“Hire the best, honor the mission, and measure the results.” The president of my university – the big one in Austin, with tower bathed perpetually in orange – has it right. That way lies academic greatness and prestige, assuming we all agree on the meaning of “best” and “mission,” and the means of measuring results.

The fun begins when disagreement arises – a common component of democratic, First Amendment-based discourse.

President William Powers, delivering his annual assessment of the state of the University of Texas, confesses himself weary of “contentious debate” over the university’s perceived slowness to confront and deal with modern challenges, such as fast-rising costs and ever-lengthening periods necessary for graduation.

So might Texans in general confess the same weariness. When the great majority of onlookers, researchers, and commentators pursue the very same goal – academic excellence, in the present case – unity serves the purpose better than discord. The latter condition obtains, generally speaking, when insiders fancy themselves under siege by odoriferous yahoos hurling beer bottles instead of bearing constructively framed suggestions for change.

An urgent point for consideration is that no one I know of has ever suggested the University of Texas at Austin is a place of academic degeneracy, ripe for the fate the Romans visited on Carthage. It’s a great place, UT. Hook ‘em!

Nor are the reforms at hand unique to UT. Read the newspapers and websites. The same discussion going on in and around Austin goes on all over the country: dropouts, overemphasis on research and publishing, soaring costs for tuition and student debt, the stagnation associated with professorial tenure.

Here, for instance, are author-academicians Andrew Hacker (Queens College) and Claudia Dreifus (Columbia University) summarizing in The Chronicle of Higher Education a few common current concerns: “Student debt has topped that for credit cards and is soon likely to hit the trillion-dollar mark… “The status race among colleges goes well beyond the latest U. S. News and World Report rankings, and winning sports teams don’t enhance academic stature. No, what brings the recognition colleges really seek is research…

“Just under 90 percent of college mathematics classes are taught by untenured or non-track faculty, and more than half of all faculty teach on a full- or part-time contingency basis…” And so on.

That‘s the national picture. National, not local.

President Powers assures my fellow Longhorns that UT is working already on such challenges, having “reorganized several administrative units,” “instituted flat-rate tuition and other programs that have steadily improved graduation rates,” and effected higher productivity. This strikes me as splendid.

Splendid also, we must note, is the “Framework for Advancing Excellence Throughout the University of Texas System,” promulgated in August by system chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. Its varied aims include the improvement of four-year graduation rates and the more effective measurement of faculty productivity.

A new database will permit comparisons – from the outside as well as the inside – of campus and departmental performance. Explains UT regents chairman Gene Powell: “Some wise man said, ‘If you can measure it, you can value it.'” We’re getting there at last on the measurements. In due course will come the reasoned, and reasonable, valuations.

UT’s present task – in addition to booming its own achievements – is that of listening, weighing, considering. And reaching out to the public, for which, after all, public universities exist.

The temptation to rancor is immense. Hacker and Dreifus note sorrowfully the tendency in higher education to ready the boiling oil whenever meddlesome outsiders approach. The two veteran scholars assert that colleges and universities see themselves more as victims than as contributors to the problem.

“That is what’s most disheartening of all,” they say, “because if today’s higher-education leaders won’t take steps on their own, they shouldn’t be surprised when outside forces step in – and that won’t augur well for academic freedom. The responsibility is theirs to take.”

William Murchison is a Senior Fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.