Mythbusting Mr. O, Part II

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two posts relating to the Texas Tribune’s June 29 interview with Rick O’Donnell. Here’s part one.

UT has been making hard decisions. Mr. O’Donnell issues quite a whopper in suggesting that “six months ago, university leadership was basically saying if the legislature cuts our funding the sky is going to fall,” and that his arrival changed all that.

In the summer of 2009, President Powers initiated a process to align our limited funds with UT-Austin’s core priorities of teaching and research. In May 2010, he proposed $14.6 million in cuts. The following December, he was under fire from our own community following an additional 5 percent general revenue cut that included the elimination of several high-profile programs. At that time, he also began preparing to cut another 10 percent of general revenue in support of the state’s austerity initiatives.

UT-Austin’s message about funding was simple: We understand everyone is facing cuts, we just want to make sure our sacrifices are proportional to the sacrifices of other sectors of the state budget. We explicitly shared this message with legislators in December 2010 as well as on Feb. 15—Orange and Maroon Legislative Day—weeks before Mr. O’Donnell’s hiring.

So to review, UT-Austin had already identified more than $17 million in cuts, initiated a process to cut another $7 million, and publicly acknowledged the fiscal challenges prior to “six months ago.”

And not once did anyone mention falling skies.

Costs and productivity are top concerns. One of the amusing parts of Mr. O’Donnell’s interview is his suggestion that at UT students and taxpayers are not top priorities.  For more than 130 years, UT-Austin has been a superb steward of public resources. Through the support of alumni, philanthropy, research grants, and businesses, we have generated growing financial support in the face of less state general revenue. This means that the taxpayer gets a very high return on investment.

UT took bold and sometimes painful steps to reduce non-mission critical administration and cost centers while prioritizing core missions. In the process, they improved the student-teacher ratio from 19-to-1 to 17-to-1. Research tells us that this ratio is critical to the undergraduate experience and degree attainment.

This year, UT-Austin moved from 25th to a 14th ranking in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine’s listing of “100 Best Values in Public Colleges.” This doesn’t mean we have done all we can, but it means we are doing better than most and improving in contrast to others.

The Commission of 125 identified productivity as a top issue. Diminishing state general revenue has driven a set of campus and departmental reforms to further improve productivity. Our four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates are up, and we have a set our sights even higher with a focus on a 70 percent four-year graduation rate. Early and intentional engagement of undergrads coupled with more focused planning and counseling with the strategic utilization of technological assessments should help greatly in this regard.

Reform is not “one size fits all.” All reforms must recognize the mission distinction between community colleges, teaching colleges, and research universities. The Texas Higher Education Coordination Board is engaged in this work, and UT-Austin is a strong supporter. Lumina Foundation is also supporting this work. A greatly respected higher education reform voice, they appropriately focus their energies on quality outputs rather than formulaic inputs. We would all be wise to harvest the emerging lessons of their efforts across the country. If we ever want to benchmark our efforts against our peers, we must work toward a common set of reliable productivity measures.

UT is pro-reform. If a person disagrees with one set of ideas or changes, it does not make them anti-reform no more than a citizen disagreeing with the president of the United States makes him or her anti-patriotic.

UT is a center of innovation, playing national leadership roles in Tier I productivity and college attainment. The UT-System is among the most transparent in the country. Data-driven decision-making is at the heart of our improvement process.

The suggestion that “administrators and their allies…just want to be left alone” is erroneous. There is a healthy civil discourse to be had in improving all the state’s higher education institutions and finding ways to make quality college attainment accessible. We look forward to continuing to participate in this ongoing challenge.

Just because Mr. O’Donnell wasn’t listening doesn’t mean we weren’t talking about it. His arrival and subsequent media exposure did serve to heighten awareness around the challenges facing our country in higher education. It has served as a healthy reminder that there are even more stakeholders that we need to engage around the mission of UT-Austin and to do so, we must overcome the white noise of those who would seek to reduce these complex issues down to bumper stickers and 140 characters on Twitter.

JJ Baskin is a member of the Texas Exes Public Affairs Committee and the Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.


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