Describing The University of Texas’ strengths and challenges in its 129th year, President Bill Powers got straight down to business.
Addressing a 500-seat auditorium crowded with administrators, faculty, staff, students, and alumni in his annual State of the University address, Powers studded his discussion with the language of the corporate world.
Strategy, productivity, cost savings, revenue streams, return on investment, and efficiency were among the terms used liberally throughout Powers’ hour-long speech. At times the president seemed to be speaking beyond the room, to a state in which the value of higher education has recently come under fire.
“We are a Moneyball campus. And we have developed data and management tools to help make the right decisions,” Powers said, remembering how, on his first day as president, he asked all the deans to read Michael Lewis’ classic study on making strategic and surprising budget decisions in a non-traditional business like baseball.
But business decisions should be informed by a strong sense of mission, Powers said. “The art of leading any large institution, including a university, is melding these two tasks—yes, increasing productivity, but also defining the right mission and increasing quality,” he said.
UT’s mission, its president went on, is to provide the next generation’s leaders a top-tier education (through teaching) and advance the frontiers of basic knowledge (through research).
And Powers made the case that the University executes its mission efficiently. He noted that each year UT confers 9,000 undergraduate degrees, more than any other four-year university in Texas, and more PhD’s than any other university in the nation except Berkeley. And it does so despite the fact that taxpayer support has declined from 17 to 13 percent in the last six years alone, and UT ranks dead last among its 12 peer institutions in state funding and tuition.
Among the University initiatives described in detail was the Course Transformation Project, which uses technology and fresh approaches like video modules, team-teaching, and iClickers to increase student engagement and feedback. “We will never make the University into a huge collection of only small classes,” Powers said. “But we can change the nature of the large class. The new model is more interactive, more social, and more collaborative.”
In courses that are part of the project, Powers said, performance has gone up:
- The biology passing rate is 12 percentage points higher.
- The chemistry course GPA is more than half a letter grade higher.
- The statistics dropping/failing rate has declined from 22 percent to 15 percent.
- The psychology class attendance rate is up 23 percent.
“When classes are getting more demanding and yet students are doing better,” Powers said in sum, “you know you’re onto something big.”
Other vital initiatives that Powers highlighted include offering open online courses, raising the four-year graduation rate to 70 percent, and pursuing a medical school.
Photo by Marsha Miller. Infographic by Morgan Russell, MikeWirthArt.com.