The state of Texas is currently engaged in a significant debate about the future of public higher education. In the face of Governor Rick Perry’s odd reform plans, which seem to involve a great deal more state supervision, though not much more state money, some legislators are organizing to oppose him.

According to an article by William James in The Daily Texan:

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, formed the Texas Joint Committee for Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency last month to discuss higher education policy decisions openly and protect the high quality of Texas universities. In recent months, Perry and interest groups such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation have pushed for separation between research and academic funding, which legislators said could harm universities’ goals.

“Texas Public Policy [Foundation] [which Governor Perry supports] thought tax payer’s money should not be used for research and recommended that universities go under Sunset Review,” Zaffirini said. “It was an outrageous recommendation.” Zaffirini said teaching and learning happen at colleges, while teaching, learning and research happen at universities — a crucial distinction between the two.

Well sure that’s a “crucial” distinction but it’s also an inaccurate one. In fact, there is no nationally recognized definition of the term university in the United States.

This problem highlights precisely what’s wrong with Texas’s current efforts to reform higher education funding in the state; none of the people involved seem to have any idea what they’re talking about and seem to be throwing around these bizarre rules and distinctions without regard to how this might actually affect students in these schools.

Sure, there’s a difference between research and basic education. But these are both things that colleges exist to do. Both of these things go on in all schools and involve the same people, and the same funds. If the Lone Star State is looking to get involved in some serious budgeting cutting it certainly might be convenient to be able to have separate items in budget spreadsheets for research and education, but these things both improve the state and funding cuts in one will involve quality declines in the other. By the same token, increasing the funding for one of these things will improve the other.

All of this Texas talk of reform and transparency and “enabling our students to compete on the global stage” looks promising but this doesn’t really appear to be what’s going on here. The governor wants the universities to cut spending; the university faculty doesn’t want to do so. That’s what’s really going on here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer