The Economist: A legacy and challenge
June 11, 2011 at 1:11 a.m.
BY RAY PERRYMAN
I have become increasingly concerned over the past few months as the basic foundations of our great universities and colleges in Texas have come under attack. We need the highest quality in education at all levels if we are to compete in the knowledge economy of the future, and we need to provide opportunities for persons of all backgrounds and abilities to develop the skills to become productive, taxpaying members of the workforce.
We also must support research of the highest order. The basic research conducted by the gifted minds that inhabit our universities, whether in laboratories or the realm of ideas, improves our lives in countless ways, and has done so for centuries. Moreover, great discoveries lead to concentrations of emerging, high-growth industries. With our major Tier One universities and a program to encourage more to develop, other important universities, and vast community and technical college network, Texas has certainly done much that is right.
Recent budget cuts and efforts to diminish scholarly activity undermine the strides we have made and will only be to our detriment. Surveys showing disparities in contact hours only tell us that some teach survey classes in lecture halls while others focus on more advanced classes with necessarily smaller enrollment. Disparities reported in research funding ignore the fact that many of the "superstars" who bring in large amounts of money support the work of large teams of professors and students.
Universities and colleges can certainly be more efficient and should strive to do so. Nonetheless, education and basic research are clearly "public goods" with benefits to society that far exceed those to the individual. That is why they must receive public and philanthropic support and why they cannot be subject to pure market tests of their value. Simply stated, to do so is to "eat our seed corn" and deny our state its full economic potential.
This issue was brought into very sharp and personal relief for me this week with the passing of Dr. James Truitt, the long-time Baylor economics chairman and my friend and mentor. I could talk about many things from the past four decades, but I will briefly focus on the early years. I am not sure if he deserves praise or blame, but Jim is largely responsible for me becoming an economist. When I entered Baylor in 1971 from a small town in East Texas, I was more than a little intimidated (although I also possessed a measure of young arrogance which some would say has now given way to old arrogance). I was a math major, and the degree also required a concentration in another field consisting of one of the sciences, economics or psychology. I was not overly interested in the sciences (I have since developed an intense interest in theoretical physics, but those pulleys and levers required to get through the first course would have done me in then and now). I flipped a coin between economics and psychology (literally), and it came up economics. My wife, Lorraine, says that if it had gone the other way, there would be some seriously messed up people in the world.
My first class on my first day was Honors Calculus. I was freaked out to learn that I was the only student in the class with no Calculus background. After being completely shell-shocked, I stumbled into the Honors Principles of Economics class being taught by the intense young department chairman. I was not a business major and did not dress like one, but I quickly learned that everyone in the class was absolutely terrified. Within the first five minutes, I also realized that I could not write as fast on a legal pad as he could write on a blackboard.. I quickly learned that I couldn't even think as fast as he could write on a blackboard. In fact, I couldn't even think as fast as he could erase a blackboard only to fill it up again. Gee, he moved fast!
The first test rolled around a few weeks later, and I had no idea what to expect as it was my first college exam. A couple of days later, he asked me to come by his office. Once again, I didn't know what to expect, but I didn't think it was good. I had visions of returning to the pipe factory where I had worked the previous summer. I can almost quote the conversation verbatim. He said, "Mr. Perryman (he was always so polite), it will probably take you four years to finish your degree and four more after that to finish your doctorate. By that time, with inflation, I can offer you X dollars as a starting salary. What do you say?" For better or worse, an economist was born. I beat his projections by a couple of years, but I did end up on his doorstep.
There is a lot more I could say. I took several other classes from him, and somewhere along the way, my arrogance completely overtook my intimidation, and I constantly tried to ask enough questions to throw him off his game and slow down his pace (usually without success). He also helped me get scholarships and jobs, and directed my Honors Thesis. By the time I left for graduate school, I considered him a true and close friend, although I must admit that the biggest adjustment I had upon returning to the faculty was calling him "Jim" instead of "Dr. Truitt." Somehow, it just didn't seem appropriate.
Jim further supported my early endeavors and helped me obtain the resources I needed (or thought I needed) to embark on a research career in the era of punch cards and typewriters. I know that I caused him much grief. I was an obsessive boat rocker and Jim liked a steady ship. Nonetheless, he was totally encouraging.
I am by no means the only one to benefit from his influence. His goal was to assure that every student who came through his department had the skills required for success and an opportunity to apply them. Many of those students have gone on to achieve great things. He encouraged scholars to be scholars, and others to reach their full potential as well. His recognition of the importance of both is a testament to what education should be and a legacy we would do well to embrace.
Dr. M. Ray Perryman is president and chief executive officer of The Perryman Group (www.perrymangroup.com). He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.