Apparently our state’s colleges and universities don’t have enough to do, so they’re trying to get permission to compete with private-sector telecomm providers. Given how little time so many university employees devote to students, at ever rising tuition rates, one wonders just how expensive this foray will be for taxpayers.

The Texas Senate’s prime apologist for the higher education status quo, State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (R-Laredo) is trying to let universities sell telecomm services already provided by multiple private sector firms. Worse, she would allow the universities to be shielded from competitive bidding when going after contracts with other state agencies.

(Remember, Sen. Zaffirini is the one took an eltist tone last week by implying that those people without advanced degrees have no business commenting on the operations of our universities; we should just shut-up and pay the bills.)

This proposal is violative of free market principles; our state-funded universities should not be using their protected status to compete with private industry. Unlike their potential competitors, these state agencies pay no property taxes, and are not included in the costs of margins taxes and sales taxes. The language from the Senate would even allow the universities to be exempt in providing these services from laws regarding open and competitive bidding process.

Given how little transparency universities provide as it is, this is just another way to shield them from review and accountability.

The Texas House will have a second chance to undo this wrong when they meet later today to take up Senate Bill 1581. State Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) has an amendment to strip this language from the legislation. He successfully did so last week to Senate Bill 5.

UPDATE, 1:02pm: I’m told by a University of Texas official that the institution is no longer seeking authority to sell telecomm services. Suspect “for now” was thought, but not said.

After all, the universities don’t seem to be doing their current job that well, or for that good a price.

The Austin American Statesman today reports on the front page about a new study by respected economist Richard Vedder of Ohio, an acquaintance of mine (still looking for actual study; will link when I find it). [UPDATE: found a PDF of the study.]

According to the Statesman, Vedder finds that just “[t]wenty percent of University of Texas at Austin professors instruct most of the school’s students, while the least-productive fifth of the faculty carry only 2 percent of the university’s teaching load”.

From the Statesman article:

In the 17-page paper, Vedder analyzed faculty productivity based strictly on the number of student credit hours each professor taught. He calculated the most-productive fifth of UT ‘s faculty, about 840 instructors, taught an average of 318 students, and 896 credit hours, per year. That comes out to 57 percent of the campus’s total student credit hours taught.

The remaining 80 percent of the faculty, by comparison, each taught an average of 63 students over the year, or 167 student credit hours, the analysis found. It also calculated that “77 percent of all faculty at the Austin campus receive no external research grants.”

In criticizing the Vedder study, UT professor Alan Friedman said it doesn’t account for the “30 hours” he spends on “service.” What kind of service? Apparently he sits on a “half-dozen committees” and also “manages a drama residency program.”

With the legislature still looking for ways to save money, they apparently might want to take a look at university employment costs. And they certainly shouldn’t let the schools divert funds and resources to competing with the private sector in the marketplace.

Michael Quinn Sullivan

Michael Quinn Sullivan is the publisher of Texas Scorecard. He is a native Texan, a graduate of Texas A&M, and an Eagle Scout. Previously, he has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine contributor, Capitol Hill staffer, and think tank vice president. Michael and his wife have three adult children, a son-in-law, and a dog. Michael is the author of three books, including "Reflections on Life and Liberty."