A University of the Cut-Rate Class?

 

After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1973, a friend and I got into her car and drove off to New York, where she had a job and I had a floor to sleep on.

I wound up staying, making a life and a career there, eventually becoming, for many years, editor-in-chief of Woman’s Day magazine. Several years ago, the College of Communication, where I’d earned my journalism degree, charmed me into coming back a few times to speak to students. I’ve loved doing that. I’ve given a tiny bit of money. And I’ve always been enormously proud of my degree. But UT has been 1,700 miles and a lifetime away. In my world, burnt orange is just another color.

Then, last year, I received a call telling me I was to be named a distinguished alumnus. Overnight I was plunged into an alternative universe in which burnt orange is the only color. And almost as quickly, I started to hear the rumbles.

$10,000 degrees. No funding for research. Drastic cuts in spending. Diploma mill. Rumors that the president was about to be fired. Clearly, serious and sustained attacks were being made on the fundamental mission and values of the university.

I not only was alarmed, but none of this made sense. Deeply honored by the award, I’d started schooling myself in UT 101, version 2011, and what I was reading told a very different story. A bold, forward-thinking president, William Powers Jr., with not just a vision for making the university into a world-class institution but an action plan for doing so. Enormous administrative and institutional efficiencies. High graduation rates. The recruitment of top-level scientists and scholars. Enviable rankings in national and international education surveys. Increased philanthropy levels.

All of this painted a picture of an institution at the top of its game, one that was, quite frankly, vastly superior from when I graduated—which was pretty damn good. Why wasn’t UT Austin being celebrated instead of being threatened?

Today, I’m far better informed but I still don’t get it. I know this: Great societies cannot exist, much less thrive, without great universities. Should UT Austin be dumbed down — and there’s no other way to describe the effect of proposed changes — it will represent a tragedy of huge proportions for thousands of future students, the state of Texas and the world beyond.

They like to say at UT that “What Starts Here Changes the World.” At the moment, bragging rights are going to the alumni whose work has been critical to the success of the Mars “Curiosity” mission, but there are so many others, from helping lead efforts to catch the world’s top terrorist to laying the theoretical groundwork that enabled the discovering of the Higgs boson particle.

For me, what started at UT Austin profoundly shaped my life, helping me land my critical second job solely because of the national reputations of both the School of Journalism and the Daily Texan, on which I had worked. It also was on campus that I was first exposed to the things—art, for example—that became lifelong personal passions.

Recently, I watched my niece take full advantage of the richness that being a UT student offers, becoming not only well-educated but a wonderfully well-rounded adult. To think of tomorrow’s students being denied this opportunity is heartbreaking.

The UT System Board of Regents is preparing for its late-August meeting; in addition, three new regents will be appointed to the board next year, and candidates for those slots are likely being vetted. You don’t need a PhD to know that these are critical times for the future of education not just at Texas, but in Texas. Perhaps fortunately for everyone involved, the University of Virginia offers an object lesson in how not to proceed. When, as happened there, a governing board actively works against the leadership of a university rather than collaborating, there’s no chance anything resembling an optimal result will occur.

I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the Texas Constitution since I was a kid, but I understand it mandates a “university of the first class.” By many standards—and thanks to the work of many—The University of Texas already has reached that level. I would hope that the board would do nothing to jeopardize that achievement, instead making decisions that would help the university reach even greater heights. And I would be happy and willing to do anything I could to make that happen. As they say down there: Don’t mess with Texas.

Jane Chesnutt, BJ ’73, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, is former editor-in-chief of Woman’s Day and a volunteer and activist. This op-ed was first published by the Austin American-Statesman.

 

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