When it comes to higher education, especially vast public systems with institutions at varying degrees of development, making top-down, uniform changes is risky business. What may be good for UT-Brownsville might not be good for UT-Austin, and vice versa.
In other words, one size does not fit all.
That was the message yesterday at the UT Board of Regents’ meeting, where Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa laid out a thoughtful nine-point action plan and unveiled a “dashboard” to help measure how well his plan is implemented.
For months, Texas has been involved in a debate over the future of higher education in the state. What should it look like, how important is academic research, how do we assess faculty productivity, and what kind of impact does higher ed have on the state?
These questions and many others have kept discussion boards and editorial pages busy, and no school has been under more scrutiny than UT-Austin.
From a strictly UT-Austin perspective, the events of yesterday’s meeting were, on the whole, positive and fully in line with UT-Austin’s strategic plans. The chancellor reiterated the importance of a flagship, of research and teaching, and the pursuit of innovation. He emphasized again and again that each of his goals were to be implemented by the various campus presidents in ways that best fit their institutions.
And when you look closely at those goals (see below), you’ll find almost uniformly that UT-Austin has been and is hard at work on almost all of them already. The culture of innovation is alive and well at the flagship.
The chancellor’s framework urges each institution to become best-in-class for four-year graduation rates. UT-Austin has already set up a task force to boost graduation rates, which have jumped about 60 percent since 1994.
It calls for merit-based compensation programs, which UT-Austin has had for years.
It places greater emphasis on technology transfer and commercialization, which UT-Austin is rapidly doing under the leadership of Richard Miller, and others.
It calls for tuition incentives to encourage graduating on time, which UT-Austin also has done, with flat-rate tuition and the tuition rebate program.
It calls for greater administrative efficiency, which UT-Austin has been working toward as a way of controlling costs for years and which has made it among the most efficient of any state agency.
And it prioritizes blended and online learning, a pilot program of which, called the Course Transformation Project, was started two years ago at UT-Austin and is currently being rolled out to most of the big gateway classes.
After the chancellor’s presentation, the regents took turns affirming and supporting his vision, just like they did in May after he asked that they not micromanage his affairs. That same day, in May, UT-Austin received an enormous data request from an individual regent, exactly the kind of micromanaging the chancellor had asked them not to do.
After yesterday’s unanimous vote in support of the action plan, the chairman of the Board of Regents, Gene Powell, told Cigarroa, “Chancellor, I think the ball is yours,” and everyone applauded. Come to find out, however, last week another regent had made another mammoth request for detailed data on every single university committee.*
So while there was lots of talk about turning a corner and letting the university professionals do their jobs, we’ll have to wait and see whether the regents really mean that. Or whether the good show they made yesterday was really only that—a show.
*Correction: The regents’ request for committee information was actually made in July. A separate request made the week before the board of regents’ meeting was a pending request.