Mark Milliron’s mission to transform higher education in Texas began with his time earning a PhD at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, ranked number one among public universities. Now it’s led him to a new kind of university. Last year Milliron, already a board member, was chosen as the chancellor of Western Governors University Texas, an offshoot of the national online university.
He knows what you’re thinking.
“People think it’s impersonal,” he says. “It’s deeply personal.”
WGU was created in 1997 by 19 governors from across the American West. Its solely online model now serves 36,000 students in all 50 states. With the creation of WGU Texas in August 2011, the university looks to build local partnerships to better serve its educational demographic of Texans who weren’t able to finish college, or mid-career professionals seeking another degree.
It’s a niche Milliron likes to define for people who may not be sure what WGU Texas is about. He likes to talk about Texans who weren’t able to finish their degrees, who have to work full-time, or who had to put off college for whatever reason. He likes to talk about competency-based learning—wonk-speak for courses paced around the student, rather than the calendar.
He also likes to talk about what WGU Texas is not. It is not, for example, a for-profit university. In fact, it’s a nationally accredited nonprofit. Milliron laments the ease with which people confuse WGU Texas for a for-profit university, like the University of Phoenix.
Neither is WGU Texas a research university with sports teams, dorms, or fraternities. The university has no campus, no university press, no laboratories, and no libraries. It does, however, have 125 full-time faculty members in Texas (and more than 1,000 nationally) who work personally with the 3,000-plus Texas students.
“For some students, we’re the wrong model,” Milliron acknowledges. He’s most interested in helping the 3.5 million Texans he says have some college, but no credential. For Milliron, it’s about accessibility, flexibility, and affordability.
“We take learning seriously,” he says, pointing to the school’s analytic-driven online content. By pairing students one-on-one with staff mentors in what Milliron calls “the Oxford model online,” WGU Texas hopes to fill a role in the greater higher education landscape in Texas. With an increase in registration from 1,600 to more than 3,000 in the past year, the results so far are promising.
It’s a model he thinks accompanies, rather than competes with, large public and research universities like UT-Austin. Both universities fit into what he calls an “ecosystem of providers”—different university options for students on different paths, or at different points in their lives and careers.
He considers UT-Austin president Bill Powers a friend, and sees their roles and their universities as complementary. “Powers has been great. [He’s] not talking about ‘better than’,” he says. “It’s ‘better with.’”
Both Powers and Milliron have focused intensely on competency and course transformation using online tools—priorities for both the governor’s office and the legislature. In an effort to increase access, lower costs, and raise achievement, the state’s flagship university has focused on how technology can transform and improve the in-class experience at a massive state university. So it’s no surprise that the chancellor of the nimble new online school that looks to “leverage technology wherever possible” can trace his success back to the Forty Acres.
“I loved every minute of it,” he says, reflecting on his time at the College of Education. He maintains alumni of the college have a “75-year history of giving back,” and that he and his classmates, including Austin Community College president Richard Rhodes, are “incredibly tight.”
Milliron won a Distinguished Graduate Award from the College of Education. His résumé also includes stints with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Catalyze Learning International, which he founded.
His approach—using technology to improve student performance—also fits with emerging educational outlooks in Texas. UT-Austin’s Course Transformation Project and online course partnerships attest to that. “Innovation and new models have been a part of my blood for a long time,” Milliron says.
Photo courtesy Western Governors University Texas.