Let’s start with the housing crisis.  Anyone who was around in the 1980s remembers that Texas in the 1980s was in a depression.  Oil prices plummeted when the Middle East began exporting oil back to the United States.  High gas prices had led investors to splurge in real estate and oil speculation.  Many of those companies (like Bush’s oil company) drilled dry wells and/or busted when cheaper, foreign oil started flowing in.  Of course, the banks that loaned money to these real estate and oil companies all went bust.  As a consequence, every local bank in Texas went bust or had to be bailed out by the FDIC except for Frost Bank.  With Texan James Baker running the White House in the Reagan/Bush administration, he covered up the huge disaster that was the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s (which was worst in Texas).  Many people (professional or otherwise) lost their shirts.

How does that relate to today?  So many bankers lost out on the 1980s and early 1990s that they didn’t make as many stupid loans as bankers in other states.  Also Texas’s farmer-written constitution forbids many types of loans and has lots of regulations on home loans that other states don’t have.  Texas also has very high property taxes relative to the value of the property because it has no income tax.  Texas property taxes are three times that of California’s.  You are less likely to speculate on property when you have to pay thousands of dollars a year in property tax.

Let’s not forget oil prices were doing well and compared to the rest of the nation Texas maintained an industrial base.  Texas exports more than any other state in the nation by far.  It also benefits from high tech sectors in Dallas and Austin, and a large military presence throughout the state.  Houston also has another federal government spending projected called NASA.

So what made the Texas economy do so well recently?  Dumb shit luck and cheap houses is probably the best guess anyone can make.  Again, Rick Perry was at the right place at the right time.  But he did nothing to continue that success by focusing on, say, education.  Which brings us to his most glaring failure.

War on Higher Education

     People have been saying for years that Texas needs to focus on improving education, increasing its Tier 1 colleges, and increasing the number of minorities going to college.  And actually, surprisingly, Texas public schools were improving steadily over the last twenty years.  The key failure of the school system is actually the very high poverty rate of children in Texas.

Perhaps that can be excused, but more fascinating is Rick Perry’s “war on higher education.”  Perry graduated from Texas A&M and is the first Aggie governor of Texas.  Ordinarily you would think the second most important university in the state would be happy with that fact, but Aggieland is not pleased at all with their first governor.

Rick Perry wants to destroy tenure at Texas universities using the different board of regents for each system.  He wants them to operate like businesses and evaluate each professor by how much “productivity” they have.  Through his control of the A&M board of regents, he is pushing through a loopy evaluation system created by a for-profit college owner, Jeff Sandefer.  He focuses on “seven breakthrough solutions” to improve higher education by de-emphasizing research and increasing the number of large classes.  Although he has never been on the board of regents of any university, Sandefer is the most important man in higher education because Perry listens to him, and Perry controls the regents.  It also helps he has donated $300,000 to Perry as well.  Defense of the autonomy of higher education and research are coming from the UT System’s Bill Powers and Francisco Cigarroa, and an alliance of Aggies and Longhorns has been struck to fight Perry’s attacks on research.

But the politicization of the boards of regents and higher education has a long pedigree in this state.   The University of Texas at Austin has always been a very political campus.  For a decade, LBJ buddy and regent Frank Erwin dominated the campus and hired and fired deans on a whim.  He sacked every single university president in the system except for Truman Blocker at UT Medical Branch.  He separated the college of arts and sciences into the College of Liberal Arts and College of Natural Sciences over the objections of the faculty and Dean Silber.  He fired Silber who moved on to become president of Boston University.


       Rick Perry also fires anyone who disagrees with him.  In 2009, he fired several university regents who were supporting Kay Bailey Hutchison over himself in the Republican primary.  The boards need a cleaning out for sure, but he only cleans them out when they turn against them.

Honestly, Rick Perry’s attacks on academic freedom are reminiscent of the first student protest that ever occurred in Austin.  In the 1930s, a cartoonish conservative radio talk show host named W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel got elected governor with his radio and country-western band.  Ol’ Pappy “pass the biscuits” O’Daniel stacked the Board of Regents with right-wing no-nothing hacks.  These hacks were upset about all the “liberal” and “atheist” professors running around the University of Texas.  They particularly did not like that  who were upset that the state university had pro-New Deal economics professors.

The Board handed then-President Homer Rainey a notice that he needed to fire these professors.  President Rainey declined to and told the faculty that he was being pushed to fire tenured professors illegally.  They supported Rainey, and then the board fired Rainey and fired the New Deal economics professors too.  This lead to UT being reprimanded by most academic accreditation boards and the American Association of University Professors for almost a decade.  This will probably happen again if the current path is not altered.

Can a state that only has two public Tier 1 universities really afford to have them kicked out of the American Association of Universities?  Should the state really try to kill research at a university system that invented cardiac stents?  What is the long term purpose of this “reform” of education that Perry promotes?  Rick Perry doesn’t understand that slogans against “lazy professors” won’t fix the fact that he deregulated college tuition and underfunded K-12 and colleges.  In a state that has succeeded by stealing other states’ brainpower, he does not recognize that a new, high-tech economy comes from more Tier 1 colleges not less.  He succeeds by making us dumber.

Of course, we don’t have to make that mistake when he decides to run for president.  Spread the word about Perry’s attacks on universities.


Washington Post – Rick Perry wages an assault on university establishment
Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education – A group to defend UT and A&M’s research

One Response to “Issue LIII – Dispatch from Austin: Pass the Biscuits, Perry”

  1. Deena V September 16, 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    darn, i left a comment on a really old post by accident…in case you don’t see that one–> email me your contact info :]

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