The 2013 session of the Texas Legislature generated headlines about discord between legislators and some UT regents and between regents and the UT-Austin campus administration. With the regular session over, UT System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa is focusing his attention on big ideas to improve not only Texas, but also research universities across the country. At a conference of policymakers, business leaders, and college administrators Tuesday, Cigarroa announced 10 new “breakthrough actions” to strengthen research universities in the 21st century.
The conference, organized by the UT System, was hosted at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Along with panel discussions, the conference was set up to advance a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, a private, nonprofit group chartered by Congress in 1863. The report was prompted by a request from the U.S. Congress, and offers actions for administrators, businesses, and lawmakers to take to keep research universities—like UT, Texas A&M University, and Rice University—sustainable and productive.
Across the country, major public universities have seen state and federal funding drop, and the report contends that the current recession has had a worsening effect. Leaders from inside and outside of academia worked together to shape the solutions they say may help research institutions continue to thrive despite technological, demographic, and financial challenges.
The report outlines 10 actions:
- Increased federal support for research and development, and graduate education
- Greater autonomy for public research universities and the restoration of funding cuts
- Stronger partnerships with business
- Improved productivity and cost-effectiveness
- A federal strategic reinvestment program, focusing on cyberinfrastructure and endowed chairs
- Full federal funding for research programs
- Reduced regulatory burdens
- Overall improvement and reformation of graduate education
- Increased pathways to STEM degrees and increased diversity
- Continued focus on recruiting talented international students
Former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, LLB ’67, BA ’92, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, reiterated the need for state and federal support. “The federal government is retreating, but they’ve got to set the priorities,” Hutchison told conference attendees, according to the AP.
Hutchison, a long-time supporter of academic work, called research “essential” for tier one universities and a crucial recruiting tool in the March 22 edition of the Texas Exes UT Advocates podcast.
Responding to the report, Thomas Lindsay, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s (TPPF) Center for Higher Education, said too much has been made of declining state support. “We generally attribute too much to the decline in state funding in attempting to explain the straitened finances of universities,” Lindsay wrote in an email to the Alcalde. “In the last decade, there has been a mild decrease in state funding, in comparison with which there has been a wild increase in tuition and fees collected.”
The TPPF, a conservative Austin-based think tank, has been heavily involved in the Texas higher education landscape since 2008, when Gov. Rick Perry endorsed a set of controversial principles the TPPF supported called the “seven breakthrough solutions.” In response to the National Academy of Sciences report, Lindsay says costs should be cut without sacrificing quality, and suggests trimming “administrative bloat.” Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board chairman Fred Heldenfels IV echoed the sentiment Tuesday, saying that quality cannot be sacrificed at Texas’ major research universities, but that current methods of funding are “not sustainable.”
Cutting that bloat—or creating efficiency—shows up not only in the report, but over and over again from higher education leaders. Earlier this year, UT president Bill Powers announced the recommendations of a blue-ribbon committee of business experts on cutting administrative costs at the Austin flagship. UT-Austin estimates the savings could reach nearly $500 million over the next decade.
Cigarroa maintains he’s focused on improving the UT System and fulfilling his Framework for Advancing Excellence, a plan for boosting graduation rates, enhancing campuses, and creating efficiency. the plan earned Cigarroa a trip to the White House in 2011. Cigarroa served as a co-author on the report, alongside civic and business leaders like former U.S. Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee and Bank of America chairman Chad Holliday.
You can hear President Bill Powers discuss UT-Austin’s efficiency measures in the UT Advocates podcast below.
Read the full report here [PDF].
You can subscribe to the UT Advocates podcast on iTunes.
Alcalde file photo.