TXEXplainer: Powers’ Report to UT Regents

A two-day Board of Regents meeting saw an extensive discussion of priorities and progress at UT-Austin. We break down the issues.

What was the occasion?

The UT System Board of Regents Academic Affairs Committee summoned UT president Bill Powers Wednesday morning to report on the flagship campus’ progress on goals outlined in the Commission of 125 and Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s Framework for Advancing Excellence. All UT System presidents are being summoned for these updates. This was Powers’ turn.

What was the tone?

Not your ordinary scripted board meeting. The Austin American-Statesman found the extended questioning of Powers—which ran well past the allotted time—highly unusual and described it as the “latest flash point in what seems to be an increasingly tense relationship between Powers and a few members of the governing board.” About half of the regents, as well as the chancellor, praised the work Powers and UT-Austin has done.

What was the Commission of 125?

The Commission of 125, a group convened some 10 years ago to review the first 125 years of UT’s progress and chart the course for the next 25, concluded in 16 recommendations to foster what it called a “disciplined culture of excellence.” You can read about the commission and its findings here.

How about the Framework?

The Framework for Advancing Excellence, an ambitious, System-wide self-improvement program—which earned Cigarroa a trip to the White House—includes nine areas of focus and more than 40 specific items. At a meeting last August, Cigarroa reported “good” or “substantial” progress from on nearly all items. You can read the framework here.

How’s UT doing? Let’s take an issue-by-issue look.

Student-to-Faculty Ratio

The Commission of 125 recommended lowering the ratio to 16:1 overall. The framework does not set a specific goal for ratios, but notes that increasing four-year graduation rates will help ease bottlenecks that cause larger classes. UT’s ratio is currently 19:1. That’s down by nearly 10 percent since 2000, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Powers pointed to the establishment of the Freshman Research InitiativeSignature Courses, and the Course Transformation Program as examples of how UT has transformed undergraduate teaching in large courses with high student-to-faculty ratios, a strategy touted in Cigarroa’s framework.

Total Enrollment

The commission recommended, as part of the effort to lower the student-to-faculty ratio, stabilizing enrollment at 48,000. The commission also commented that the “quality of the educational experience must be the primary factor in determining the size of the student body.” UT’s fall 2012 enrollment was 52,186—up slightly from total enrollment when the Commission’s report was published. Powers noted that the optimum size of the student body is under review. Cigarroa’s August 2012 review of the framework reported that the UT System has made “substantial progress” in reviewing enrollment strategies.

Graduation Rates

Neither the commission nor the framework include specific graduation-rate goals, but both consider high graduation rate crucial to fulfilling the University’s mission. UT’s four-year graduation rate was 41.7 percent in 2003. The Coordinating Board reports that the 2011 rate was up nearly 10 percentage points to 51.4 percent.

Powers noted that UT’s experiment with flat-rate tuition did encourage students to take more hours, but did not result in higher graduation rates. What UT learned, he said, was that it isn’t more hours that’s needed—it’s the right hours that get a student closer to graduation. Powers has committed the University to raising its four-year graduation rate to 70 percent by 2016. To that end, UT has focused on better academic planning. It has transformed its orientation process, created a “graduation czar,” developed new undergraduate curriculum, and launched financial-aid programs that incentivize on-time graduation.

On Thursday, the regents approved a motion directing UT System universities to create a four-year fixed tuition rate option, another move to encourage students to finish in four years. House Bill 29, filed by Texas House higher education chair Dan Branch (R-Dallas), would apply that mandate to all Texas public colleges.

UT’s commitment to raising the four-year graduation rate was praised in the framework:

UT-Austin, under the leadership of President Bill Powers, is already focusing on improving its undergraduate curriculum, enhancing student advising, and emphasizing freshmen immersion research programs to better position our flagship to be among the top 5 U.S. public research universities with 4 year graduate rates exceeding 70 percent.

Philanthropy

The framework calls philanthropy a “key component” in achieving academic goals. The commission—which included some of Texas’ all-time greatest philanthropists—also prioritized philanthropy. UT is currently conducting a multi-year fundraising effort called the “Campaign for Texas” with a goal of raising $3 billion. The project, one of the most ambitious at a public university, has raised just over $2 billion, with two years left to go. According to Powers, UT is currently raising about $1.2 million per business day, and about $90 million more per year than UT’s previous “We’re Texas” campaign. Four of the top-five best years in giving to UT-Austin have occurred during the Campaign for Texas.

You can view President Powers’ full presentations below.

UT Austin Framework Wide by The Texas Exes

UT Austin Commission125 Wide by The Texas Exes

Photo courtesy atmtx via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

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